Friends have reacted to my motorcycle riding with grave concern. I don’t know if the fear surrounding this election has something to do with the sudden outpouring. Some have written heart felt notes after losing loved ones to accidents. Some have written posts on Facebook, shaming me (with loving intentions) for engaging in risky behavior. The refrain is usually “think about how your death will impact your family and your friends.” That is EXACTLY why I ride.
Let me explain. As I sat on my brother’s deathbed, holding his shaking body in my arms, feeling the fever and pain consuming him, he wrote an almost illegible note (he had his tongue removed three months earlier to “cure” his cancer). He wrote simply, “I don’t want to die.” I held my baby brother. He died three days later.
My job involves life and death. True story: about 15 years ago, a father told his teenage daughter, Brittany, she could take off her seat belt as he planned to take an exit off I-40. A rear tire lost its tread. The SUV rolled. Brittany was ejected and had her head crushed during the accident. The DPS trooper who first arrived at the scene saw a father cradling his daughter, yelling for her to come back to him. In that DPS Trooper’s deposition, we ALL wept.
Dying and living are intertwined. Riding is life. It is acknowledging risk and using skill, awareness and luck to make it home. That is life.
The question is simply this: what risks will you recognize and tolerate in your life? Will you make decisions out of fear? Will you make decisions, knowing that you cannot possibly control every outcome?
Of my heroes throughout history—some are personal, some are famous—almost none of them had the courtesy of premonition. George Patton broke his neck in a low speed car/truck collision shortly after WWII. Abe got assassinated. So did JFK, RFK, MLK and Ghandi. Winston Churchill died quietly in old age, having written a definitive six volume history of WWII.
My Uncle Thomas Dewey died from a brain tumor at 36 after achieving remarkable (and still classified) feats of computer engineering brilliance for the NSA. I have spent time at his grave in Arlington, and I am grateful for the gift of his son, Mark, my cousin, my anchor, the captain, the pilot, the nurse, the EMT. I am, of course, grateful to have all of his children as my cousins, but this one buys me drinks on a regular basis and knows CPR.
My mother smoked herself to death and said “Well, that sucks” when I told her that she had terminal lung cancer with only days or weeks to live.
My friend George Pickering died in his sleep from heart failure (he was found with a huge smile on his face). Loren, a Vietnam war hero and helicopter pilot, came home to do search and rescue in Arizona. Weeks before Loren was to retire (a third time), a sudden gust of wind on a lonely mountaintop pushed his rotor into a rock. He saved his passengers, but he died hanging from his harness on a remote cliff. My friend Gene Morkin died quietly in his 80s after years of ground-breaking research in cardiology. At his memorial at UMC, his colleagues talked about his “body of work”—I wanted to stand up and scream that his life of love and loyalty to his friends was far more important. My dear friend, Jennifer, died during heart surgery at 41. The day before she died, Jennifer asked Sister Simone to pray for both of us, because we were undergoing surgeries. Jennifer’s prayer was answered…about 50%…
As my father said to me when we heard he had late stage Alzheimer’s, “I didn’t think I would go out this way.” Nobody ever does.
Then, I have living heroes. Most of them are veterans of WWII, the Korean War or Vietnam. Or the struggle for civil rights. One WWII vet still goes ice fishing alone on Wisconsin lakes in the dead of winter. Art survived the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne. He had lunch with a hundred men one minute, left to get something and came back to find ALL of them blown to pieces by German artillery. Another WWII vet in Iowa works his farm—with only one lung after a piece of German shrapnel tore his chest apart. Field medics saved Don’s left lung, but poor conditions in an English hospital gave him a terrible infection that destroyed his injured lung. A Vietnam vet lives around the corner and is a wicked left-handed tennis player. A famous piano player down the street survived segregation and bloody civil rights protests to finally enjoy a life of appreciation for his artistry in a tolerant and loving Tucson communityThe point is this, and it may sound Gumpian (as in “Forrest Gump”). There is a nexus between destiny and random chance. In between, there are choices. I will make mine. And I will not let fear rule me.
That is why I try to give with both hands, hug people tighter, say “I love you” frequently and show gratitude consistently. I don’t get to keep doing ALL of those things indefinitely, so I will do them purposefully. I will do them now. I will live in the moment.
A young married couple had breakfast near me in my favorite breakfast spot. I could not help overhearing these young people worrying about the world. I paid for their breakfast. The server pointed to me when they asked who had paid for them. The man looked at me and asked why. I said (verbatim): “’Why’ is not the question. ‘Why not’ is the question.”
So, I ride. It is meditation. It is skillful. It is a loving act of nostalgia. It is risky. However, it is no riskier—theologically and philosophically—than pretending that we don’t face death EVERY day.
Happiness is embracing life (and the risks attendant). Running from death is the opposite. It will not make you happy—it will make you tired and fearful. And, in all probability, you will not live one moment longer. And, if you do, what kind of “living” is that?
Peace & Love,