In 1983, NOVA, the most watched prime time science series on American television, produced an episode called the Miracle of Life* about the human reproductive system. It was popular. Won some awards, a Peabody, an Emmy. Really groundbreaking stuff. So this might be an unpopular opinion.
I firmly disagree with thought that the “miracle of life” is conception. I mean, by now we’ve pretty much figured out where babies come from, yeah? We’ve got the human reproductive process down. One (me) might argue, that’s just science. And yes, science is flipping fascinating. But not an actual miracle.
Me? I believe the true miracle of life is simply staying alive.
*It should be noted that the program was originally produced in Sweden under the name Saga of Life. Leave it to the Americans to be so dramatic about it.
Thinking about all the dumb shit I did as a kid, it’s hard not to marvel how I made it this far without any major catastrophes. As a single-digit child, I thought it was a grand idea to lace up my roller-skates at the top of the stairs to our basement roller rink, which was really just a smooth slab of concrete with a tiny corridor to skate around the washer, dryer, stairs, random poles and my brother’s bed. The world is big when you’re not. My younger more logical sister tried to warn me it was a terrible idea, but I was confident. What could go wrong? I rolled off step two and tumbled face first into a thick black pipe at the bottom of the stairs, my two front teeth punching through my bottom lip.
In middle school, we’d bike to the train trestle perched over the Eau Claire River, walk out to the middle and dangle our legs, dare each other to jump first until an approaching train made the decision to jump not much of a choice. In high school, my friend had a turbo-charged Mitsubishi that we’d drive out to a well-known long, straight backroad and challenge the other idiots gathered there to race, side by side in the middle of the night, sometimes with headlights off as an extra dare. Pre fast ‘n the furious. And in college…well. I don’t remember much of college. But I’m still alive.
These are PG examples, but you don’t need the R versions to get my point. In the movie Soul, the main dude is just walking along and falls into a pothole and dies. The world is full of things that can cut long lives short, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The fact that the majority of people make it through one day and onto the next? Now that’s the fucking miracle.
This next part is kind of Debbie downer. I feel bad for all the Debbies, always associated with those downers. Anyway, you’ve been warned.
April 2, 2008
I had just moved into one of the first floor flats of this majestic old mansion, with a shared main front door that automatically locked when closed. My apartment also randomly had access to the backyard through my bedroom. Hundred(+) year old homes converted into individual dwellings are wild. Anyway there I was, unpacking this and arranging that, when I heard a knock on the backdoor, which immediately creeped me out. To even get to the door, you’d need to know it was there. There’s no pathway to get to the back from the front of the house, and it’s not an obvious looking door that anyone would think to knock on. Unless they needed help, I thought.
So I opened the door. A young girl was standing there with a fresh box of hot pizza. She had locked herself out of the building when she grabbed the food, and yes, of course she could walk through my apartment to get upstairs to hers. I made a mental note to always have my keys on my body, though that main front door would manage to ruin my day multiple times over the course of the next year.
An unknown amount of time passed. Another knock at the back door. Again? This time I opened it without caution. The face of a man with no soul stood on the other side. My body had an immediate visceral reaction to his presence, adrenal glands filled my mouth with excess saliva. I felt that uncontrollable urge to spit. Or vomit.
Is the man of the house here?
I’m forever grateful those were the words he chose to speak. If you want us to get off on the wrong foot, that’s a good place to start. Every natural instinct in my body was screaming RUN, but his words kicked me a little attitude to combat the overall unpleasant vibe seeping from his pores.
You’re looking at her.
He was wearing a navy blue hoody and gray sweatpants. Or maybe it was the other way around? They were dirty. Stained? The details are fuzzy, but the feeling is not. I can still sense the lingering effects in my body when my mind reaches for this one. His face is burned into my memory. He launched into a story about how he needed money for his tire, some kids must have slashed it in an April Fool’s day prank, or something, you know how kids are. But the moment he started talking, I gave myself permission to not believe a word, told him sorry no cash, shut and locked the door as quickly as I could, stacked a bunch of boxes in front of it, heart ricocheting in my brain. I walked to the windowless bathroom, climbed into the bathtub and called my sister. I stayed there for hours, convinced I had just crossed paths with Death.
The next day, I saw his face again. The same soulless stare, the same dark sweatshirt. Not in my mind, but on the nightly news. On April 2, a girl had been murdered a few blocks away from my house. He had been arrested as a suspect. If you have any information, please contact…
I don’t remember the entire exchange with the officer, but I can still hear him asking:
Did you let him inside?
What? No. He gave off the creepiest vibe, no way.
I must have sounded offended.
Okay, good, good. You’d be surprised.
Wait, did other people do that? Let him in?
We’ve talked to several people today who did.
Three weeks later, he was outed as a sexual predator, but not a murder suspect. But I never convinced myself the man at my backdoor that day wasn’t a killer.
Fast forward 12 years to March 21, 2020. A man was arrested for the the murder of Brittany Zimmerman, his name looked familiar. I scrolled through the article for an image. Seeing his face produced the same reaction it had back on April 2, 2008 at my backdoor. Only this time I spit out the bile bubbling up at the realization David Kahl had knocked on my door just hours after he stabbed and strangled another human to death.
Back in 2008, I eventually bought a giant wardrobe to permanently block the door in attempt to sleep through the night. And then I locked the memory away in a small box in a small room deemed unnecessary for frequent visits. Until 2020, when I read about his arrest. And then again a month ago when I read he was sentenced to life in prison.
I think about near misses everywhere with everyone all the time. Like when I see a bad car accident. What if I had left 10 minutes earlier? Or when mass shootings occur in cities I’ve visited, places I’ve been recently. Were they in the wrong place at the wrong time or was I in the right place, right time? And I think about my place in the chain of events of that day in April of 2008, and the choose your own adventure decisions that could have wildly altered the outcome.
So yeah. If it’s me you’re asking, the miracle of life isn’t conception. The miracle of life is staying alive; surviving in a world filled with death traps, boogiemen, wrong turns and dead ends.
One thought on “the miracle of life”
Your posts are always thought-provoking, life-enhancing, and never facile. I looked up Brittany Zimmerman’s murder, and although I lived in Madison well before you did, we lived in the same general area. Everything you say about the miracle of life rings a strong bell for me. When I was 8, the little boy who sat behind me in school – Dickie – went home and his father killed him, and Dickie’s sister and brother, their aunt, who lived in the flat above them. He tried to kill his wife when she returned home from work, but she escaped, after which he set fire to the house and succeeded in killing himself, though there is strong evidence that he changed his mind and tried to escape the burning house. I learned a lot more about death and its arbitrariness at that young age than I should have, and it has been a very difficult legacy. I managed to locate the mother, 40 years after the children were killed, and we spent as much time together as we could, given that she live in the USA and I lived in the UK. I came to understand that the killings were what is termed ‘altruistic killings’, which shifted a bit, but not a lot, of the horror.