Have you ever been asked if you’ve had a near death experience?
My pendulum mind still can’t decide.
Sometimes, I’ll say yes, and recount the day I reached for my older brother’s admiration.
It was a hot and sunny afternoon. And the clouds were doing their daily patrol over a southern coastal city. Lome, capital of the west African Togo, had a different air about it. Like it knew a daring feat was about to be attempted.
The wind didn’t have much to say that day, but quietly watched as a young boy dare challenge the might of his brother. I was faced with the most herculean of all tasks, inciting flames in my gut, and defiance in my eyes.
“Climb that mango tree higher than I have.”
My brother was always the quest giver, and I his minion, loving and hating the adventures simultaneously.
But that afternoon was the pinnacle of dares.
No longer would I need to look up to his broad shoulders to catch a glimpse of his teenage pride.
No longer would I trail behind his superhuman legs as his speed overwhelmed.
No longer would my scrawny shoulders crumple in defeat.
I could stand and meet his stature.
I could finally surpass his agile brilliance.
A rush of ego welled up inside me.
With nothing but shorts on, I stood at the wise trees roots,
the tree which had survived many a season,
the tree which had seen my mother grow from child to woman,
the tree which had seen my grandfather pass.
Yet it always stood tall. Unwavered.
I studied its shape and tactically devised a route.
My little nails grappled with the bark as I set my footing.
Right hand up. I clinched onto the trees hollow.
Left hand up. I grabbed a branch and pulled my weight up.
Right leg up. Nestled on the trees curved trunk.
Left leg up. Hoisted onto the branch.
And so I repeated the sequence, climbing higher and higher.
I passed some ripe fruits, wanting to stop to replenish my energy,
but my brother’s acknowledgement meant so much more.
Up and up I went,
till a simultaneous slip of my left hand and foot betrayed my resolve.
They say life flashes by in such a moment, but what could such a young boy think about?
I eyed those ripe, juicy mangoes on my descent, until the air jolted out of me, yearning for a soothing taste.
Time stood still in camaraderie with my lungs.
I could feel all of my muscles tense and reject any notion of relaxing.
Each grain of sand embraced my adolescent skin, refusing to release their amorous hold.
I could hear only murmurs as I floundered, struggling to feed my lungs.
I don’t know how long I spent on that ground, but it felt an eternity.
When I came to, I remember the panic on my brother’s face. His worried expression.
I remembered how unwavered the tree still stood, in expectant stature. Its decades of experience defiant of my challenge.
I didn’t look at my brother for the rest of the day. I couldn’t stomach yet another failure, and we never spoke of that day till many years later. When it became a nostalgic trip. When a boy’s idea of death goes beyond the lack of breath for minutes on end.
And sometimes, my pendulum mind would say no.
That was a harrowing experience, yes, but a near death experience, no.
I feel a con at having ever told that story, donning a false mask, rewriting history for the sake of a few gasps.
Gasps which have become the storyteller’s opium.
Gasps which have become the mantra of so many refugees.
3.3 million Syrian refugees are children. Mahmoud from Al-Raqqa, only 5 years old, survived his school being bombed. Omar suffered from malnutrition and could have died were he not rescued by Save the Children after fleeing Syria with his family. 5 year old Lara abandoned her home with her family, with nothing but clothes on their backs as bombs rested ever closely to their town. Hibaas, also 5, still lives in that war torn country and battles with survival every day.
Could my young self stand among them?
They who have survived bullets whistling sweet surrender,
they who have survived the song of gunshots and explosions, refusing to make it their generations sing-along,
they who have bricks and mortar for neighbours,
they who have hope in their sight as they set out in hurried pilgrimage, yet are met with more hate and cruelty,
they who are left to survive in worse environments to the ones they fled.
Could the defiance in my eyes weather the tsunami of tears Alan Kurdis’ parents were engulfed by? Could their grief be matched by my brother’s teenage anguish if I truly passed that day?
That young boy, on that sunny afternoon, with the quiet wind, patrolling clouds, and rooted tree as witnesses was not briefly visited by death.
He was not scarred nor scared. A smile returned to his face soon after, as the sun waved its goodbye and the capital whispered a hopeful “maybe next time”.
He was able to return to a normal life, with the incident only an afterthought.
I still look up to my brother to this day,
still chasing his superhuman legs,
still watching his broad shoulders to catch a glimpse of his aged humility.
But that day remains a stark reminder, that what I should have admired was that tree. Unwavered. Standing tall after witnessing decades of joy and anguish.
And the ones I should also be admiring now, are those children,
who fight to have to have the quiet wind, patrolling clouds, and an embracing sun watch over them as they struggle to retain their daily lives.
* Information from Save the Children