DEATH AND LIFE


A few nights ago, or in the morning, whatever one calls 2 a.m., a young man and woman, both in their 20s, died when their car struck a tree, right down the road from where we live, where the speed limit is 40, and the road curves, but easily taken at 40.  Today, there is a memorial on the sidewalk, tree, and a few people are present.  The news reported, “speed has not been ruled out as a factor.”

Like so many accidents, the final results of the investigation are either never published or are so hidden in the newspaper that one often never learns the cause.  When I walked back home from a hands on children’s museum last Sunday, after showing sunspots to kids and adults, I was in sight of the tree that would be struck. The two victims were then alive and vibrant, full of life, full of promise, four decades of life ahead before they reached my age.  Now they are corpses, a dreadful word, but the truth.

For the truth is dreadful.  They are dead.

Not only are they dead, there is a high likelihood they didn’t have to die.  Driving the speed limit in a modern car, wearing seat belts and with air bags, one is likely to leave the road only by being distracted or intoxicated, both of which may well have been factors.  The kinetic energy at 40 mph is 45% that at 60 mph, for kinetic energy of a moving object increases with the square of the velocity, and the extra 55% may be enough to convert an accident with injuries into one with fatalities. Being belted in and having airbags doesn’t prevent death from a crash, but it greatly decreases the probability.

Too many don’t understand this concept.  To them, one counterexample invalidates a whole theory.  “She did everything right and died from xxx, so it didn’t matter.”  That might have been said about the woman, 60, who died from ovarian cancer, or a 52 year-old colleague who died from an astrocytoma, a colleague’s wife who died at 49 from a ruptured aneurysm, or the obituary today of a 35 year-old, killed by a drunk driver.  “Everything right” that we know of often doesn’t work.  Sometimes, it is as simple and as awful as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like being a 9 year-old girl at a Tucson Safeway on 8 January 2011.

Other times, it is just bad luck.  I never knew Mark Edelson, photo editor of the Palm Beach Times, named Newspaper Picture Editor of the Year nine times.  He recently died of lymphoma, only 64.  Reading that, I realized how lucky I am, how little I have to complain about, and how much more I must do with my life.

Doing everything right can greatly decrease death from lung, skin, cervical, colon, breast, hematopoietic, and other cancers, allowing people with these and other conditions to live far longer than they used to.  Acute lymphoblastic leukemia was a death sentence 40 years ago;  it is curable in 85% today.

Last week’s Stammtisch, a gathering of German speakers (or wannabes like me) was the only group in the pizza parlor.  For once, it was quiet, so I could understand people, which with my hearing is difficult enough in English, let alone in German.  I listened to a young man in his twenties, from the Portland area, living here, speaking German fluently.  He had studied it three years in high school, more it in college, and spent a year in country.  That’s how to learn a language.  Start young, study hard, and live in country for a year.

Peter, several years my senior, from Alsace, fluent in English, French, and German, sat next to me.  Peter served in the military in Europe, helping MPs get American soldiers out of trouble.  Speaking three key languages fluently allowed Peter to serve his country well.  He corrects my German gently.  Peter nudged me, nodded towards the young man, and said in German, “He has his whole life before him.”  I agreed.

“But I wouldn’t trade with him,” Peter quickly added.  I also agreed.  Yes, to be young, multilingual, good looking, healthy, with your adult life and the world before you, is great.

Unless you drive too fast at night, leave the road and hit a tree.  Or have really bad luck.

If possible, I would do over much in my life.  But I can’t change the past, only apologize, make amends, and then move forward, dealing with current circumstances.  I grew up in a wonderful time, being white, male, straight and middle class.  I had good parents, who taught me to be curious, to read, to love animals, and to treat the outdoors as a place to enjoy and to take care of.  We got dirty, bored, made up our own games, and enforced our rules.

I had pressure in school, but I never slept fewer than six or seven hours at night.  I read recently that some are taking a new stimulant allowing them to work longer in order to advance.  “Sleep is an option,” said one.  Wow.  I had summer jobs, and huge student loans were unknown.  I was a partner in a medical practice;  I now know highly qualified physicians who are looking for work, not even partner track, just work.  I never had that problem.

There were good times for the right people, but hardly idyllic.  “Negroes” were discriminated against, lynched, and we equated homosexuality with pedophilia.  Interracial marriages were illegal, and gay meant happy.  Smoking was considered cool, plane crashes were common, kids died from polio or measles, rape was considered a woman’s fault, wages for men were higher, “because he had a family,” doctors were God, and we dealt with cans in the wilderness by throwing them on the ground or sinking them in the lake.  The “good old days” were hardly that.  By the way, rape is still considered a woman’s fault in many places, gender wage equality isn’t, and racism is still prevalent.

I would not want to be in my 20s in this competitive world.  I am content with my age, hopefully wiser.  It is my world, too, one where I want to give back: volunteering tutoring math, learning a language or two, showing kids the night sky, leading hikes deep into the wilderness, seeing special places, volunteering at the crane migration every year, and living in my mid-60s.  No, the 60s are not problem-free.  Not at all.  Then again, in the obituaries virtually every day, I read about those who didn’t get to their 60s, 50s, 40s, or 30s.

Mark Edelson didn’t get to Medicare age.  What a loss.  When good people die, the rest of us have to make up for their loss.

Time for me to get back to work, and be glad I am alive to do so.

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