When I was seven years old I rode my bike into the path of an oncoming car. Up until that moment, I would have said I was about as happy as a boy could be. It was a summer afternoon and the air – I recall it clearly – was filled with the scent of freshly mown grass and the pleasant stink of irrigation water. The oncoming rigors of school were a looming nightmare that could be ignored for at least another month. My friends and I had been collecting caterpillars and putting them in jars where, we hoped, we could watch them spin cocoons and turn into butterflies. We stuffed the jars with leaves and dandelions so the caterpillars would have plenty to eat. Everything was perfect that day. The shade. The light. This was before every kid had a computer – that bygone era of comic books and adventure novels and tree forts and doing stuff outside. When I look back at that day in my memory, it’s like a time capsule of idealized childhood.
My friend Ty was the one who suggested we race our bikes. We had been lounging around looking at bugs too long for his taste. He needed some action. So we all lined up at the end of my neighbor’s long dirt driveway. We were five boys, all sneakers and cut-off jeans straddling beat-up Huffy bicycles. The lane was long and lined with poplar trees that shivered silver and green in the afternoon breeze. Because we lived on a country road that rarely saw traffic, none of us stopped to consider how stupid it was to make the main road our finish line.
Ty was the fastest. He rarely lost these races. But somehow everything was going right for me that day. The planets were lining up on my behalf. Some deep source of cosmic joy and boyish energy was surging through my body as I pumped toward the end of the lane. I remember the rattle of bike chains and the sound of grit being displaced beneath our spinning wheels. I remember the grunt of our efforts and the wind in my face. I remember happiness.
I won the race. In one instant I was the hero lifting his arms above his head, and in the next instant, after a sickening thud, I was the limp rag of a boy floating toward heaven.
It was very much like a heightened scene in a movie. Everything changed from high speed to extreme slow motion. I saw the dark sedan screeching to a halt beneath me. I saw my hands and feet as I turned belly-up to the blue sky. How odd they looked! Like parts of me that were no longer a part of me. I flew upward, hung suspended – as long as it took for me to decide whether or not I wanted to keep right on going up into the sun – and then I dropped back to earth. I hit the ground with a thump. A certain innocence escaped with my breath. And then, as they say, everything went black.
I lived. I broke a leg, cracked some ribs, suffered a concussion, and turned swollen and completely purple down the length of my right side. I also spent a few days in the hospital where I developed a heightened sense of life. In all, it wasn’t a bad experience. I don’t remember a lot of sadness, terror, or even pain. It sort of ruined the rest of my summer. No more swimming. And my bike was history. Whereas I had gone up and over the car, my poor bike had gone underneath. It was a twisted metal pretzel that my friends liked to use as a conversation piece linking their own mortal lives to my great day of drama. “Remember the day we caught caterpillars and Brian almost got killed?” I kept that bike around for a while as a kind of macabre trophy.
Nothing much changed in my life after I recovered from my injuries. But when I look back to that day, I like to think that that exact hanging moment – the one in which I was held suspended between earth and heaven – was the one in which I decided to become a writer. I’m pretty sure this is true to some subtle extent. In my mind, there has always been a Me before that day, and another Me after. I passed through some sort of a door. I certainly was left with a profound sense of the fleeting joy in this life. And I think that has, and always will, work itself into my books – both my books for kids as well as those for adults. It somehow inextricably linked my childhood to my adulthood.
Every moment is potentially our last. This, of course, is what makes life so poignant and strangely wonderful to live. One never knows when he or she is going to be plucked from the show. But knowing what I know of the experience, I can only hope that when that moment arrives for me, I will be as elated as I was on that perfect summer day when everything came together and I won the race.