Sunday, March 21, 2010

Going First

Someone I know recently died in an accident. It wasn’t the kind of accident that occurs during normal activities everyone does every day, like driving or showering or walking down the street. It also wasn’t the kind of accident that results from an activity so risky that no one is surprised when it goes wrong, something like white-water kayaking or flying an “experimental aircraft.”

My friend died doing something both dangerous and mundane, the kind of thing that makes parents declare that their children are trying to get themselves killed. He died from a skateboarding accident. He crashed his skateboard, hit his head, was in a coma for a long time, and then finally, just when chances for his eventual recovery had started to look up, he died.

Besides his death being incredibly sad on its own, it bothered me a lot that he had died skateboarding. Something about it seemed like suicide to me, like he had chosen to die on purpose. I couldn’t figure out why I felt this way. After all, he skateboarded everywhere, all the time. There couldn’t have been anything special about the day when he crashed; it was probably just an ordinary day, until things went horribly wrong. But I couldn’t get rid of this creepy feeling that he knew it was coming, that it was planned somehow.

I tried to shake the idea that there was some underlying significance to all this, that it was the end to some kind of parable or puzzle or syllogism.

“I suppose it could have been anything,” I said to a friend of his. “It could have been a car accident.”

“No,” said the friend, shaking his head vehemently. “It’s important that it was a skateboarding accident.”

That’s how I felt, too, but I didn’t like what this interpretation suggested. It meant that it wasn’t random, not a freak accident, that his death had meant something. But what could it mean, other than a referendum against the kind of life that we were all living, lives full of small dangers, unnecessary risks, hobbies and habits we all convince ourselves are safe, or safe enough?

Our friend was a brave guy. That’s one of the qualities that always struck me most about him. Without a hint of apprehension, he would do all kinds of things that to me seemed pretty scary: travel to China to study kung fu, practice crazy jumping back flips, spar on a raised platform with no protective gear, move to Guatemala on a moment’s notice when his ailing mother needed help, and, regularly, get on his skateboard and fly down Monte Vista, a street so steep it’s difficult to walk down without stumbling.

I had often been inspired by his bravery. When he returned from China during a time that I had been feeling ambivalent about sparring, the stories of his trip motivated me to face up to difficult challenges. Watching how easily he could pack up his life and travel, I reminded myself not to get too attached to my routines. If he can do it, I would tell myself, it must not be so bad.

His death reminded me of another one that occurred five years ago, when my coworker’s sixteen-year-old daughter flew off her dirt bike, which she was riding with her father, and suffered a fatal injury to one of her internal organs. I didn’t know her very well, but after she died, I learned she was another brave person, someone who, like my friend, inspired people around her to try to be braver themselves.

Just after she died, her mother told me that her friends were keeping her MySpace page as a memorial, and when I went to look at it, in addition to about a thousand heartbreaking messages from distressed teenagers, I saw her brief self-description, which included this:

I love my dirt bike, even though I seem to fall off it all the time!

The eerie foreshadowing of these words chilled me when I read them. Could she have known, I asked myself? As with my skateboarding friend, I imagined for a moment that she had chosen her death, or that it had been somehow fated. It just seemed so unlikely that she would specifically mention the falling off; why would she say that, if she hadn’t anticipated what it would come to mean?

Then I thought about the potential for creepy omens on my own online presences: so many jokes about getting beat up, getting hit in the face, so many pictures of injuries and bruises. It seems impossibly far-fetched that any of this would lead me to serious physical harm, just as the falls must have seemed reasonably safe to her. And they were; she was just really, really unlucky in how she fell. We can all be unlucky, whether getting thrown by a dirt bike or kneed a little too hard in the face or hit by a runaway bus as we cross the street. So it’s back to the car accident comparison. Are these deaths, which seem so particularly haunted, the result of the same kind of wrong-place-wrong time bad luck that causes people to die on the freeway or in the shower?

Is that the only lesson, I wondered, as I thought about these two deaths? That same old lesson we’ve always known, that you never know when it will be your time to go, that it can happen any time, in any way, for seemingly no reason at all? And if the brave people go and get killed doing things that are supposed to be safe, what lesson does that teach the rest of us? The implied message seems to be that maybe it’s not a good idea to be so brave—but that’s hardly an acceptable lesson to take from the lives of people who inspired those around them to be adventurous and take risks.

I looked back at the girl’s MySpace page this week, which would have been her twenty-first birthday. I saw that her friends are still writing notes to her on it, five years later. They tell her about their problems, and tell her that she is an inspiration to them, how they think of her as they enter scary new phases of their lives, starting college, moving away from home, dating. Some of them say that they imagine her as she would be now, as a young adult, and they look to her for wisdom about decisions in their own lives.

