When I was about 10 years old, I saw a dead man right after his car had been hit by a train. It happened near where we lived at the time in Anniston, Ala. I’ve never gotten that image out of my head.
We lived away from the city and suburbs, out in a little community called Choccolocco. At the turnoff from the main road to get to our house, there was a railroad crossing. We came upon it one afternoon after an accident had happened. We had never before stopped at an accident, as far as I remember, but since my father worked for the safety department of Southern Railway, he had a reason to check it out. And I think he also wanted my sisters and me to be very aware of the danger of being unsafe around trains.
I still remember the unnatural stillness of the accident scene. Even though there were people standing around watching, everyone seemed dead silent. The man’s body was placed onto a stretcher to be taken away.
As the ambulance attendants walked the body toward a waiting vehicle, they had to pass within inches of where I stood. I could have reached out and touched the body. Right as they passed, the body shifted slightly and the dead man’s arm dangled off the stretcher — right in front of me. On the dead, hairy arm was a watch.
In the surreal vision of my mind’s eye, the arm dangled in front of me for what seemed like an eternity. I saw the second hand still moving on that watch and it’s an image I’ve never gotten out of my head.
The ticking second hand seemed important even to my child-mind, even if I didn’t understand quite why at the time. Over the years, I keep reinterpreting the image of that ticking watch. There’s some sense it represents to me that time ticks away for all of us and that it will keep ticking after we’re dead.
It somehow seems to be a reminder that my time is limited — that I’ll one day be dead when my allotted years and hours and minutes have run out.
I have death on my mind Tuesday night because I got a bad diagnosis for a sick cat at the vet late Tuesday afternoon. My oldest cat, William, has suddenly lost weight and now he’s lost interest in eating. It turns out he has a tumor in his abdomen about the size of a lemon, maybe two inches in diameter by the vet’s estimate.
If the steroid treatments and some kind of new food can help William start eating again, he might have months of good life ahead. If we can’t get him to eat again, I’ll lose him in days. Maybe a week or two at most.
Losing somebody or something I love always makes me think of death and the passing of time, and that’s where my mind has been tonight. Once again, I’m seeing a “watch still ticking on a dead man’s wrist,” to use an oddly coincidental phrase from Steve Taylor’s 1989 song about Jim Morrison.
The tick-tock of that watch is still strong for me. It makes me feel as though time is both a resource and my enemy — and I feel frantic with the feeling that I’m not doing enough to experience love and life while that time ticks away.
I want to experience more of what I want and need before I’m hit by a train or I’m struck down by a disease or my time simply runs out.
As I sit here raging against a coming death for an animal I love, I’m angry and I’m hurt and I’m needy, about things that have nothing to do with William. Some of it is with other people — for times when I feel I haven’t been treated fairly or lovingly — but I’m mostly angry with myself for decisions I’ve made which have cost me time and cost me love.
Without knowing what I’m going to do about it, I sit here in the silence watching the surreal mental image of time on this eternal watch ticking away. And I cry for more time for that dead man — and more time for me.