I never told this story to anyone until now, it is one of those life changing events that divide your days into between and after, and the person I became didn’t feel comfortable discussing it. I decided to share it with you, to maybe help you realize that not everything in this life is meant to be understood.
I was a bit of a dare devil in my youth, living defiantly and always looking for the next adventure, the next challenge. As luck has it, I got word that a spot had become available on a safari expedition to the Serengeti, and the news made me bounce off the walls with excitement, because this was exactly the kind of activity I used to plan my days around. I left in a hurry, with only one small backpack and a change of clothes, and the trip unfolded uneventfully from the moment I landed in Dar es Salaam until we embarked on the all terrain vehicles.
A few days into the expedition, hot and sweaty under the African sun, we saw a watering hole in the distance, a wonderful opportunity to take pictures of wild life and refill our canteens with water. As quiet as we tried to be, we still startled a small group of zebras and gazelles, to the displeasure of the lion pride who watched placidly as their afternoon snack ran away. They were enjoying their afternoon siesta a short distance from us, in the tall grass of the savanna under the rare foliage of an acacia tree.
We wandered about, careful not to disturb them, filled our containers with water and were getting ready to leave. The group was tired and absent minded from all that relentless sun bearing down on us, and, as I said, some things defy understanding, so this is what happened next.
As I straddled the rocky shore, trying to approach the water, I slipped and fell, and in the process cut a deep gash in my leg. The pain was so intense I passed out instantly, I didn’t have time to scream for help, or see the tired and distracted group get back into the vehicles and leave.
I don’t know how long it was until I came to, but it was night already, and I could hear the terrifying roars of the lions getting ready for the hunt. I was sure that the smell of blood would draw them to me and it was just a matter of time until I ended up as their next meal. I couldn’t move and felt that a fever was starting to build up, clouding my vision and my thinking. I must have lost a lot of blood, because I was going in and out of consciousness, and the last image I saw before I passed out again was the gigantic shape of a growling lioness sniffing my face, hesitantly.
A strange sensation woke me up at full noon, and upon awaking I noticed that I was laying down comfortably on a bed of flattened grasses, in the middle of a group of resting lions, and the large lioness from the night before was licking my wound. I wasn’t well and felt the fever rising, and then I passed out again.
I knew I was going to die, it wasn’t possible for me to survive without medical attention, food or water, and the fever drove me into mottled dreamscapes, in a half way place between life and death, where I could see both but experience neither. I had vivid visions there, extraordinarily beautiful visions of creatures whose countenance I couldn’t even describe, whose features were melting in the intense blue light of their being, multifaceted and fading in and out of reality and living in dimensions not available to the human senses. I felt their infinite love, their concern for me, and in my feverish dream state watched them debate my fate.
They stopped every now and then to see how I was faring and I got scared, because I thought I already died and this was my judgment day (and maybe it was, I will never know, will I?), but I was also mesmerized, I couldn’t take my eyes off of their surreal beauty, whose simple existence engendered bliss. Every now and then I woke up, startled by the rough tongue of the lioness licking my wound, or her grabbing me by the back of my shirt and carrying me to the water and back, growling softly to encourage me to drink.
For days I went back and forth between that extraordinary world filled with beings of light and the weirdly cozy nest of my adoptive lion pride, and in my feverish mind they seemed one and the same somehow and because of that I felt safe. The roars of the lions didn’t unsettle me anymore, I heard their growls and saw their graceful movements in the moonlight and knew that I was protected among them.
The fact that I got better was in itself a miracle, I don’t know how that happened and can’t explain it, other than divine providence, and as my strength returned, the world beyond life slowly faded. I was so sad, so extraordinary hurt to let it go, it felt like I was ripped apart from half of myself! Every time I lifted my eyes, I saw the lioness care for me with the love and dedication she would only give her own cubs, while the other members of the pride glanced tolerantly in my direction, willing to share the fruits of their common hunt with the strange looking and sickly pup that I was.
My adoptive lioness chewed up little morsels of raw meat and thrust them in my direction, licking my face and nudging me with its nose to eat. I wished I could, but my stomach revolted when a tiny morsel of the offering reached it, however, as my health returned, it brought with it a ravenous hunger, and I quenched it with the acacia flowers that were blooming abundantly at the time.
