When we were young, my best friend Rick and I had a motto: Live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse. This philosophy gave us license to take a lot of risks. Not to mention it sounded cool. When we reunited in 91, we were both over 30. Considering what we’d lived through, it was amazing we’d made it. I’m now 21 years older than I ever thought I’d live to be.Since the days of “live fast die young”, death’s been a recurring theme in my life. In ’88 I hit a heroin bottom that forced me to choose between life and death. I've lost count of my friends who’ve died. Even in my fiction I’ve entertained suicide. And there was 9/11. Basically, since getting clean I've had many opportunities to contemplate death and come to terms with it. But you never know where you really stand until you face it. Recently, I had the most bizarre life and death experience to date.
After forty years in the same house, my parents left Toronto and moved 90 miles east on Lake Ontario to a town consisting of four or five residential streets surrounded by farmland and forests. There’s a community center, hockey rink, and a general store. Once I arrive, I’m basically stuck there. Whereas before, I used to join friends after dinner, I now ride a bicycle for entertainment.
On my mom’s heavy ten-speed bicycle, I climb the never-ending hills up Community Center Road. My destination is always the same – one lonely horse in a corral several miles away. This is where I catch my breath and turn around. Every summer I visit for two weeks. This year I arrived late July.
They were having the same heat wave I’d left in New York so I waited until evening before getting on the bike. The combo of natural beauty and endorphins put me in a state of tranquility and euphoria. I stopped at the top of the hill for the panoramic view before coasting past cornfields and another stretch of forest. Finally the land cleared to reveal a house, a small barn and corral. It had been a year since my last visit and I was anxious to see my favorite horse.
As the property came into sight, the corral appeared empty. A black animal came into view crossing from the corral toward the woods. At first I thought it was a bear cub, which was exciting and shocking enough, but then I realized it had a long tail. My brain did a quick run-down of all animals native to Ontario that fit the description but came up empty. The animal moved unmistakably like a housecat. My brain started reconfiguring the way a GPS freaks out when you do a U-turn. “ I knew it was a black panther but this was illogical. Something was wrong. When the cat disappeared into the high grass I walked my bike to get a better look at the corral expecting to find a bloody carcass. Thankfully it was empty. Maybe the house was sold and the new owners owned an exotic pet. That could happen, right? Dusk was setting in so it was difficult to make out any sort of cat cage or fence from thirty feet. As I contemplated this, the panther walked back into view and we made eye contact. He immediately crouched in the grass.
My brain screamed, “Look away. Don’t make eye contact!” and my eyes darted to the road without as much as a heartbeat moving my body. I felt like Mia Farrow when she wakes up in Rosemary’s baby having sex with Satan. “This is really happening.”
I ‘ve had guns pulled on me and two attempted rapes, but nothing had ever prepared me for anything like this. It was like being on an African Wildlife Safari without a vehicle. At the same time, there was a level of disbelief. There are no wild panthers in Ontario Canada. I know this beyond a doubt. Yet, as darkness was blanketing the land, a panther was watching me from a short distance with nothing between us except a cheap short wire fence. There was a good chance that within seconds of getting on my bike, I would feel the teeth and claws of this animal. I could be mauled, or dragged into the woods, eaten or discarded. This could really happen.
I took a deep breath. “Take a good look around because this may be the last time you see it.” So I took in the cloudless deep blue sky and swept my eyes over the wheat field and the forest now dark with night and thought of how beautiful it all was and how lucky I’ve been to experience it. I got on the bike and began to pedal, knowing I didn’t want to die and at the same time, not afraid of it. I knew I was powerless and had to just ride this moment out.
I ran directly to my computer and Googled “wildcat sightings southern Ontario”. Nothing came up. My mom followed me in. “Patty, did something happen. You are white as a sheet.” I hadn’t planned to tell her but knew it would be suspicious if I sped off in her car. “Mom drive me so I can get an address. There’s a panther out there and I have to call animal protective services before it kills any of the horses”. The field was almost covered by darkness but the panther hadn’t moved. Its profile matched every panther ceramic coffee table ornament I’d ever seen. My mom saw it too.
After describing my experience, the cop on the phone said “Well, you’re in the country>” as though I was some city asshole who’d never seen a deer before. “What country exactly am I in? I grew up here and to my knowledge panthers are not indigenous to Canada. Moose, deer, bears, beavers, raccoons, skunks yes. Panthers no” He grumbled before filing an official report.
The next day I stuck a detailed account in every mailbox on Community Center Road. My favorite horse was back in the corral and a woman was in the driveway. She listened while I told my story. When I was done, she was quiet. I felt like a psychiatric escapee. “This morning when I let him out of the barn instead of going to his feed his nostrils began to flare and he started running in circles. I’ve never seen him like that before.”
There is no way to describe the emotional aspect of this experience. What lingered in my thoughts were the cloudless dark blue sky and the various shades of green at the edge of the forest. When I believed my life was about to end, my only thought was “It is so beautiful here.” and the overwhelming yet peaceful feeling of being lucky to have experienced life. I was not afraid to die.
This experience showed me that despite my occasional angst and life stresses, I’m at peace with myself, and that this has not come attached to any concept of afterlife or reincarnation or God. I’m thrilled that my youthful ambition to leave a pretty corpse was never realized. Peace, for me, has come through living.
I once wrote a story where the main character has to find a reason not to commit suicide. In the end, she decides that it’s worth hanging on because you never know what crazy adventure is around the corner, who the next new person will be to make you laugh at something new. I still stand by this.
In September my mother dropped in on the woman with the horse. The vet said there have been seven sighting of the panther. It killed a horse 35 miles away. A farmer on Community Center road said his horses were tangled in the fence as if they were running from something and he mentioned my letter. Every house in the area with small children is now for sale.