Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Do not go gentle into that good night.
– Dylan Thomas
Death has been my invaluable advisor for decades, the advisor all warriors hold close because it never lies. It always tells us that we have no time for crap.
I notice, however, that as my birthday approaches next month death comes into ever closer proximity, not as an abstract reality, but as a real event that happens to more and more people that I know. They live on in my memory of our lives together, but the startling fact that they no longer walk on this earth demands my full acceptance that my life will end.
My aging Cedar Falls High School classmates are succumbing to the inevitable deterioration of our once pristine bodies, genetic fates playing out now, demanding sober attention and lots of visits to health professionals. My living male classmates are already a couple of years past the average age of death for U.S. males.
For most of our lives, my generation didn’t think all that much about death. We were too busy getting married and divorced, having kids, working to buy food, houses, cars, clothes, and recreation. 57,000,000 people die on earth every year, but we didn’t much notice or care. We’ve been focused on getting a foothold in the American Dream.
Then our grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and some of our own generation started dying and the reality of death moved in much closer. We are next.
Our imminent death is pretty sobering, but it also offers clarity, humility, joy and practical advantage—if we acknowledge it fully.
Death moved in even closer last week
I realized over the last year that it was time to get off my bike—my beautiful and beloved Harley Davidson Road King Classic.
I didn’t want to die on the bike.
Mary and I had traveled 40,000 miles on our bikes to
Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Albuquerque, Ruidoso, Taos, Zion—wonderful trips without accident. But on recent trips, I had begun to realize that with age my balance and timing were a bit off coming down into mountain curves 75 miles per hour, curves without guardrails. I had some horrifying dreams featuring my flying off a missed curve and dropping a few thousand feet to my death, with all too much time to think about it on the way down.
So last month I sold the bike to an Idaho man, Richard, who flew down to my place in Arizona to pick it up and drive it the 900 miles home. In one of our many phone calls to arrange the purchase and the possibility that he might also buy some of my Harley gear once he arrived, Richard revealed that he hadn’t been on a bike for the last 30 years. That’s when I started worrying about him.
When I picked him up at the airport, I was glad to see that he seemed sturdy, even though he is around 60. He had longish gray-brown hair, a stubble of a beard, a strong nose in a weathered face. He didn’t talk much over lunch and I noticed that he had some front teeth missing. He reminded me of strong, modest, and hard-working men I had worked alongside of in factories, construction outfits, and farms. I liked him.
Then he said that somewhere in the LA airport where he had changed planes he had lost his temporary travel permit from the Idaho DOT. Suddenly I read the book of his life: he is not permitted to travel!
I found the plate I had already taken off the bike and had already cancelled with the Arizona DOT. I knew I shouldn’t be putting the plate back on the bike, but I didn’t want him to get stopped.
Then he tried on my helmet, leather jacket, boots, chaps, and other Harley gear. Everything fit and he bought it all.
In the garage we put his luggage on the bike and filled it up with his stuff. He put on the helmet and I helped him with the tricky strap that he couldn’t get tightened up. I touched his cheek as I showed him how to cinch up the strap. I was aware that this physical intimacy was part of how protective I felt toward him and an indication of my worry about his having an accident on the bike.
Three workers were staining our front porch that afternoon, witnesses to Richard’s departure. The boss of the crew, Octavio, had wanted to buy the bike, but when he got the money together, I had already sold it to Richard.
Now we all watched Richard leave. He had not tried the bike out. He got in the saddle for the first time. Ahead of him was a difficult, sharp turn from my garage onto our gravel lane. Ahead of him lay a very steep, block-long hill covered in loose gravel. He had already declined my offer to take the bike down the hill for him, but I offered again as he started the engine. “No,” he said quietly, “I’ll take it down.”
He made a shaky turn out of the garage onto the lane, needing to stop abruptly to regain his balance. Then off he went down the lane toward the hill.
I joined the workers on the porch to watch him go down the hill. Trees prevented us from seeing him on the hill, but then we saw him emerge at the bottom. We cheered and laughed as we watched him move slowly down the lane to the first curve where we lost him again behind trees.
“He’s down!” Octavio shouted. I couldn’t see Richard. “Oh, shit!” I hollered. Octavio and I jumped into my car and raced down the lane to where I expected to see the 900 pound bike lying in the sand. I had dumped that bike going too slow in sand more than once and was unable to stand it upright by myself.
But Richard was on the bike trying to restart it. “How did you get that bike up?” I asked him. He was embarrassed, no doubt feeling humiliated at his troubled start. The bike was flooded and wouldn’t start. I saw gravel on his jeans from ankle to knee, the leg under the bike when he went down. I used to tear my jeans and bloody my leg when I dumped the bike. Richard’s jeans weren’t torn. The front role bar had protected him from serious injury.
I asked if he was all right. He nodded.
The bike started and Richard moved off down the lane and out of sight as Octavio and I stood watching.
The rest of the afternoon I worried obsessively that Richard would die that day on the bike. I could easily imagine him making more mistakes, going down full speed on the Interstate, his body torn apart, typical of motorcycle accidents.
I waited three hours to give him ample time to get to Flagstaff, where he had said he would stop for the night. Sunset was approaching. He didn’t answer. He had answered his phone every time I had called him over the preceding weeks. He was a trucker, a person who always had his phone at the ready.
I felt dread in my body now, a dread that is unusual for me.
That evening I told a friend what had happened and about the dread I was feeling. I told him that I believe we are all connected, my familiar spiel about how physics proves that nothing is separate. I said that I am connected to Richard and that I felt certain that Richard was dead.
My friend’s wanted to assure me that, “It isn’t your fault. You didn’t cause his death.”
I said, “Hey, the tread on those tires is down to the last few thousand miles at best, and the back brakes probably should have been replaced. He never asked me about that stuff. And Richard is driving my bike, wearing my boots, wearing my jacket, wearing my helmet. It’s my license plate on the bike. That’s me!”
My friend repeated, “It’s not your fault. It’s Richard’s fate.”
I called several more times. No answer. I thought about calling his wife, but didn’t want to worry her if she hadn’t heard from him.
I made one last call at 10:30 p.m. before I went to bed. No answer.
My first thoughts upon waking the next day were about Richard.
I called. No answer.
Now I knew that something catastrophic had happened. Maybe he was in the hospital, horribly shattered. More likely he was dead.
Death was close now, very close to me. I felt as if something in me had died, something I would never be able to recover from.
At mid-morning, I had a text from Richard! “Got to a town in Utah last night. Bike is running like a dream.”
A surge of joy rose in me as if I had been reborn.
I’m closer to death
Now, having died a little in my relationship with Richard, I’m more humble and more alert than before.
I’m listening even more closely to my advisor. I cannot complain—about anything—ever. My cup is filled to the brim—all of the time.
The world remains quite mad, but I have no time for judgment.
I ask my advisor, “Do I have any time for crap?”
“You have no time.”
“Hey, I’ve known that—I know it.”
By the way, Richard made it home: he lives! I live!