Friday, March 20, 2009

On Death & Dying...and Being Alive

OK, so this is bit off track (or should it be "off blog"?), but a couple of strange things happened this week. This stuff gets rambling around in my brain until it comes out, like George Carlin's book, as "brain droppings."

First up: From a bicycling newsletter I subscribe to: "An 87-year-old man died in suburban New York after he caught fire while riding his bicycle, reports the New York Post. Authorities say the elderly gent was likely smoking a cigarette that ignited his nylon jacket, engulfing him in flames. A passing motorist used a fire extinguisher but it was too late."

I don't know too many people that exercise and are dumb enough to smoke. At 87 years old, the guy lived a full life; but, wow, what a way to go. I can just imagine the guy riding along, thinking: “A smoke would make this ride more enjoyable.” He takes out his cigarette. Lights it. Whoosh, he’s engulfed in flames. I don’t know if that’s biking karma or simply dumb luck. Maybe that’s what karma is. The consequential results of the good and bad things we do in life that come back to either reward us for our good acts, or bite us in the ass for bad acts. The ironic thing here is the guy was doing a good act in exercising, but the bad act of smoking trumped the good he was doing, in a very colorful and lethal way.

Next: Natasha Richardson dying due to hitting her head on a beginners slope while taking a ski lesson. It makes you realize how fragile life is and how easy it is to have it all be over. This tragic death is like the way the HBO series Six Feet Under made you realize how easy it is to die by showing you yet another unexpected way to go at the opening of each episode. You mean you can die from a small hit to the head while on a beginner ski slope? Yes you can.

OK, a show of hands. How many of you used ski helmets before now? I never did, and I’ve done some crazy double black diamond runs, mogul runs and glades tree runs (the Burn at Snowmass anyone?...Bueller?... Bueller?). OK, now, how many of you will always use a helmet now? That better be everyone. I mean, when an easy fall on a beginner slope in a ski lesson can result in death within 24 hours, what chance do the rest of us have? I thank my lucky stars that I haven’t had a serious incident in the 20 plus years I’ve been skiing.

It reminded me of a ski trip several years back. A bunch of us were night skiing at Key Stone. I was skiing with a buddy of mine, Tommy. Tommy was kind of a funny skier in that he didn’t like to make turns. The dude just pointed his skis downhill and accelerated until he got to the bottom of a run. I was always a little concerned about his control and made sure to give him a wide birth while skiing with him.

In any event, we are at the top of a run. The lighting is not the best at night, particularly near the edges of the run, next to the tree line. Of course, with a day full of skiing, that’s were the better, less skied snow still lay. I had checked out the snow along the edges on a prior run and told Tommy to follow me down the edge. We tore down the slope, at high speed, very close to that tree line. One mistake and we were goners. I knew that; Tommy knew that; but we didn’t care. We tore that run up from the top of Keystone Mountain all the way to the gondola. At the bottom of the mountain, we turned to each other and laughed hard. We knew we were playing with possible death being so close to the tree line in the dark. But, it was a glorious run. I know, a stupid guy thing. I’m probably lucky to be alive and, yes, I will not be doing that again. We both knew it at the time. We were f-ing with death and laughed it in the face.

A couple of years ago, Tommy came down with liver cancer. It’s not a cancer that has a good survival rate. In a little over a year, Tommy was dead. We all hope that faced with a near certain death, that we would buck up, live our last days well, and appreciate are friends and family. Tommy did not do this. He was a "death-metal' guy and didn’t take his death sentence well. He became bitter and depressed. I felt bad that he chose to deal with his situation the way that he did. I would hope that I would handle the situation differently, but you can’t judge anyone’s approach to their final days. Thus, my memory of Tommy’s last days was sadness. Sadness that he couldn’t find peace and acceptance of his end. Sadness too, that I pulled away somewhat because I couldn’t deal with watching him be bitter and depressed at the end.

Natasha Richardson’s tragic death caused me to remember that crazy time with Tommy doing a stupid run way too fast at night way too close to the tree line. It reminded me of our laughs and knowing grins at each other that we had done a stupid, death defying guy thing, and that we were brothers in the way that all guys doing stupid guy things are brothers. It reminded me of Tommy the way he was before death and dying changed him.

That memory of one of our good times together brought Tommy back to me. I moved through the memory of the sad, angry and depressed Tommy, back to the fun loving guy I had know and considered a good friend. Joseph Campbell expressed a philosophy that those family and friends of ours that have died, are not truly gone so long as we remember them. We know how they thought and felt. You can guess what they would say and advise you if they were still alive. You don’t have to believe in an afterlife or heaven forbid, communication with them. But, we do communicate with their essence. They can remain in our hearts and minds. We keep them alive, at least for us.

As my memory of Tommy in his final days blocked out the good times we had together, he was dead to me. With that night time ski run brought back to me, my thought was: Tommy’s not dead. It was like it happened yesterday. He was so real and alive in my recall of that moment, that laugh, that smile, that he was alive to me again. Call me a little nuts, but I got my friend back yesterday.

So, remember your friends and loved one that have gone before you. Keep their memories alive. Keep them in your hearts. Of course, cherish your loved ones and friends that are still here. We never know how much time we have left with each other. And put on those ski helmets....and bike helmets too, for that matter. And remember: smoking kills. Some times in the strangest of ways.

Tomorrow, I run the Riverwalk 5 Mile Run. It's put on by the Junior League, which puts on an amazing after race feed. Strawberry pancakes with cream anyone? I'll be thinking of my buddy Tommy while I run. I'll also think about my brother Jim, who passed away years ago. He got me into this whole running/biking thing years ago. Every time I do an endurance event, it reminds me of how good it is to be alive. I'll think of that too.

1 comment:

Jen Jones said...

Hey, I'll see you tomorrow! I'm doing the 5k.