Helmet-head

I’ve been pondering the accident that took my friend Doug Bashaw’s life. The general concensus is that he should have been wearing a helmet while riding his motorcycle. I agree in principal — it’s just a good idea… for the most part…

Recently, my mother gifted us with a copy of my dad’s medical history. Apparently, he had no business being alive after age 50 when he had his first heart attack. It was massive — an aortic aneurysm that blew a huge hole in the main blood supply to his body. He should have died. Strangely, the hole spontaneously healed itself. The nuns in the Catholic hospital (Dad was a Protestant preacher) were mystified. They checked his palms for holes. Just kidding.

For eighteen years afterwards, that clunker of a heart managed to keep on ticking, sometimes more efficiently than other times. We had moved to New Hampshire to get away from the Long Island rat race and Dad traded the rats in for livestock.

He wasn’t supposed to do a lot of work. Who knew that living on a farm would be so much harder than living in the suburbs? But he couldn’t be contained so we let him do whatever he felt up to. Apparently, he felt up to buying a motorcycle — a Honda 750, a big black thing that was neither cool nor glamorous; just utilitarian.

Dad was hardly the motorcycle type. He was a minister — staid, responsible, looked up to by the community — all the attributes that are usually not associated with motorcycles. He was also an old man with a bad heart, a safe life, and a penchant for just a bit of rebelliousness. He LOVED that motorcycle!

His cardiologist would say to him, “Ray, you’ve got to stop riding your motorcycle. It’s too stressful,” to which Dad would reply, “Yes sir”, and then hop back on that bike and zoom up into the hills.

Countless times he would arrive home with his palms scraped, his back gimped up from having dumped the bike on a dirt road somewhere. Thank goodness the doctor couldn’t see him then, picking up the 400 pound bike and finishing his ride. Thank goodness we couldn’t see him either.

He went back to preaching itinerantly and the church folks used to joke that they were going to get a big cross and have it mounted on his helmet. A trip to Italy with my mom produced a pair of leather pants he didn’t remember buying. All he did recall about that day was the two bottles of wine they drank at a restaurant sometime before the pants were allegedly purchased.

My dad followed all the rules that made sense to him, but there was a fiendishness that lay behind his formal attitude. Though he did not break rules as they applied to society, he took plenty of liberties with those that pertained only to him and made him feel reckless.  He ate ice cream late at night, dug post holes when the cows got out, named our black cats “Satan” and “Lucifer”, and rode his motorcycle against medical advice.

My friend Doug wasn’t wearing a helmet when he died. It could well be that he might have survived if he’d had one on, or maybe he would have died the way my dad did, his systems failing at age 68 after eighteen years of living on half a heart. Dad had lived his life as best he could, but I think in those final moments he might have hoped to have gone out like Doug did — wind in his face, the cool air tingling his bare head, on a mission to fulfill a vision… Sure, a helmet might have kept Doug from dying, but it also might have ensured that he went out the way my dad did — confined to a hospital bed, wishing he could have taken one final ride….

We are obliged to those who love us to behave in ways that are commonly known to keep us safe. But we also have an obligation to the part of ourselves that keeps us truly “alive” — our inner rebel, the fiendish place in us that revs the engine, looks in the face of danger and says “Let’s play CHICKEN!”

If we could keep those we love alive forever, we might. But we can’t. The most we can hope is that they live the greatest lives they can, on their own terms, rebelliousness and all. I hope you’ll all wear helmets, but if you decide not to, please be careful…. We’d like to have you around a while longer.

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  1. Cheryl
    August 14, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Ellen, your words and the ability you have to put them together so beautifully never fail to astound me. Your insight into life and how its every day seemingly ordinary occurances are really so much more makes me look forward to your blog and your e-mails. You are a silly, insightful, intelligent person. (And you always have been!) The Reverend Fenner is so proud of you.

  2. August 14, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    Hey C, he’s proud of you, too… He expected all of us to be givers in our lives, and through you, Doug, and so many others, I am seeing that he didn’t set his expectations high enough because they’re being exceeded by all of you every day. Thanks for giving back so much to your community and using your life to keep our threads connected. I think that’s really cool…

  3. CherylZ
    August 14, 2008 at 7:18 pm

    Oh, my sister (as you once wrote to me), your gifts astound me. Funny to think about Dad being such a bad boy, but he really was. Isn’t it great that he pooh-poohed his ultimate fate the way he did? Although I wouldn’t say every single day was lived to the fullest, most of them were and I think he had a good time. I’m sorry about Doug.

  4. October 19, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    I still miss your dad. I always enjoyed his company and sage advice. I loved going to parties at your house, but we always wanted your dad around to come up with ideas for a game of charades or just to tell stories. I remember getting married there (the first marriage) and how he so warmly opened his home to me and 100 of my closest family and friends. I wish I could visit him now and get one of his enormous hugs and have a talk. When I had a conversation with him, I knew he was really listening. It sure looked to me like he enjoyed that gift of 18 years that he received. It really was a gift to all of us.

  5. efenz
    October 19, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    Can any of us ask for anything more than to be remembered that way? Thanks for the story–I’m so glad you got to have that experience. I carry him with me every day (he sure gets heavy after a while!) and am ever grateful to have had him for a father. Believe me, I know just how lucky I was…

  6. August 6, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    This makes me feel better about what happened to Doug… thank you!

  7. August 6, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Beautifully, powerfully, written … your Dad, an amazing man … his daughter? Just as amazing …!

  8. Mickey Grooters
    August 6, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    This happened a while ago, but I just found it. Thank you. Your reflections on your dad were wonderful. When my husband Larry, first realized he was having trouble with his heart – pains down arm, etc. – he went out and jogged 3 miles – thinking – now! Or never. His heart is in reasonably good shape after meds and occasional zaps with the paddles, but I know that line — that – I am invincible, and if not- I will face life on my terms.

    The only way I finally got Lar to go to the doc – was to threaten to put him on the prayer chain at church. Make out of that, what you may.
    Loved the blog. I am sorry about your friend Doug.
    Mick

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