On Nov. 2, All Souls Day, I came very close to dying.
My brush with death occurred while bagging leaves beneath our massive, 200-year-old sugar maple. Taking a short break, I went indoors and grabbed a fistful of peanuts. When I returned to my task, I found a dead limb — five feet long and weighing more than 40 pounds — lying directly across the pile of leaves where I’d been working.
That night, I tossed and turned in bed, thanking every deity in the heavens for saving me from being clobbered. Replaying the chilling event in my head, I figured that a mere five minutes had elapsed from the time I dropped my rake, grabbed my peanuts and returned to the task at hand.
Finding this enormous widowmaker was surely a surprise. Every spring, before my grande dame sprouts her leaves, I study her bare bones as keenly as a radiologist would his X-rays. So how could I have missed such a hefty, dangling log?
If I had been mortally wounded, I could only imagine the ensuing chatter from my neighbors. “We always told him to cut down that mammoth old tree. He actually called her Miss Maple. Remember how he’d shoo away those tree-cutting companies who came in the name of Eversource? They’d nearly have to cut off his limbs before they’d ever get close to his beloved tree.”
My neighbors were spot-on regarding my affection for Miss Maple, a dear tree that has kept our house cool and shady every summer for the past 42 years. In my youth, there were 12 such spectacular hardwoods on our street. Now they’ve been whittled down to four, with our Miss Maple reigning supreme.
Recalling close calls
As I restlessly flipped over my pillow for the umpteenth time, I was flooded with other near calamities in my lifetime — close encounters that we’ve all experienced in some way or another.
At age 13, while caddying at the Country Club of Pittsfield, a lightning bolt seared the bark off a birch tree not 10 feet from where I stood. I suppose Thor, the Norse god of thunder and lightning, was attracted to the 14 golf clubs I was toting at the time.
At 20, I was nearly killed in Vietnam — not by the enemy, but a fellow firefighter who hailed from New Mexico. He called everyone “dude” and broke into my hooch one night snookered on Jack Daniels. He pressed a jackknife to my throat, slurring that he was going to make me bleed “purple peanut butter.” If my hoochmates hadn’t heard the commotion and intervened, it could well have been bye-bye for Airman O’Hara. The following day, when he was sober, I confronted him about the incident. His cool response, “No way, dude. Why would I ever want to hurt my main dude?” Go figure.
At 33, my friend Steve Young and I dropped ourselves into the high, tufted grass atop the 700-foot Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. We watched seabirds wheel beneath us and marveled at the cloudbanks that drifted above the North Atlantic. Four months later, the very nook of headland where we had lounged toppled into the sea. Since the Cliffs were formed 320 million years ago, we calculated that we missed a tumbling death by a billionth of a second. Talk about cliffhangers!
At 60, I turned corn yellow due to hepatitis, my eyes as lemony as a Bengal cat. Noting my Irish surname, a young emergency room doctor immediately blamed my condition on alcohol consumption. Tsk-tsk! Subsequent blood work showed that the culprit for my off-the-charts liver enzymes were brought on by an antibiotic, not my favorite beverage. Even so, my prognosis remained dire, as my primary doctor prescribed a yearlong dose of interferon in hopes of reviving my damaged liver.
Wisely seeking a second opinion, I reached out to my friend and acupuncturist Tom Burton, who had studied under the Dalai Lama’s personal physician back in the 1970s. After a quick look at my tongue, Tom drove to Great Neck, N.Y., and brought back a concoction of black and white Chinese liver pills. Friends thought I had fallen in with a quack, but after five weeks and 500 little pills later, Tom and I were enjoying pints of Guinness in celebration.
Now, at age 73, as I lay safely in my bed, I can hear Miss Maple’s bare limbs swaying soothingly above our rooftop, as if trying to lullaby my troubled head to sleep. Before dozing off, I gave thanks to my leafy heroine for hanging on to that widowmaker until I was safely out of harm’s way.
Lastly, hats off to Mr. Peanut who, by my reckoning, also played a pivotal role in saving my hide.