I reread her self-description and saw something I had missed last time. Below the part about falling off her dirt bike, it said that she loved softball and basketball, and, she noted, that she loved to play “full contact—it’s more interesting that way!” If I saw those words five years ago, I didn’t remember them, though if her accident had occurred during one of those sports, these words would have seemed as foreboding as the ones about her dirt bike. It turns out, she wasn’t psychic regarding her own untimely demise. She was just a brave girl who loved to do scary, exhilarating things, just as my skateboarding friend did.

The lesson I will keep with me from my friend is the same lesson I always learned from him, which is to be brave. I though at first that his death negated this message in some way, that it showed that taking risks does not pay off. But now, like the young adults seeking strength and guidance from their friend’s memory on MySpace, I feel inspired by my friend’s memory to be braver, even about the prospect of my own death. My friend did so many things that I found terrifying, and when he did them, they came easily, fearlessly, effortlessly. Death is far less scary to me now that he has gone through it. I think to myself, if he did it, it must not be so bad.
Adam Caldwell's drawing of Joseph in the hospital.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Joseph and Monica, both greatly missed.


sondra said...

Lovely thoughts, memories, and tribute.

brain said...

To reinforce your message, here's another story, which is the exact opposite of your skateboarding friend's experience:

Diane's dad Frank suffered from mesothelioma, lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibers when working in construction in the 1940s and 1950s. He and his wife Alice came from a blue-collar background, and were very cautious and frugal. They saved their small income, and hoarded everything.

When Frank lay on his deathbed in the hospital, only months after he was first diagnosed, he cried - he wasn't ready to go. He wished he had followed his lifelong dream of taking a road trip around California.

This dream would have taken only a couple weeks and would have cost less than $1000 for both of them. The only reason they didn't do it was because they couldn't bring themselves to spend the money, which they definitely had saved, and they thought they had more time to do it.

When Alice passed away a few years later, we found boxes and boxes of special party supplies they had bought, like monogrammed cocktail napkins, that they saved for a special occasion. Fun little parties which never happened. Which they thought they'd have time to do later.

So I guess I'm saying: don't kid yourself. You're going to die. We all will die. There isn't actually that much time to do these things. So let's all get crackin' and take steps to live the way we always thought we would, because it sure as hell isn't going to happen by itself.

Karin Spirn said...

Thanks, Sondra--it's stuff that been so deep in my mind that I wasn't sure if it made sense, so it's nice to hear the thoughts translate.

Brain--what a crazy story! (though I guess as your family goes, it's actually the least crazy story I've heard). It really shows in the way you guys lead your lives; you will have no regrets I'm sure.

Melinda said...

Karin, hon, I'm sorry for your loss. Such a touching post, I'm sure your friend would be moved.

Brain, you're absolutely right. We can't keep putting these things off!

Karin Spirn said...

Thanks, Melinda! So what do you think Brain's story will inspire you to do?

Melinda said...

Well, I just did this interview this morning with a guy who's getting his first book published. He asked me if I was working on one, and I thought, "Maybe I should be."

BTW, did I tell you that Sophie got a publishing deal? It's amazing!

Karin Spirn said...

That's so great for Sophie! Tell her congratulations! I read all of her book but like the last 50 pages; I need to finish it.

That's a great thing to be inspired to do. I've been trying to remember to keep writing no matter what, since that's what I think I'll regret if I don't do it.

Grizz said...

I find it down right spooky that I stumbled upon this post less than an hour after finishing one of my least rewarding days ever on a skateboard.

After class on most Tuesdays/Thursdays I am blessed with enough time to head to a local skate park, red curb, stair set, sculpture to skate. Hell anything I think has a chance of navigating four 53mm wheels on, up, or over I will usually give a go... more often than not ending with disastrous results. I am usually able to laugh away the pain and there were a few tricks over the years that landed me in a hospital bed. One failed trick even left me with a goofy gap between my two front teeth.

There is something so liberating about being on a skateboard and pushing around town that always draws me back. I often see it as downright therapeutic some times. I as well as most who partake in pushing a plank of wood around see it as a form of self expression or art rather than a sport. It just feels so damn good!

That being said, Skateboarding is tough and its easy to get burnt. Pursuing the thrill of victory can and will often conclude in the agony of defeat. In the case of both skateboarding and riding a dirt bike, that agony is heavy physical abuse. It may seem self-destructive to the people who do not regularly participate in these activities, but in my personal experience the threat of bodily harm present when I skateboard is all but justified by the positive effect it has on my soul.

I am taking a Political Science class this semester and my teacher leaves us with a 'moment of zen' near the end of every class period. I believe today's 'moment' is very fitting of your post.

"If you succeed in securing your life against all risk you will find yourself in a cocoon of self-protection wondering all the while why you are suffocating."

Anyway, see you in class on Monday!

Karin Spirn said...

Hey, thanks for the thoughts on this (and the moment of Zen...excellent point). I saw the pictures of you skating on your blog--looks like you know what you're talking about!