In college, I had a history professor who told us the research paper she was assigning us would be complete when we were no longer able to answer the question, “Why?” For some, this meant writing a typical five-page paper and being happy with the C. For those of us who were History majors, myself being one, it meant digging deep into our topic and writing well over three times that amount.
Last week, Antoine Demoitie died. He was just 25years of age. Worse, he died doing what he loved doing, riding his bike for a professional cycling team. He was also Belgian and was killed while racing in his nation’s most prestigious race, the Ghent-Wevelgen.
To make matters worse, his death came just days after his nation was on the receiving end of a horrific terror attack. To put this into an American perspective, it’s like a 25-year old professional football player being killed in a football game just days after a horrifying terrorist attack. Cycling is a huge sport to the Belgians.
Demoitie’’s death came after he was involved in a typical high speed crash involving three other racers. Too much speed into a turn forced the riders to lay down their bikes and accept they were about to have to live with some serious road rash as a result of a lapse in concentration. However, while picking himself up off the tarmac, Demoitie was slammed into from behind by a race official on a motorcycle. Death came shortly there after.
I read dozens of stories like this each year, cyclists involved in horrific accidents and am immediately reminded of a Saturday in June of 2007 when I was involved in my own horrific accident while on a bike ride by myself. Mine also involved a high-speed crash on a descent in which I was hurled forward like a missile head on into a trunk of a large juniper. I am still not sure if my head hit the base of the trunk or the large block of concrete that someone set next to it. Whatever it was, I managed to obliterate the bush and my body at the same time.
I do not remember the impact with it, but I do remember being tossed about like a rag doll and hitting the pavement with enough force that I bounced. I also remember doing a body check while flat on my back. I could not see, but I could feel my extremities and move them so I knew I was not paralyzed. I rubbed my face and removed debris and managed to regain some foggy vision out of my left eye, but still nothing from my right. I reached up to check and see if my right eye was still in its socket. It was.
It was time to pick myself up and assess the damage to my bike and skin. At least that is what I tried, but found the pain in my back too excruciating to do so. I tried to roll onto my side and was met with more pain. My breathing became labored and I found I was unable to take in enough air to push out the word, “Help.”
My chest now felt as if I was being slowly crushed as blood pooled behind my right lung, collapsing it.
I could hear a car approaching and I reached for a broken limb from the juniper. I waved it in the air as the car approached me. I was about to be saved. The car slowed and I waited to hear its door open. Instead, it drove on.
My body was shutting down, one system at a time, and all I could think of was, “Why?” Why was this happening to me? Why was my wife about to become a widow and my children fatherless? I was trying to make peace with what was going on and realized there was nothing I could do but try to remain calm as the pain increased while my breathing shut down.
Fortuantely, I was saved by a dog of all things. He heard the early morning crash and woke his masters up with his constant barking, something I was unable to hear.
When they walked out to the street and found me, I was a mess. My helmet was split in half, it’s strap cut my throat from ear to ear, and my body was mangled. I tore my rib cage from the sternum so much that my right nipple was now located under my arm pit. They called 911 as I passed out and paramedics arrived shortly after.
Thankfully, I survived. But why? I was told I should have been killed by the impact alone and that at the very least I should be paralyzed from the force my neck was snapped. I was more than lucky. Why?
When I got home after five days in the hospital, I eventually found my way to my computer and checked my email. There was an email from a former colleague titled Grant Wallenda. Grant was a former student of mine who played football for me for two years in middle school. He was a super kid. He not only had a ton of talent, he was just a great person who took time after every practice to work with my young son and teach him to throw and catch a ball. My son often talked about him and how he liked to play with him at practice.
Grant was playing football at a junior college and enjoyed a terrific first year. He was set to star as a sophomore and likely to land a scholarship.
When I opened the email and read it, I was crushed again. Grant had been killed in a motocross bike accident. He was not as lucky as I was when he struck a tree despite wearing a helmet. Why? Why him and not me?
I spent five years in physical therapy trying to put myself back together again. I still ride a bike but am living with physical discomforts from the accident. I use a keyboard now instead of pen and paper because my small motor skills in my right hand are just not up to it. My grip is nothing like it used to be and there are days, sometimes weeks, where I ache in ways I can not describe.
Trigger point injections along my spine eventually have eased some of the debilitating pain and have replaced it with minor pain that flairs up as the day wears on. Anti seizure meds have pretty much knocked out the headaches that made my life a living hell for years.
Still, none of this has erased the question, why did I live and why did Grant die? It has nothing to do with God choosing me for something better because I do not believe in a God that has nothing better to do than save one person while another dies and his family is left devastated. I was not religious before the accident and I am not now that nine years have passed.
Every day, I am reminded of my accident even though I do not seek it out. I just have to get out of bed and feel the numbness in my arm or the pain in my shoulder. I see it when I look in the mirror and can still see the slight way the right side of my upper torso is not quite aligned with my unaffected left side. But once I am dressed and living my day, I forget about it, even when I ride a bike, unless I go past the site of my crash.
But then a story like Antoine Demoitie comes along and I live the horror all over again. Why are some of us lucky, if you can call it that, to survive a horrific ordeal and others are not? It can be a bike crash, tour of duty, terror attack, cancer, or an allergic reaction; why do some of us make it while others don’t?
I think of Professer Barnhard and tell myself I am finished because I can no longer answer the question, “Why?” However, this just does not cut it for me. Two years of therapy with a psychologist taught me there are just some things we will never have the answers to so it is up to us to do all we can to move forward rather than look backward.
I have decided to move forward. However, sometimes that is easier said than done because there are times, no matter how much I try, I am reminded of what I am so lucky to have survived.
If you believe as I do that our planet is nothing more than the end result of some cosmic accident that allows it to thrive in ways others don’t, then all life, including my own, is the end result of on going cosmic accidents. When certain energy forces collide, we end up with accidents. In most cases, they are nothing we even stop to think about.
But every now and then, we are forced to think about our situation and wonder why. Usually, we can find an answer that satisfies us. As for me, I have finally accepted sometimes some of us are the end result of what we call good luck.
There are things I know I did that contributed to my bike accident nine years ago. I can correct them. However, there are some things, questions mostly, that I will never know or understand, just like I will never know or understand quantum physics or American politics. I can choose to punish myself and keeping asking, “Why,” or I can choose to just be amazed that there are just some mysteries in this universe we will live our lives never understanding.
Jim is a life long resident of California and retired school teacher with 30 years in public education. Jim earned his BA in History from CSU Chico in 1981 and his MA in Education from Azusa Pacific University in 1994. He is also the author of Teaching The Teacher: Lessons Learned From Teaching. Jim considers himself an equal opportunity pain in the ass to any political party, group, or individual who looks to profit off of hypocrisy. When he is not pointing out the conflicting words and actions of our leaders, the NFL commissioner, or humans in general, he can be found riding his bike for hours on end while pondering his next article. Jim recently moved to Camarillo, CA after being convinced to join the witness protection program.