I was watching the Daytona 500 this afternoon, February 18, 2001, and I witnessed something that will stay in my mind for years to come, the death of a racing legend and the height of another’s triumph. Today was a reminder of the tenuous balance between life and death, between victory and defeat.
A legend, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died today doing what he loved best, racing. After Turn 4 on the final lap of the race, Earnhardt, dubbed the Intimidator, clipped the front of Sterling Marlin’s car and careened into the wall, hitting it head first at 180 mph while being simultaneously t-boned by Ken Schrader. According to the medical experts covering the event, death came instantly and, hopefully, painlessly for Earnhardt.
I’m reminded of a quote in the movie, Unforgiven, about death. More specifically, the quote spoke about what happens when one kills another, but it is still appropriate when death comes suddenly in an accident. In a brief instant, all that he had and all that he’ll ever have were taken away from him. I think back to Nicole Reinhart, the young cyclist who died during a race in Boston, MA, last year. Her death hit close to home, since I knew her peripherally through my friend, Nicole Freedman.
Nicole was at the height of her life, a budding star on the cycling circuit. She had her whole life and career ahead of her when she left us. Dale Earnhardt, on other hand, was a racing legend whose career would have been complete if he retired yesterday. They did shared something in common, they died while following their passion in life, racing.
I don’t know why their deaths affect me so profoundly. People die every day, but this, for me, is different. Maybe it’s because Dale and Nicole are situated deep in my consciousness and in the consciousness of the public, unlike the nameless and faceless thousands who die every day. No doubt some of those people have accomplished great things in their life, and no doubt that their families and friends are mourning their loss. Yet, I have, as perhaps we all do, a sense of detachment when we read the obituaries of those we never knew or that we’ll never know. Maybe this is our security mechanism for staying sane in a world where life and death are intertwined, two sides of coin that is perpetually being flipped each day for us. Eventually, the coin will reverse positions. Most of us won’t know when that time will come until, perhaps, it’s too late. I wonder what thoughts had cross Nicole and Dale’s mind as they saw the tree or wall rushing towards them at terrific speed. Did they accept their fate or hope that the best is yet to come and that they would walk away?
Whenever I get on a plane, I attempt to make peace with myself. I’ve always been nervous while on an airplane. I know that air travel is much safer, statistically speaking, than the daily commute, but I also know that if you happen to be in a serious airplane accident, chances are very high that you’re not going to walk away from it. And so it comes that I make peace with that from that which I came. Call it what you will — God or some cosmic force — I don’t know, but I do know that I try to convince myself that if I were to die on this flight, I would accept it. Still, if such an event were happening, I’m sure a part of me will be sad that I wasn’t able to fully experience life, sad to not be able to live life to its fullest and see the ending years later, as an old man with no regrets.
I think back to my first major injury in my life, a comparatively trivial dislocated elbow. In a brief instant, less than a second, my right arm went from being a powerful tool controlled by my mind into a twisted and torn piece of human bone and sinew that I no longer controlled. And yet, I remember lying on the ground and laughing and smiling at the whole event. I knew I was okay and wasn’t going to die; sure, I was concerned about the state of my arm and hoping that I wouldn’t have to get it amputated, but I knew instinctively that this was a bump in the road and that I would heal eventually. Still, it’s amazing and incredible to think that in one second, I could go from being healthy to being reliant on others and technology to support my arm.
My arm swelled up enormously, with window edema making it look worse than it actually was. In fact, my right arm has been fairly useless at doing mundane tasks for nearly two weeks. I type this musing right now, at 23:29 on February 18, 2001, and I can feel the muscles, ligaments, and tendons in my right arm, near the joint at which the humerus meets the radius and ulna bones, stressing to work. I can feel the tightness that needs to be loosened and rendered flexible by physical therapy. I still can’t button the top of a collared shirt, can’t fully bend or extend my arm, and can’t lift anything heavier than 5 pounds without pain. The injury made me, in a strange way, feel alive; it gave me a harsh reminder that my life could be gone in a flash, in a second. Today, seeing Dale Earnhardt’s flame of life extinguished brings the reality of life and death back to me.
Right now, I’m thinking back to last week, when I visited Dan and Woo-Young Kim’s house in Palo Alto to see their newborn, Tayne Kim. Tayne has just entered the world, a new world to him. His life is wide open, a large tapestry upon which he will paint his life, career, family and accomplishments.
Babies are born everyday in this world, from the Bay Area to the Paris to China. All across, life is being poured into the world as quickly or more so than it is being snuffed out. As we celebrate life, we mourn death. Michael Waltrip, the winner of the Daytona 500, reached two extremes in the matter of minutes today. He went from someone who knew only loss and defeat, as he was 0-462 in Winston Cup races, to being at the top of his sport, 1-462. Yet, when news of Earnhardt’s death reached him, the only win in his racing career must have felt so hollow, so insignificant when compared to the defeat leveled on his mentor and friend. He, however, has his life, as we do right now today. He’ll move on, as we will move on with our lives. The pain burns deep and hot today, but it will temper and soften over time. It has to, or we will be driven to an end worse than death, a living death in which we lose that which we can’t afford to lose: our passion and zest for life.
Today, I mourn the death of a racing legend while, at the same time, I celebrate his life. Life and death are tightly coupled, like the double helix of life itself. All of us are travelling along the strand of life. One day, however, we’ll take the journey to the other side, to death. I don’t know what to expect when that happens to me. Philosophers have struggled to understand death for millennia. I only know that it will happen someday; until that day, however, I intend to live my life as I believe how it should be lived, as I’m sure how Dale and Nicole lived it, full of passion and vigor. Without regret and without remorse. Tomorrow begins today. Make the best of it.