I didn’t understand why the lion pride decided to accept me as a member, instead of seeing me as the yummy lunch that I was, but I didn’t feel in danger in any way among them and started appreciating how unusual and extraordinary this experience was, living among the lions, something that the overheated imagination and thirst for adventure of my reckless youth could not conjure under normal circumstances.
My sweet child, you know what sister Joseph keeps saying, you don’t need to look for trouble, trouble is sure to find you. There is no way, in your daily life, to anticipate or prepare for a situation like the one above, it is something you just live through, grow from and that changes you forever.
Nobody can stay the same after visiting thereafter, and I was no exception. Every priority I had, every ambition, every drive, faded in the magnitude of existence itself and in the awe of things that defy understanding. It almost felt normal living among the lions, so I had no inclination to leave, but I was a grown up cub and it was time for me to explore my own trails. The pride moved on as I set out towards a thicket of trees in the distance. I don’t know why I picked that direction, but I was sure in my heart it was the right one, and that proved to be the case. Before parting, my adoptive lioness jumped and placed its front paws on my shoulders, almost crushing me under her massive weight, and as I looked at its majestic bearing, almost seven foot tall as it was standing in front of me, I realized how lucky I was: it could have squelched me with a pat of its paws, or killed me with one bite if it ever wanted to. The lioness looked at me with what in a human’s eyes I would have read as great sadness, then jumped back with a small growl, turned its back at me, rejoined the pride and never looked back.
There I was, walking completely alone and exposed through the tall grass of the savanna while small herds of wildebeest, gazelles and giraffes passed me by, oblivious. I cried the entire time, out of weakness, out of relief to be alive, out of implausible emotions, I cried because I missed my new found lion family, as absurd as it sounds, I cried at the loss of that extraordinary world beyond life, so unbelievable in its infinite dimensions that even the stunning beauty of the Serengeti plains, punctured by rock outcroppings and caressed by sinuous slow flowing rivers seemed dull by comparison.
I was still crying when I reached the small clump of trees, and crying when the rare trees turned into a jungle, whose vague, unmarked trails led me to a small Maasai village. The villagers took care of me and applied a thick mixture of herbs and bark to my wound to help it heal completely. When I was healthy enough to travel, they took me with them to Zanzibar on one of their trips to the spice market.
The rest of the story is quite mundane, filled with modern conveniences and administrative requirements, I reestablished my identity, got travel papers, figured out how to contact my family and got a plane ticket back to Singapore. I performed all of these tasks in a daze, as if watching somebody else’s life, and when I got back home my mind was so far away that my family almost didn’t recognize me.
Upon returning I tried to pick up where I left off, but it all felt fake, like wearing someone else’s skin, someone whose personality I neither understood, nor admired.
As I said, some moments divide life into before and after, and the people who inhabit these two parts are very different.
I wasn’t afraid of death before this adventure, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have defied it at every turn, on a dare, but after I realized that not being afraid of death and not caring about life are completely different things. I could not shake the vivid visions from that feverish state between life and death. I couldn’t believe that experience was for nothing, just a random meaningless occurrence, I wanted my life to count for something, even if what I saw might have been just a wild firing of neurons and massive release of endorphins at the approach of death.
I didn’t know where to start in my search for meaning, so I joined this small community gardening group, which had some religious affiliations, and since my dare devil was just tamed, not dead, I jumped at the chance to join some of them on a trip to this small experimental farm in the south of France, which had the reputation of working miracles in the world of horticulture.
I was supposed to be there only for a week, and again, faithful to my drive to live on impulse, I stayed. The sisters didn’t ask why, or for how long, they just prepared a bed for me and gave me a tiny lot of brick rubble to work on.
How strange is life, huh? You know, it’s a good thing to plan your future, but if you plan too tightly you won’t leave any room for really extraordinary events. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, it is for you to decide, and you alone.
Be blessed, my dear, and may God grant you the fulfillment of your life’s purpose.
(Letters to Lelia)