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Surviving Youth

Today it’s been 10 years since my friend Joe was killed in a motorcycle accident. It’s so hard to believe it’s been an entire decade. In that time, 9/11, two wars, a severe recession, a devastating oil spill, and a bunch of other things—good, bad, and mediocre—have occurred. I guess if there was a decade to miss out on, that would have been the one to pick.

But, of course, he didn’t get to pick. No one does. He was the image of health and had only been married less than a year. He’d turned 30 a month before. He had every reason to stick around. A collision with a pickup truck on a rural highway killed him instantly. I still remember that punched-in-the-gut feeling I had when I found out. Of all the people I knew, Joe was the last one I would have predicted death at an early age.

He had a positive attitude. We would work out together and at the start would say, “Tell me something good.” Sometimes I had to think for a minute, but Joe could always name half a dozen right off the top of his head. I learned a lot from him—about the right kind of attitude as well as how to lift weights to my best advantage. A positive influence like that leaves a huge hole in your soul when it’s suddenly taken away.

In last ten years, I’ve had a kidney transplant and cancer. There have been a few other non-life-threatening health issues mixed in with all that as well, including emergency surgery to save a badly-damaged eye. But I’m still here. The randomness of survival boggles my mind, even at my age. I guess it always will.

A few years before Joe died, a buddy from high school was murdered at a fast food restaurant where he was a manager, closing up at the end of the day. Someone cut his throat so deep it nearly severed his head. But he survived a few more days and required dozens of units of blood.

My first experience with death of a friend near my age was in 1985. My friend, Terrance, was killed in a car accident. He was riding with one of his fraternity brothers after a party. They were drunk. It was his 24th birthday. And it happened only two weeks after my grandfather died, so for me, it was an extra layer of death. But, my grandfather was 70 and had fought cancer for six months. It was expected. Someone told me Terrance had been killed over the weekend while some of us stood in the hall at the U of A before class started. I just walked away and wandered around campus for a while, not able to think.

It’s hard to imagine Terrance at nearly 50 years old. I’ve known others who died at a younger age than I am now. They’re in suspended animation. One will always be 36, another 39.

Yet here I am, in spite of the odds. I’ve been told more than once, “You’ve already dealt with more than most people do in a lifetime.” I think they mean an average lifetime lasting 75 years or so.

What is it that causes males to check out early? At conception, more than half of all fetuses are male. From then on, males die at a higher rate than females. Maybe testosterone makes us crave danger and leads us into all kinds of risky behaviors. Being male means dodging bullets—literally and metaphorically—while watching our buddies run out of luck.

My luck has held out longer than I thought it would. I wish I could have shared that luck with all of my friends. Here I sit, in middle age with surgery scars I wear like medals of battles won. Those friends I mentioned will always be young in my mind, because youth wasn’t something they survived.

Funny thing about youth is we rush through it, sometimes so recklessly some of us don’t survive it. Then it wears off and we’re wiser and more cautious. We wish for the chance to be young again, knowing that if we experienced it a second time, we might not live to see the end of it.