All of the recent tragic hurricanes, wild fires, Vegas shooting, and the NYC bicycle path incident coupled with the one year anniversary of losing my brother-in-law, the recent loss of an old theater director from my childhood and the loss of a good friend and former professional dancer, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the one thing that will happen to us all. Whether it’s a major tragedy we might see on the news or the “Big C,” ,one thing is for sure, our day will come.
I’ve thought back to past cycling trips that I had spent countless hours on the seat of my bicycle traveling this beautiful country and letting my mind wander deep into thought. Sometimes I’d recall of my childhood, other times the future and what it might hold, and other times I’ve thought about the end of life. Drifting into memories of my old neighbor Mrs. Reese, who unfortunately left us after a car hit her crossing the street. (She’s in a better place now. Probably practicing the organ and making the kids in heaven hot chocolate.) I’d often think of my brother-in-law Brandon, who had a long hard health battle that ended about a year ago. I fondly remember our last time together. It was the day my niece learned how to ride a bike. He was so proud of her. And always so supportive of my bicycle adventures too. My last big bike ride was dedicated to his memory.
I’m not sure why I’m sharing this with y’all. I guess it’s the one thing everyone has in common. ( See. We’re all not so different after all.) And I guess I just want to share a couple of stories that might put things into perspective en route to the inevitable.
On the bus from NYC to Princeton, New Jersey, a little girl got a small plastic toy lodged in her throat. Father and her were sitting behind me and he came to me holding the child asking for help. At first I didn’t realize what was going on and thought he wanted me to hold the baby for some strange reason. I quickly realized the child couldn’t breathe as he handed her to me. English wasn’t the father’s native tongue and he was obviously flustered. All he could manage to say was “help, please help.” I’m holding the girl who had snot and spit and everything else she could manage to spit up all over her and I had an “oh shit” moment as I thought to myself she’s going to die if we don’t get her breathing. I started what I thought would be the appropriate Heimlich maneuver for a child that size as I called out for anyone who actually knew how to do it. I also yelled to the bus driver to stop the bus, declaring we have an emergency. A gentleman a few rows in front of me comes back and says he knows what to do and takes the child and places her on the seat face down and hits her on the back. Toy comes out and she can breathe again! At this point the bus driver had joined us at the back of the bus and we all see the baby’s ok as we breathe sighs of relief. In what’s got to be the most touching moment I’ve ever witnessed, the man who saved the kid hugs the father as he was again holding his child. No words I have could express that meaning of that embrace. Bus driver and I both pat the hero on his back for a job well done and the father shakes my hand. (Both of our hands were still wet from the child’s spit up etc) I told the bus driver, it’s not an emergency, but I missed my stop and I needed to be dropped of at the next place to catch a bus going the opposite direction. Shortly before the choking began, I had realized that I missed not only the park and ride where I was to exit, but the whole town of where I was to teach. I’m thankful to have been daydreaming on the bus and not paying attention to where I was going so I could help out in a small way. Earlier on in the trip the bus passed a cemetery and I thought to myself hmmm, look at all those dead people in the ground. Isn’t it funny how normal and nonchalant it is to go past a cemetery with all those dead folks and think nothing of it or death? It’s just something that happens to all of us. No big deal. However, when I was holding that child in my hands, the thought of her dying was a big deal. I’d never felt that way I did earlier today. For one split second in all the commotion, I thought the kid was going to die in my hands. It took me a little bit of time to calm down as I waited for the bus going back towards my missed stop.
Life is precious. Hug someone you love. (And maybe learn the Heimlich Maneuver)
“Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”
Now a couple of years ago, I was leaving NYC and heading up to Canada and in the town of Troy, New York, I saw a sign for the gravesite of none other than Uncle Sam. I did what you might be doing now and asked myself “Uncle Sam was real?” I proceeded to cycle out of my way and up a hill to a cemetery to his gravesite. Each tier of the cemetery hill led me to another sign pointing up the hill to his resting place. After the next hill I was starting to think it was a silly idea to be looking for the grave. (was it all just a “grave” mistake?) I realized it was too late to turn around so I continued on even though I knew I’d be dead tired (get it?)at the end of it. I finally made it to the top of the hill and I saw this.
It was the most underwhelming thing I’d ever seen. Oh well, good story I suppose. I slowly started rolling down the hill to get back on my way. As I was descending through the tombstones I came across a father and daughter visiting a gravesite. They were in the middle of a passionate conversation that had the daughter pleading and yelling “tell him”, “you’re here now”, “tell it to his face!” I didn’t hear how the father responded because they both had noticed me and sheepishly got quiet and turned away. (and it’s none of my business anyhow) . Even without knowing the actual story, we can all surmise that someone had left this world before the father could tell whoever something. Lesson learned. If you’ve got something to say to someone, say it today, because you never know when tomorrow will be too late.
Make peace with those around you and be ready to meet your maker, or science, because you just never know when it’s your time or someone else’s time to go. Life is fragile and temporary. Enjoy it and enjoy those around you. If you don’t it might end up being an actual grave mistake.
Often times, when I’m having a tough go of it ( And let’s face it, life isn’t always roses and sunshine, even for a traveling hobo) I’m compelled to think about the life of Louis Zamperini (one of my heroes!) Unbroken Is a great read and possibly a good movie (haven’t seen it) about Louie. In brief, if you don’t happen to already know, Louie was born in Olean, New York, the child of Italian immigrants. He was a bit of a trouble maker in his youth and ended up staying out of trouble only when his older brother introduced him to track and field. Louie excelled in running and made it all the way to the Olympics. After the games in Berlin, Louie enlisted in the Air core during WWII. Long story short, Louie was shot down over the pacific and drifted at sea for 47 days only to be rescued by the Japanese and thrown into a POW camp. What he endured during that period is what I often think of when I’m struggling up a hill exhausted, cold and wet or more recently I draw inspiration when I’ve had to deal with repeating cases of rhabdomyolysis and leg pain and frustration that comes with it. Louie never lost his fighting spirit and never gave up no matter how unimaginable the challenges and neither should we. After the war, Louie had nightmares from his time as a prisoner and battled with the booze attempting to cope, but overcame those struggles as well after going to Billy Graham (Also, RIP Billy) crusade. Later in his life Louie returned to Japan to meet and forgive his former POW guards. At the age of 81 Louie ran a leg of the Olympic torch relay at the 1998 games in Nagano. It was also around that time he picked up skateboarding. Louie left this world due to pneumonia at the age of 97. A life well lived by a truly inspiring man
As you can probably tell, this post was going to be published about 4 months ago, but for whatever reason, it has just been sitting until now. Today, I was online watching the courageous students from Parkland, Florida speak out about the need to do something real to prevent anymore school shootings. And it’s so wrong, that here in America, the greatest country on earth, we have such an epidemic and we aren’t brave enough to solve the problem. There are so many different ways we’ll each end our time here on earth and getting mowed down at school just shouldn’t be one of them. I hope for a day that we can all come together and at least get rid of the certain assault weapons and magazine clips so often used in the tragedies that are all too common.