Sunday, June 22, 2014

Important and Unread.

Running renders more universal the consciousness of very different people—traversing without prejudice occupations and political inclinations, age and gender. That's the most enjoyable social aspect of what is primarily an individual sport: running requires but one player, and yet it unites countless souls in the shared cadence of footsteps and breath, the rhythm of minutes, seconds and hours.  

Lately my running companions have included a postal worker, a librarian, a yoga teacher, a humanitarian aid researcher (who also happens to be my partner), a few college professors, a banker, a press agent, a physiatrist and two surgeons. One of the surgeons is the same age as me, transplanting kidneys and other vital organs for a living. When I am with him I think about how distinctly different our perceptions of the world must be. He has not only seen the inside of a living body—heart quivering, innards churning away—he has come to know intimately that secret world, slicing, sponging, suturing. I have not. If ever I have the occasion to cut into a human body, I am sure I will be a changed man. An invisible infrastructure of intertwined channels of swishing blood and densely packed organs and bones is animated beneath the skin, while we go about our business: sleeping, washing dishes, reading a book. This realm of knowledge and experience joins three others which seem inexhaustibly vast to me: the study of physics, the conundrum of educating of our children and the complex structures of philosophical thought.

*   *   *

I first saw a dead man on Memorial Day. It was a profound experience. I had spent the weekend in Boston with my partner and our three dogs, and was driving home to Rhode Island in the late afternoon on route 93. The dogs were in the back seat, piled on top of one another and sleeping off the weekend play. The traffic wasn't particularly heavy, but—typical of New England highways—there were plenty of us on the road, hundreds of people lamenting the return to work the next day, after a day of cookouts and badminton, woven lawn chairs and mosquitoes.

Cars were all around me, driving 60-80 miles an hour, when a motorcycle came racing up from behind on my left. He hot-dogged it a little, but not too much—weaving in and out poetically, enjoying the lyrical movement of the bike. The motorcycle was bright red, and the man driving it was well-covered in dark, thick clothing, because May can be cold up here. I said aloud, as I always do, "that guy's going to kill himself."  He disappeared quickly beyond the cars in front of me. 

Two minutes later traffic slowed abruptly, with everyone braking to a crawl. That's when I saw him. He was on his stomach in the middle of the highway, one arm stretched over head, and the other wrapped beneath, crossing his chest. The red bike peppered the asphalt in dozens of pieces. There was no blood. Several cars had pulled over only seconds earlier, and dozens of people were running toward the oncoming traffic. One man was in sandals and tee-shirt, suntanned and chubby. He was running as fast as he could, trying to steer clear of cars. His barrel chest jiggled beneath his horrified face. I had arrived only seconds after the crash, and the poor man was clearly dead, a whole life and world unknown to me had come to an end. I could only continue moving, because to stop would have caused even more pandemonium with three dogs in the back of the car. There were already many, many people on the scene, trying to know what to do. Several were on their phones with panicked expressions on their faces. A woman was crying.

The dead man's helmet was on, completely obscuring his identity. Mercifully spared a glimpse of his face, I nevertheless thought repeatedly about this awful moment over the next several hours, and into the next day. I began to scour the internet, googling succinct phrases: "motorcycle accident, dead, 93, memorial day, crash." Almost immediately I found a very brief report, which described little more than the superficial facts: a man had lost control of his motorcycle on Memorial Day on route 93 near Canton at around 3:30 in the afternoon. He was pronounced dead at Boston Medical Center. It was a red Yamaha. He was 33. I checked every day for a week, and learned no more. The police were withholding his name.

I sent an email to myself with links to the scant information I found. I labeled it "important" and left it "unread" to remind me to continue the search.

A little time passed and I stopped checking, going about my business. I forgot about him for a while but was reminded one day to continue the search. I found out his name was Maxim. I learned his last name too. He was from Kazakhstan. He must have been well-liked because a fund had been established in his name and thousands of dollars had already been collected. I found pictures of him with his buddies, posing in front of statues, sitting on a horse, sitting on his red motorcycle. Short-cropped hair, with a monkey on a beach. Thumbs up with a snowman in winter, and shirtless with a surfboard. Always smiling. Slightly crooked teeth, solid build. Happy.

I don't know why it felt so important to find him, to put a name and face on the heap of muscle and bone in the middle of the highway. It wasn't morbid curiosity and yet it had less to do with preserving his dignity or as an expression of sympathy than it did with longing to be connected to one another through the human condition. I first saw him in a moment of violent, chaotic death, and that alone wouldn't do. Our shared experience—his and mine—felt incomplete without learning who he was, what kind of life he'd lived and the unknown world he left behind.

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