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My first brush with death was not my own.
Not this time, at 11 years young. No, my personal rub came a bit later—down a different lane. Not this dirt path I found myself traversing, happily kicking up dust bowls, scattering small rocks, and breathing deeply what would soon be a sticky September day.
Central Florida, take it or leave it, did funky things with my hair, making me wonder if my pale, freckled skin didn’t hide a richer, dare I whisper darker blood deep within.
Pondering that and the soundtrack to Footloose in my ever-whirling brain, I shifted the weight of my backpack and brushed at a fly that played games with my slightly upturned nose.
That’s when I heard it: the rustle. A faint crunch of dried leaves.
Sadie? She’d been missing for days, the black mixed-breed mutt of grandma’s, the dog I loved to love each time I visited this far-away space.
Only now this wasn’t a vacation, but my new home, and Sadie, the only one who could truly make me feel safe, was gone, missing—like I often desired to do.
I halted, waiting, breath held in my tiny chest.
Dust coated my already filthy Converse tennis shoes, and my ears perked, tuning into the sound—any sound.
Even as I tuned out the racing thump of my own heart. A flood of feels hit me hard—joy—elation.
Then, dismay, as she wasn’t running my way. “Sadie?” I whispered, a little girl shout.
It came again, distinct, yet slight—a rustling of, no, not leaves. Wrong side of these here metaphoric tracks.
I creeped out from under the canopy of moss-tipped branches. Thick limbs arching under the weight in picturesque splendor over the country dirt lane, toward the field.
“Sadie!” I moved forward, with single-minded intent.
Uncaring of the passing of time, I tore through the crushed row of corn. Refusing to suck into the vortex of nerves and excitement, the extra pounding in my heart, I raced chest-first, my steps masking any other sounds. “Sadie!”
Eating bone-dry dirt, hands gripping fallen husks from battered ears of what would soon be tri-colored corn, I took a beat to adjust to suddenly being prone.
The weight of the books on my back crushing my spine pressed me deep into that no-moisture-in-sight ground.
Feeling the tentacle of pain radiate up my foot, I drew in a shuddering breath.
The sting of tears hit. A tingle in my nose. A burning fire stung one palm. I sucked in another shaky inhale of full-body scream, as my brain yelled, “F*ck!”
Don’t think at 11, I didn’t know that word. Come on now. I’d screamed it at mother when I was nine. I knew it intimately. I saw the buttons it pushed. I loved it completely. Those four little letters that could get a reaction quicker than a match can catch fire.
Words, I discovered early on, had power.
And in this second, eyes no longer capable of blinking, frozen wide, the only word that came to mind as I took in the black mound before me, was, “F*ck!”
The blood. There was blood. Not a puddle, but enough that I instinctively knew it was not good. But even as I felt this was bad, extremely bad, I felt bone-crushing relief flood me gut-deep.
This black leather skin was not my Sadie, but a human being. And by the looks of things, he, she, it, was quite possibly dead.
Favoring my right foot, I crawled to my knees, one dirty hand smearing the tears I couldn’t stop from streaming unchecked down my baby-fat cheeks.
Should I stay or should I go now? I’d heard that anthem somewhere.
A tune now played on red-alert in my mind. The beat of my heart keeping dedicated time.
The shock wore off like I was stripped out of a too-tight shirt. I leaned back and took it all in.
A man—had to be. He was long, laying on his back as though stargazing, but the stars had long been chased by a coming dawn.
I heard the engine and didn’t even bother to make a run for that bus. This was better than a ride to school, better than a day in a classroom—even if the sight before me scared me more than my recent first day at a brand new school.
I shrugged out of my backpack and pulled down my shirt, wondering if I should run back to grandma’s and scream out 911.
I slowly crawled to my feet, thinking it might be time to bolt.
Looking anywhere but down I saw it then; the bike, a big beast of metal laying on its side, and a helmet just behind me—the thing that had tripped me, clearly in plain sight.
“Well, that ain’t good.” Yes, an 11-year-old’s inner voice can be downright sarcastic. (Give it not another thought because the only thing that mattered was what came next.)
Is he even breathing? Should I check or should I go now? My mind hummed as I switched out words in the lyrics to accommodate.
I inched closer, wincing at the pain in my foot. I quickly sucked it up, thinking what he’d be feeling, had he still been breathing.
That’s when I heard the unforgettable sound: A rattle—not that from a baby or a snake—causing my breath to catch on a gasping intake and raising all the little hairs on my body.
Hold it. Don’t move. A deer in headlights moment if ever there was one. Oh poor doe, I now know how you feel.
