The Decision to Fly
This summer, my best friend watched a man, a complete stranger, die. The guy was sprawled out on the street for a long time before the paramedics got there. The pavement had actually turned red, Brian said.
Brian is a very fast cyclist, nearly world-class. He returned a few weeks ago from the Collegiate Triathlon World Championships. Though he finished middle of the pack, he still owns more official clothes with Team USA printed on them than I ever will.
It was in preparation for this race that he went on the House of Pain. The House of Pain is a weekly ride which, in the circles that care about these type of things, inspires admiration and fear. The House of Pain, on Saturday mornings, like the Port Ride, on Wednesday nights, is a meeting of the fastest of the fast, a hammering through mostly empty streets without mercy. The weak and women are not welcome. They will be dropped, left behind, along with the vast majority of men who show up thinking that this time they can hack it.
Brian and this guy were going at it that Saturday morning. Pounding it out in the front of the group. They were taking turns pulling, switching the lead back and forth. They went flying along the waterfront, through the streets of Emeryville and Oakland, punishing the guys behind them, who were dropping off the back. Jeff, who came with Brian, had already fallen by the side and still they went on.
Brian, with his long, skinny, six foot four frame, was flying up the hills. There is nothing to weigh him down.
As they crested the last hill into a long straight descent, the other guy pulled ahead to take his turn at the lead. They tucked in. Head down, knees in. One in front and the other behind. I don’t know how fast they were going, but even I have flown thirty, maybe thirty-five miles an hour down hills like that.
The descent was straight and open, no turns, until it dead-ended into another street. A T-intersection at the bottom, with no stop signs. They could see in both directions as they came hurtling down. There were no cars on these out of the way streets on a Saturday morning, only bikes.
Except at the corner a big bush and tree obscured their view. As they turned left, cutting into the inner lane to make it sharper, faster, the other guy in front and Brian right behind, a car, hidden by the bush, drove into the intersection.
The car could no more see them than they could see it. It didn’t slow until it was too late. The car hit the other guy and then Brian hit the car.
Last year, I got into a bad bike accident, too.
Dizzy and out of breath from swimming in Lake DelValle, I ran my bike directly into a curb. I saw the curb and I saw my bike and I saw where this was going. But all I could do was brace myself. I flipped over my handlebars, landing on my head and skidding along my left-side.
“I’m fine. I’m fine,” I said, because that’s what you say. Already people around me were screaming. “I’m fine.” And then I blacked out.
Only you never know you’re blacking out until you’re waking up from some strange dream. And the voices start to insert themselves into your sleep, because all you think you’re doing is sleeping. And the ground starts to feel a little hard and someone’s hand is behind your shoulder and, in your dream, your head starts to feel a little dizzy and then you’re opening your eyes and wondering why you’re not in bed. Why are you laying in the middle of street. Why is Lizzie telling you it’ll be ok. Why are you crying.
There was a seizure involved and a painful ambulance ride, tied down to a board. There were long explanations at the Emergency Room, where they didn’t allow anyone to come with me, but they asked questions like, “Why were you biking? What do you mean camping? I don’t understand. Can you write down your insurance information? Can you explain what happened again? And again? And again? On a scale of 1-10 how bad is the pain? I don’t understand, why are you upset?”
I didn’t have to finish the race that day. And I could reasonably excuse myself from biking and swimming for a while. But Dr. Littlejohn, when I visited him later that week, gave me the a-ok, the go-ahead. I had nothing too wrong with me. I was fine.
But I wanted to explain to him how I had stood in Long Drugs for thirty minutes, staring at the bandages, unable to understand which I needed. I wanted to explain that I could see the ground rushing up towards me over and over, like when you lie in bed after a long day at the amusement park and can feel your stomach continuously drop on the roller-coaster.
I was not fine.
Two weeks later, I got back on my bike. I had bought a new jersey for the occasion. I refused to ride without other people to catch me when I fell. I was shaking inside, sometimes the shaking made its way out to my arms and hands, as I gripped my handlebars. There were moments when I couldn’t see the street or the people around me, just myself crashing, convinced that any second, every second, I would go flying horrifically.
For months, there were times, while riding, I’d start to cry a little from sheer fear. I was not afraid before.
That Saturday in July, Brian got up from the accident with a few bruises and one nasty scrape. The paramedics examined and questioned him at length, certain he must have internal bleeding that they couldn’t see. But even they let him leave the accident.
He got back on his bike, which, though it eventually needed to be replaced, was still rideable. And he rode home.
Brian didn’t know the other guy, his name, where he was from. They had met that day, they were strangers. They knew only that together they could fly.
He spent days tracking down the “unidentified victim”. He knew that Jeff knew a guy on the same team who had friends who knew the one lying in the street. He made calls, left messages. Because, you see, the guy didn’t die there in the street.
He wasn’t pronounced Dead On Arrival. But, as the newspapers and computers, that we stared at, told us, “the unidentified biker was in critical condition” in some hospital, somewhere, after losing what turned out to be 5L of blood. Blood we washed off Brian’s bike.
I don’t know what the conversation was like when Brian finally called the mother. They were looking for him too. They wanted to know that he was ok. They wanted to know what had happened. They wanted to know their son’s story before it ended. There was no one else to tell it.
Their son was a semi-professional cyclist. They must have imagined this scene. They must have dreamed of horrible accidents. They must have tried to prepare themselves.
