He had a window next to his bed, with a view of the snowy woods. It was night time, so all he saw was the reflection of his lighted room. But if he focused long enough, he could see through the reflection and catch movement in the dark. Bare tree branches moving erratically in the cold wind, knocking into each other as if quarreling, as if their dormancy had irritably come to life. If he could touch that window, the raw cold of the pane would shoot through his palms, sending a shiver through his body. However, the heavily wrapped bandages on his hands prevented such sensation. A nurse poked her head in the doorway and asked if he needed anything. Staring outside, he asked her to turn off the lights.
* * *
Early that morning the TV had been on, but it wasn’t long before he realized it was nothing more than background noise. Sports, news, and entertainment channels became disinteresting. At his request, the nurse silenced the TV. And that was when he looked outside at the woods. That was when his mind went clear of thoughts, as if disengaged from everything, except for observing and absorbing the stark view of the trees against the snow. The overcast gray sky. The black birds momentarily perching themselves as they hopped branch to branch. The sharp wind carrying new snow. This interest of his, taking in the view of the woods, but more so the interest—where had it been? When was the last time he had been awed by nature?
It was before he left for college. In fact, it was before high school. And there was a window. The memory was vivid: in the living room, watching a heavy downpour soak his neighborhood. As a roll of continuous thunder vibrated china dishes stacked on a nearby kitchen shelf, one shattering strike of lightning daggered magnificent volts of energy into his front yard. The thunder that immediately followed shook the house with deep bravado, in an apparent attempt to move those dishes over the edge. His eyes burst open wide at the perilous proximity of the strike. What if, seconds before, he had dared himself to run to the mailbox and back? It wouldn’t be his first dare. He’d been foolish before in thunderstorms, running horrified with fear, but also with a confidence that he was going to return alive. But what if, this time, one electric tentacle from the bolt had flashed out and hit him? This view out the window would be no more. A second close strike hit a transformer atop a nearby telephone pole, emitting sparks, and severing one of the wires, sending it whipping into the air. The power in the house went out. He stood there, mesmerized by what he could not take his eyes away from. In his hospital bed, reflecting on that memory as he now looked out his dark window, he thought about his bandaged hands and the silent TV. His eyes were fully engaged in what mattered, what was real. And to this he had only one thing to thank: the accident.
He had been working the grill at a local diner, flipping burgers during a slow part of the afternoon. When things died down, he had the spatula going in one hand, and a cell phone in the other. As usual, texting, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram were the order of the day: Check the phone upon waking up. On the john, on the phone. Throw on some clothes, then on the phone during breakfast. Out the door and off to the university he starts walking. With head down and fingers flying over the keyboard, he navigates through a busy sidewalk full of other students—all of them, honed in on their phones and circumventing one another with peripheral vision. At a stop light, he finds himself stalled within a group. And there they stand, adjoined in conformity with what would appear to be a prayer session. This peaceful, reverent sight gives the impression that this gathering is showing solemn respect to some deserving person needing to be in their thoughts. But that is hardly the case, as upon closer inspection, there are hundreds of fingers tapping their touch screens—texting, tweeting, and snapping away. No quiet devotion going on here. Just quiet.
The world around them passes by: a blue whale painted on the full length of a garbage truck; a worker on the back of the truck, smiling as he waves to a father and son who are repeatedly kicking a rock along the sidewalk; a V-formation of geese flying overhead; and a squirrel narrowly escaping death as it dodges in and out of traffic to cross the street. Fleeting moments worth every moment to be captured. For those habitually wearing earbuds, attention to the sounds of the morning are muted or cancelled out. Wind chimes on a front porch, a flag flapping in the breeze, and the chaotic chatter of clicking, caws, and coos of a tree full of birds. Smells too are given partial notice. Fresh bread from the corner bakery, and someone somewhere, with a window open, cooking bacon for breakfast. Day after day, the same route, the same routine, the same loss of experience. All traded for technology. While they are indeed connected, they are also, without question, disconnected.
It’s 2:30pm and the lunch hour rush is over. Work on the grill is slow with only occasional orders coming in. He’s in the mood to post a comical video of himself in a sleep state standing over the empty grill. He props the phone up on a shelf, and begins recording. The grill’s flat, metal cooking surface is searing hot at 400 degrees. Five seconds into his video a co-worker, carrying large empty boxes to the trash, bumps his back. And that’s all it takes to make him lurch forward, and extend his arms to prevent his chest and face from hitting the grill. Against the scorching metal surface he plants his hands to break his fall. His full weight pressing directly into 400 unforgiving degrees. His horrifying cry is the last sound heard before his body slumps, passing out onto the floor.
* * *
That day, in the hospital, as the sun was setting, he caught a glimpse of something moving amongst the trees. The crisscrossing of the tree’s shadows played with his eyes, but he was certain he had seen it. And then, as if a reward for his patience, the fox appeared. It predatorily creeped over the shadows, before pausing with its head cocked and ears erect in the homing position. In one quick, explosive lift-off, it arched its body into the air, allowing it to nose-dive into the snow. Moments later, the fox surfaced with a field mouse in its jaws. How quickly it happened, how quickly it ended. The fox was gone, and the forest was left as it was, with tree branches moving erratically in the biting, cold wind.
When was the last time he had taken the time to look at something so seemingly ordinary? A view of the woods was offering him and endless supply of live footage. One window had done it all. No keyboard, video, sharing, liking, or posting required. All he had to do was keep his head up.
And then the realization: his accident—painful as it was—had, literally, opened his eyes.
Copyright Ros Hill 2016