Glad to not be in a spotlight, I inched myself back. Slowly. Carefully. So as not to disturb the, sh*t, non-dead.
Stepping that throbbing right foot over the fire engine red, plastic, was it? Thinking how stupid that color is. I couldn’t stop the pained gasp as I put my weight down, starting to turn.
Never, as long as I live, will I forget those barely-there words. The rasp, imagined or real, I know not.
All I know is that I stopped and took in all of him. Never-ending legs, a simple gash on one thigh, the jacket, all black, zippers now gleaming, catching the early sun’s eye. His face was next. Of course, as that’s how the body unfolds. But I admit I wasn’t keen on seeing anything mangled. Nightmares were sure to unfold.
All I saw was a simple red scratch, a thick beard, and startling, thunder-cloud eyes—open, laser-locked on mine. That gaze, ringed in gold, seared through me lightning bolt quick, without words, and called to me.
Even as his hand moved, I was frozen, rooted to the ground more deeply than those 100-plus-year-old oak trees. The one’s I’d walked under only moments ago, just behind me, lining the dust-bowl dirt road. The ones that now seemed a lifetime away.
Two of his four fingers gave an inchworm wiggle. And I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the gesture was a beckoning, a calling—his final shout out. And I obeyed, no thought.
Real inchworms freaked me the f*ck out, but him?
I stumbled forward, sank to my already-skinned knees, and grabbed those two fingers as though they were my lifeline—not mine, his.
That rattle shook and I didn’t back away. I felt it deep within and knew I had to simply stay.
A single tear raced a hot path down my cheek matching the one pooling in his. His eyes were stormy-clear. His gaze, intense.
I found my voice. As that’s what you do—introduce me to you. “I’m…”
At any other time, a snort would have been my reply, but who was I to deny. So I sat and held hands with death, on a muggy start of a brand new day.
I shared a story, long after the light faded—not from the sky, but from those burned-into-my-memory eyes.
I sang to him, “Amazing Grace”—figuring a Footloose soundtrack hit not the best choice. Suddenly thankful the music at least, made those hard pews, and fire and brimstone preaching worth my Sundays and Wednesday nights.
But later, when humming “Holding on for a hero till the morning light,” I knew deep down he’d always be my hero—this stranger I didn’t even know, who took a final bowing breath on my watch.
A hero who showed me no fear in the face of his demise.
Even as the last breath left him, he remained, watching over me, watching over him. I heard it—a whisper of wind, and I felt it—the rustle of air on the back of my neck in the stillness of the day.
“Mateo…” His parting gift—a name? His name? It mattered not, for his true gift was showing me his light, his essence, him.
As he emerged, tall, in a kaleidoscope of all the colors, a song of all the sounds, and smiled, I stayed.
I stayed, holding his solid fingers in mine, even as they grew cool. I felt the warmth of him radiate down, over, through all of me.
Then, they found me: Farmers. They wanted to move me. I bared my teeth. An image of Sadie, my guide.
One stayed—watching, watchful. One left—nervous. Then came the lights, red and blue, and all the noise—disturbing what was.
Pulled away, I was. He, taken away.
Wrapped in a hug—a blanket. I was. Him, not so much. Just a black plastic-like bag. At least he received a farewell zipper. From head to toe. A match to the ones playing criss-cross against his leather-clad chest.
But I held on to the truth within. I knew something profound had shaken loose a part of me.
As I was led away, I heard a man say, “Mateo.” I turned and smiled—his name.
Years later, that word, a name I did not know the meaning of, rang in my head, over and over and over again. “Holding on for a hero” played through my radio one too many times. And curiosity left me wanting to know more. I must have been 16 at the time—Google was not yet a thing, but I was resourceful and found a way:
Yes, he was.
The power of a single word whispered to me from beyond.
I have always known the power of words—both spoken and written. I grew up in a generation where we chanted: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Even back then, I knew it was a lie. Words rattle us, shift us, empower us, and disempower us. They can lift one high or quickly plummet one low. Words move us to tears, laughter, and can leave us swimming in fears.
I felt that one word: “Mateo.”
How fitting, that his name literally means “God’s gift,” for he gave me so much insight in his passing, about life, death, destiny, and surrender.
Some 32 years later, I chose to get to know myself completely, cracks and crevices, nooks and crannies, and all the light and shadows beyond the skin and bones being that you see. I reflected on the special moment I held hands with destiny, writing my thoughts in a journal. Realising I did not know the meaning of my own name, I ran a quick internet search: “Jill—Youthful. Child of the Gods.”
Me: Child of the Gods.
Mateo: God’s gift.
This name, a word, now gives me everything.