I have called my mother too many times from hospitals, after severe altitude sickness and horrible accidents where my teeth were knocked out. I have had asthma attacks in the middle of the lake and started to sink as things went black. I give my family, my friends and my boyfriend nightmares.
I have nightmares. Steve, my boyfriend, wants to become a professional hill-climber, a designation of cyclist, and though he is not prone to accidents I have envisioned the car, the gravel, the other biker that will be his undoing. I have tried to imagine the phone call I will receive and who will make it, tried to put myself in that hospital room, tried to understand what the days after would be like.
I can almost feel the tears in the back of my throat, but then he is always still here.
Two weeks before I left for college, my sister, Maggie, was hit by a car as she biked home from a friend’s. If there is blame to be laid it is all on her.
They spent all day biking to the lake and wandering around the Ba’hai temple and eating, lots of eating. She was actually excited to show Ryan the temple and the hot dog stand near it. She was wearing her new blue tanktop Mom had bought her and refused to let the helmet ruin her perfect Barbie hair.
Ryan lived only two miles from our house. Maggie was coming home from his pool, biking along the sidewalk, with her helmet on her handlebars. She was biking next to the busy street and so never looked up at the smaller roads she was crossing. I don’t know if she didn’t see the red-light or if she disregarded it like we all do. The pickup truck certainly didn’t see her. But isn’t that a prerequisite for an accident?
There are still skid marks on the road where he hit the brakes so fast and so hard. By the time the truck actually hit my sister, he was going slow enough that instead of killing her, it merely knocked her directly over.
I was out of town that day and for once got the phone call from the hospital instead of making it.
Maggie was fine. She had a skull fracture and fluid in her brain. She was most upset that they had to cut off her brand new tanktop. I’ve always wondered if they did it right there outside the ambulance, with her laying topless and bleeding in the road.
She spent three days at the hospital. She beat my record by some 48 hours and considered herself the winner. We didn’t tell her that she was supposed go home after twenty-four hours, but just kept not getting better. The doctors said she was fine. They said there was nothing to do except wait. But she wasn’t fine.
They finally cleared her to lie on the couch instead of the hospital bed once she was able to keep food down. We spent the last two weeks before I flew across the country to school, lying on the couch. Just lying. She couldn’t watch TV, since she still couldn’t see straight. It made her dizzy.
Maggie is an amazing left forward. She can curve a soccer ball into the goal from nearly any angle. That fall she was all set to try-out for the Olympic Development Program. Despite every doctor’s assurances, though, her reactions on the field were just a second too slow. Balls that used to stop at her feet, now bounced off misplaced ankles. Defenders that she use to dribble circles around, now left her mixed up and confused.
It was a frustrating year for my sister. Sports and school weren’t as easy as they’d always been and she learned to hate them. She was, of course, fourteen and fourteen year-olds learns to hate everything.
The bike, that we’d bought at a yard sale for $10, was never mentioned. This past winter, I went into the garage, needing something to ride, and found it. The bike was exactly where we had left it, after retrieving it from the police station, three years ago. The tires were flat against the ground and spiders had made homes in the empty space between the bars.
As far as I know it still sits there. I don’t ask and my sister chooses not to tell me.
Brian agreed to go to the hospital to see the other guy. He went by himself into a room overflowing with balloons and well-wishes and people who knew this guy’s life, but hadn’t been there for the end of it. I suppose he told his story, but I don’t know how. He just said that the mother wanted to talk to him.
Her son lay there on the bed, in one of those comas that have become a cliché of our modern medicine. Alive, but not alive. Breathing, but not thinking. Always asleep, etc. They were waiting. For something. The doctors kept saying he might come out if it, but everyday that passes they know from their books, from studies, from statistics and facts, that he is less alive today than yesterday. Tomorrow he will be even farther from life.
I worried about Brian’s mental well-being. I discussed it with our friends. “This shit is heavy,” they agreed.
Everyday he kept me updated on the word. We monitored this guy’s condition. I knew every gritty detail. I never learned his name.
Brian kept going to work, kept training. He had hurt his shoulder, crashing into the car, and couldn’t lift it above his head. But that went away too. He was disturbingly normal.
About a week and a half after the accident, I stopped by his work, on my way home, to talk.
“They decided to pull the plug today.”
And I couldn’t help but wonder if there really was a plug.
We decided it would be best if he didn’t go to the funeral, though the family invited him. We didn’t specify who it would be best for.
But it was a decision that had to be made.
The decision to get up. The decision to be ok. The decision to know, to go to that over-night room in the terminal ward. The decision to choose an end, to choose a moment for the death certificate. Because death has become a decision. Or the decision not to die today. We are not allowed the luxury of letting fate choose for us anymore.
We are insured that if we choose not to fly again, it’s not because we can’t.
Brian and I are biking home from breakfast. We are on our crappy bikes. His has a milk crate tied to it; mine creaks and jerks and the seat pops up every bump I hit. We are weaving between cars and dodging opened passenger doors, as we stop at the bakery and the post office. Finally, we turn down a side street. It is blocked to cars, a dead-end and empty. It is a gentle downhill and I can see for miles.
“Come on,” he says. “I’ll race you.” He stands up on his bike and it wobbles back and forth as he pedals hard. I shift into a faster gear and fly, but he is far ahead.
I let go of one of my handlebars to grab my purse as it falls, and I lose control for a second. I readjust my one hand and sit a little taller and straighter. I get my balance and slowly let go. I throw out my arms and laugh. Now, I can catch him.