I was sitting in the campus movie theater with my friend Spencer when Jason burst in, came down the aisle and whispered something about needing to call home. As we all exited the theater it took me a moment to grasp that he meant I needed to make the phone call, not Spencer. We jogged back to my room without exchanging any words, and my mind raced with the possibilities of what this might be about, but the worst thing I could imagine was that the family dog had died. When I got to the dorm my friends waited in the common room while I went into my bedroom and called home. My mom answered the phone and said there had been a plane crash involving my dad and sister. “Are they gone?” I asked. “Dad is,” she said. “Kate’s in the hospital in a coma.”
My father had been a pilot for several years and had bought his own plane about 8 months before the accident, which occurred just over a month into my sophomore year of college. That summer before returning to school I had begun to take flying lessons, culminating with my first and only solo flight at the end of the summer. The exhilaration of flying an airplane topped off by a very excited and proud hug from my dad made that August day one of the best of my life. Its closeness in proximity to the worst day of my life makes it seem all the more surreal.
Some time after the plane crash, when I had a moment and the energy to devote to a thought not related to grief for my father or concern for my slowly recovering sister, I realized that I would never take another flying lesson. This was not because I had a newfound fear of flying, but because I knew I could never put my family through the fear of what might happen to me if I flew a private plane. That realization was the first and probably most emblematic for me of the fact that there would be many ancillary costs and life changes caused by the crash, beyond those directly related to the fact that my father was no longer alive. The tragic and unexpected nature of my dad’s death would make me and my family look at even the most mundane activities differently; at first even a drive across town warranted a phone call back home to report safe arrival. Those things eventually settled down to a more pragmatic level, but even today, fifteen years after the plane crash, there a very few long drives and almost no flights that don’t end with an immediate call to or from my mom or sister. Flashing ambulance lights on the freeway, the report of an accident on the radio… these things elicit an immediate calculation of where loved ones are supposed to be. If there is any uncertainty a phone call is made, and any call that goes to voicemail causes the heart to beat just a bit faster. The anxiety, this many years later, isn’t as visceral as it once was but is palpable nonetheless.
If I were not lucky enough to have a wonderful family around me, if I were truly alone, I would get back behind the controls of a small plane immediately. And I would skydive, bungee jump, wrestle alligators, and try to make a living driving racecars. Okay, maybe not the alligator wrestling, because I don’t really see the upside there. But those other things all hold some appeal for me. The likelihood I will ever do any of them is low, however, as long as there are people in my life who love me. They seem like unnecessary risks, and increasing the possibility of another family tragedy for something so frivolous is hard for me to justify.
The problem I have, though, is where to draw that line. It is easy for me to discard skydiving as something I don’t ever need to do unless I’m jumping into a war zone, but what about skiing? Or rock climbing? When I was thirteen one of my uncles died in a climbing accident, which is probably why rock climbing has never much appealed to me, but does that make it more of an unnecessary risk than riding a snowmobile for recreation? Statistically I’m much more likely to die in a car crash than any of those other activities, so why would I drive to the beach for the weekend just for fun while my family is still around to love me and worry about me?
Earlier this year, after much deliberation, I bought a motorcycle. It was a decision I continue to wrestle with daily. Though it brings me much joy I certainly don’t need it, and I acknowledge that every time I get on it I am increasing the possibility of something tragic happening. I can choose to only ride when the weather is perfect, on roads where there aren’t many cars, never after having a drink or while tired, etc., etc. But I know how accidents happen. So why do I choose this risk over some others, many of which could easily be argued are much less risky? I have shuffled through my ample supply of rationales, but in the end it boils down to this- there is a balance that I feel the need to achieve in my life, and in trying to achieve it there will always be forces at odds with one another. If I tried to live as safely as possible I would probably be miserable, and might just choke to death on a multivitamin. Conversely, if I were to recklessly pursue all of those things that some might argue make life truly worth living, I would be tortured by the distress I know I would be causing my family and friends. So each day decisions are made, some tiny and some monumental, and I can only hope they lead me down that fine line I’m trying to draw before me.