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Struck by life

This is how quickly it happens.

I was bringing the empty trash can up from the curb.

One half of the sky was robin's-egg blue, studded with benign white clouds. To the north, it was purple-black. Another thunderstorm on the way. The air was dead still.

I knew I had only a few more minutes to do outdoor chores before the rain started. I rolled the trash can into the garage, bumped it over the little lip where driveway concrete meets garage floor. Just as I've done hundreds of times before. Every Wednesday, every Saturday. A moment about as mundane as a moment could be.

The next moment was not.

I don't know what came first _ the light or the sound. Maybe they happened at the same instant. I think they did.

In my peripheral vision, just behind my left shoulder, I glimpsed a huge, jagged white line. Exactly like you see in the sky, only right there. Next to me.

Then, the loudest sound my ears had ever registered. A noise like something gigantic splitting open, the whole world cracking in two.

There was no time for rational thought. That would have taken two, three seconds. Instinct, on the other hand, is almost as fast as lightning.

I let out some kind of cry, and suddenly I was doing one of those little cartoon dances _ like when Yosemite Sam shoots at another guy's feet, just to see him jump and hop. I stumbled against the bicycles next to the trash can. Then I ran to the other end of the garage.

My arms wrapped around my torso, I stood there and shook violently. My ears were ringing, my scalp prickly with the sensation of hair standing on end. My body felt like a vibrating bundle of nerves, the stunned brain working to catch up.

"Whoa whoa whoa whoa," I was saying, out loud.

(Remarkably, no four-letter words. I couldn't seem to remember one.)

I've lived in Florida 20 years. Like all of us, I've dared lightning. Stayed on the beach a couple of minutes too long. Finished the yardwork as thunder rumbles. Played just one more hole, even though the golf course is a lightning magnet.

Finally, a bolt fractures the sky nearby. We scurry inside. We laugh.

This, though, was more than a brush with danger. This was a sneak peek at mortality.

Standing there in the garage, shaking, I couldn't think what to do next. No one else was home. None of the neighbors around. No one saw me nearly get killed.

I felt, for some reason, stupid. Ashamed that I "let" this happen, that I didn't somehow know, in the one moment, what was going to happen in the next.

But how can we ever know? How can we predict that in an instant, our world will veer away from normal? How to possibly prepare for that?

So many moments stack neatly, comfortingly on top of each other, the nesting spoons of our days and nights. Why should the next moment break that pattern?

It can, and it does.

An 8-year-old boy is wading in knee-deep water with his uncle. Warm waves, the color bands of sunset, salt on the boy's lips.

The next second, the shark has him. The boy's arm is snapped off, it's in the shark's mouth. People are screaming.

A woman is paddling on the surface of a lake, her husband beside her. They're swimming naked, free.

Suddenly, an alligator strikes. The woman feels fire shooting down her arm. The water turns into bloody foam.

People are toasting the Fourth of July with cans of Bud Light. Sand beneath their toes. Someone feels the cool slide of beer in his throat.

The next instant, bedlam. Lightning has struck. People are on the ground, crying. A man's back is burned. Somebody's moaning.

Another woman, in another city, stands on the bank of a lake, in a park. She's waiting for her dog to come back from its exploring.

The alligator springs from behind, knocking her to the ground. She's on her back, with a creature twice her weight gnawing on her.

These are just the Florida headlines from the last couple of weeks. Stories about moments when a life changed, instantaneously, from ho-hum to terror. It can happen so fast.

This wasn't in the news, but last week a colleague of mine, a Times photographer, wound up in the hospital with a concussion after a lightning bolt knocked him to the ground in Tampa. He was shooting pictures when it happened, trying to squeeze off a few more frames before the storm.

Sometimes those moments bring epiphanies. We survive, and we vow to change. We're going to appreciate life from now on. We'll go back to church, we'll hug our family more. We're thankful to have escaped. The hot breath of death was on our neck, and it stank.

I stood there in the garage, after my near miss, and slowly the thoughts started to come.

I could be lying there right now, not breathing. Who would have found me? How fast would the paramedics come?

My parents, elderly and fragile, sprang to mind. My husband. We were about to get on a plane and fly to another country to adopt a daughter. The tickets were on the dining room table, the new clothes I bought her already packed.

I was still shaking.

I went inside. I remembered what I was going to do after I brought in the trash can: make a grilled cheese sandwich.

I took out bread, some cheese. I turned on the stove, melted margarine in the cast-iron frying pan. The normal moments started restacking on top of each other, one by one.

Jeanne Malmgren is a Times staff writer.