I’ve been thinking a little about mortality today. In part, this morbid topic has been on my mind because I spent about eight hours stuck in the Detroit airport, which, at times, made me wish I were dead. But mostly, it’s because the NYC Triathlon has been making headlines in the non-sporting press after two racers in Sunday’s event died, both apparently suffering heart attacks during the swim leg.
Of course, reading about those deaths brought back memories of Natalia Hogan, who died during the first bike race I ever helped to promoted, the short-lived Saratoga Criterium, in May of 2009. Like the two recent deaths, Natalia died of a heart ailment -- in her case, a pre-existing condition of which she was aware. She chose to continue her active lifestyle, playing ice hockey and racing triathlons, despite the risk. A period of reflection and examination is expected any time someone dies in what should be a safe, controlled environment. I’m still parsing Natalia’s death, more than two years after it happened – how quickly did the marshal call 911? Were our instructions not clear on that, most essential point? Did the heat that day exacerbate her condition? How come it took the ambulance so long to arrive? And once it did arrive, why did it take so long to depart? Should we have just put her, unconscious, in a car and driven to the Emergency Department? And now, in light of some of what’s been written about the recent deaths, I wonder if I would have let her race, had I known about her condition. Ultimately, I’m glad that decision wasn’t left up to me – besides not wanting to ever have to play God, I strongly believe in everyone’s right to make their own choices.
Life, as surely as it has a beginning, also has an end. Most of us don’t get much control over the end of our life – personally, I just hope to make the most of mine while I’m here, impact those around me in a positive way, and exit the scene without causing anyone too much grief. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. Natalia got closer to choosing her own way out than many, and while I wish her death had been under different circumstances, I certainly respect the conscious decision she apparently made.
Grandpa Phil didn’t get to make that kind of a choice. He died shortly before I graduated high school, in 2003. Phil was pretty old, and, as far as I can remember, had enjoyed a life that consisted of making my Mom uncomfortable with sardonic humor, bickering with my grandmother over matters of extreme importance, such as the location of the Ketchup (“In the fridge! On the door!”), and of watching the Yankees play ball on TV from his the rocking chair in the Florida room – that’s living room in most parts of the country. Toward the end of his life, though, it was becoming harder and harder to distinguish the Bombers’ pin stripes; Phil had cataracts. The doctor could fix his eyes, but a pre-surgical stress tests revealed a more pressing issue: After a life of eating a healthy, Jewish diet of delicious saturated fats and sugars in the form of chopped liver, roast beef, pot roast, kinish, corned beef, potato kuggle, stewed prunes and matzah brei, the lining of his heart was pretty well coasted with fatty deposits. Doctors didn’t think he would survive the cataract surgery with his heart in such a state, or even if he would make it through another meal. Open-heart surgery followed soon thereafter and Grandpa never regained consciousness, dying after languishing in a hospital for about a month.
My Dad, grieving his Dad’s death, pointed out that grandpa would probably have preferred to have one more roast beef sandwich and die peacefully in his rocking chair, while telling Joe Torre how to do his job. But no one gave him the option – the doctors were too eager to extend his life, and men of his generation were not trained to question the doctor, as we are now.
So, he died, and probably a little before his time had come. Can we say the same thing for the two athletes who died over the weekend? Mabye. I don’t know anything about either of them, really, so I can’t say. But I can say that their deaths were not the fault of an event in which both were willing participants. To me, the tough talk coming out of certain Borough of Manhattan offices this week is fairly meaningless. You can’t blame a race or race organizer for these deaths any more than you can blame on a mountain the death of a climber who falls from a cliff, or gets swept away in a slide. The challenge was ahead of the climber, they did their best to meet it, but came a little short.
None of that makes it any easier on the bereaved, who are mourning the loss of loved ones. In our overly-litigious society, though, I hope that the parties involved aren’t too quick to sue. Both athletes knew the inherent risks of sport, you hope, and if they failed to see a doctor for a regular check up, well, that’s their business. The fact of the matter is that events in interesting places are cool and fun, and that’s why folks are willing to fork over $1,000 to swim in the sewage-tainted waters of the Hudson, and why thousands of runners will pee themselves while waiting to run over the Verrazanno Narrows bridge in the New York City Marathon. People die in that event, too, by the way.
And yet, these events persist, and triathlon, especially, will continue to grow, because people like the challenge. Is it supposed to kill you? No. Is that a risk in any sport? Of course, and anyone who believes otherwise is tragically out of touch with the realities of athletics. And what about Grandpa? For a man who’s proudest moment, aside from watching his great-grand children run around at various family gatherings, was helping to construct the battleship Arizona during World War II, watching baseball was a chief pleasure as he got on past 80. So maybe Dad was wrong – maybe his Dad was doing what he thought he wanted or needed in order to continue enjoying the life to which he’d become accustomed, just as those triathletes thought they were doing something they’d trained and prepared for.
See, you really can’t pick your moment.
Programing note: I'm traveling in North and South Carolina on Wednesday, and will be home late, so no blog post tomorrow.