It was the siren from an ambulance or police car that woke me. I went downstairs to get the newspaper and saw a policeman loading a bicycle into the trunk of his cruiser. The cyclist in the ambulance was alive and moving. The doors shut and the ambulance sped off. Shielding his eyes from the morning glare, the officer asked if I’d heard anything. A car, maybe? Tires skidding? I hadn’t. “Is he going to be OK?” I asked. The policeman shook his head.
The next day, the cyclist’s girlfriend knocked on my door to see if I could shed any light on the accident. I couldn’t. She told me her boyfriend had died. It was 1990, and I’d been commuting to work by bike for three years. Before that, I’d not once worn a helmet — the cyclist who died hadn’t been wearing one, either. If they even existed during my childhood in the 1970s, it was a well-kept secret. But I would start wearing one within weeks of the accident.
More than a decade later, I was recounting the story of the ill-fated cyclist to my friend Helen. “I wear a helmet because of that man,” I declared. She grew curious and asked for more details; we soon came to realize that the cyclist who had perished just below my bedroom window all those years earlier had been the friend and roommate of her husband, Stanley. The three of us now huddled together like old comrades, commiserating about Ron’s demise and what little we knew of the particulars. Stanley told me he’d painted a portrait of his friend, which he was showing during open studios.
Soon thereafter, I visited the studio to see the painting. So here was Ron, or Mr. Bowes (as Stanley had titled the painting), whose untimely death had prompted me to begin a rigorous practice of wearing a helmet when bicycling. It wasn’t Ron as Stanley had known him at 30, though. He’d imagined his friend in middle age: less hair on top; a beard much longer than he’d ever had; wearing sunglasses and sitting in a rowboat. Stanley had painted Ron as though life had continued for him unabated. It was startling. Looking at the image on the canvas, I realized the possibilities that were lost when this young man died. He’d been, to me, a cycling casualty, whose story taught me a basic lesson in safety. Now he was a real human being who had had a future, one in which he would have been interacting with the rest of us, in ways small and large, changing history as each of us does.
And what, in the intervening years, had I done with my life? Had I lived it fully, with an appreciation for its fleeting nature? I recalled spending an inordinate amount of time searching for my wallet and house keys. More hours were burned staring at a computer screen during the infancy of e-mail, drinking in unrealistic claims of Russian girls wanting to marry me. Why wasn’t I out there riding elephants or rappelling down cliffs? When Douglas Adams noted in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe that life is wasted on the living, maybe he was referring to people like me.
A dozen years have passed since I first saw the painting, and the average life I’ve settled into, with family and a career, now feels exceptionally full. I no longer need daring adventures to appreciate my existence. Occasionally, I flash back to that sunny morning in 1990, when a cyclist was taken away by ambulance and I decided to wear a helmet. But only when I think of Stanley’s painting do I remember that what I learned most in Ron’s death had little to do with safety gear.
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