How I cheated death

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

A near-death experience brought home to me how the end can literally be just around the corner

Two weeks ago, I was nearly killed by a tram in Berlin.

I was in Germany with several colleagues to study how newspapers there are transforming into digital operations.

We had an interesting and useful meeting in the morning and were headed for lunch before our next appointment.

A German contact had suggested we check out restaurants around Hackescher Markt in the centre of the city, and so we went there in a taxi.

It's a busy, noisy area outside an S-Bahn station. We spotted eateries much like those in Clarke Quay, and the taxi dropped us on the opposite side of the road.

There didn't appear to be a pedestrian crossing, so when the coast was clear, we made our way across, to a traffic island with railings sited at the bend of a road.

Then there was another 2m of road to manoeuvre before we hit the stretch of restaurants.

My colleagues were a little ahead of me, towards the left.

The sun was blazing.

I saw a gap between the railings on the right and decided to cross from there.

I looked around for cars. There was none coming my way and so I stepped out.

I remember three things.

One was looking down and wondering why there were metal grooves running across the road.

Two was hearing one of my colleagues shout "Sumiko, watch out!"

Three was glancing up and seeing a yellow tram coming towards me from the left. Its wheezing sound was growing louder and louder.

I instinctively walked faster and reached the pavement.

Two seconds later, the tram went past me. The carriage was two hands span away from my back. I could feel its vibrations.

Strangely, I wasn't panicking. My heart wasn't even beating fast.

I was surprised, though. We had arrived the day before and I didn't even know Berlin had trams. How did this one appear so quickly, almost out of the blue?

Mostly, I felt embarrassed to have been so careless, and in front of my colleagues too.

Are you all right, one of them asked when they caught up with me. That was close, he added.

Did your life flash before you, another asked.

I'm okay, I muttered. I didn't see the tram coming.

Beyond that, we didn't discuss what happened and had an uneventful lunch.

Later, though, it hit me what a lucky, lucky escape I had.

What if my colleague hadn't seen the tram and hadn't called out to me?

What if I hadn't quickened my pace?

What if the skinny heels of my shoes had been stuck in the grooves of the track?

What if the tram had been going a bit faster?

What if the side of the road I was heading to had been packed with people and there wasn't space for me to step onto it?

There were so many what-ifs.

Yet, there I was, still in one piece and still alive.

Someone up there was looking out for me that day (thank you); I guess it wasn't my time yet.

Later at dinner, I brought up the incident and made light of it.

What a story you all would have had if I had been hit, I told them, fellow journalists. You would have got a good scoop, I added with a laugh.

That's crazy, they said.

One of them said he'd recently read that Antoni Gaudi, the famous Spanish architect, died after being hit by a passing tram, and that he had thought to himself at the time: How on earth can anyone be hit by a tram?

We know it's possible now, I said.

I also remembered how, just that morning when waiting for a pedestrian light to turn green, I'd told a colleague how paranoid I was about crossing roads when overseas because of stories about Singaporeans dying in accidents abroad.

Yet it almost happened to me.

Before the tram incident, I had assumed death would most likely come at the end of a long and painful illness, where I would have had time to come to terms with it and prepare myself for it.

Now, it struck me how death can come so suddenly, so unexpectedly and be in fact just around the corner - literally, in my case.

It was a sobering thought.

I've had two previous near-death experiences, both also on the road. The first time, I thought a traffic light wasn't working and so drove across a junction, only to have a car from the other side streak past me. There was no crash and no one was injured, but it left me badly shaken.

The other accident happened at a roundabout. I was a passenger in a car. We were travelling rather slowly when out of nowhere, we were hit by another car which then hit a tree. No one died. I was scared out of my skin.

This time in Berlin, death was even nearer. I can't help thinking: What if it had been my time? Am I prepared for it? What do people regret when they face their final minutes or seconds as it would have been in my case?

The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying, a book written in 2012 by an Australian palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware, is instructive.

She recorded the wishes of patients in the last three to 12 weeks of their lives and found that some themes surfaced again and again. And, no, they didn't involve having more money or nicer homes.

The top five were:

I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This was the most common regret, said Ware.

I wish I hadn't worked so hard - which was from every male patient she had nursed.

I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings. Many people suppressed what they really felt to keep peace with others and settled for a mediocre existence, she said.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. "Everyone misses their friends when they are dying," Ware wrote.

I wish that I had let myself be happier. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice, she noted.

I am very thankful I survived the Berlin incident.

Next time, I may not be so lucky, so if there was a lesson for me there, it is to live life so I won't have cause to regret when the time does come.

sumiko@sph.com.sg

Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan