1984 was the year I almost killed myself.
Unintentionally, as a kid. I hate adverbs as a rule, but that one feels important.
Let’s call it Spring; I remember the woods being thick with leafy green. Twelve-year-old Brian’s obsession is BMX bikes. They were everywhere in the ‘80s, and they were cool. Kids in cereal commercials on Saturday mornings were spinning on the handlebars and jumping ramps in empty warehouses with them. Neighborhood kids were flashing theirs across courts and cul-de-sacs: Raleigh, Huffy, Redline, Diamondback, Mongoose. Wheels were a big deal. The bolder and more neon the wheels, the better. I remember lots of neon then – standard Reagan-era subtlety.
The acquisition of a sick BMX was my Red Ryder BB gun, in every sense: it consumed my thoughts and made my parents recoil in horror. There was a key difference between Ralphie’s family and mine: bike purchases in the Ruff household had what you might call a history of misfires. My first ever bicycle was the “Sun Bug,” a canary-yellow thing with training wheels that a five-year-old could enjoy. It lacked something important for a boy, though – a crossbar, which, if you know your ‘80s bikes, marks it as one for a girl. My parents didn’t know this, but I found out in a chorus of laughter from the local kids. Despite this humiliation, Mom and Dad held firm to the belief that a bike was a bike.
Dad drove a cubicle for the government in the chemical specifications division of the local army base; Mom was a part-time bookkeeper. We were middle-class Marylanders who went to Ocean City in the summer, sometimes only for day trips. With my older brother starting catholic high school, we weren’t made of money, something I appreciate today and wish I had been more sympathetic to then. When the time came for a new bike, my parents found an inexpensive one (for a boy) and added a “dirt bike conversion kit:” blue pads for the crossbar and handlebars, wheel covers and such.
You may already know this, but this makes a “bike” a “dirt bike” about as much as a Red Ryder BB gun is a hunting rifle. I was determined to prove otherwise. On a dare, I took my bike into the woods surrounding our corner of suburbia: woods that started relatively flat, but after years of new construction developed a steep drop-off.
So, fast forward to the drop-off.
What I remember – there was almost certainly a concussion involved – is this: a sense of maintaining balance, but losing control, a rock, flying over the handlebars, and – before the next rock – total freefall. This was only the second time I had ever experienced this. The first, somewhere in the early childhood mist, was at the top of a slide in a Baltimore park, when upon hesitating to ride down the boy behind me decided to expedite things and push me off the side. (Which might have been my first concussion.)
Has this ever happened to you? That airborne moment, in which you can understand that you are seconds from a sudden, painful stop, but can feel the exhilaration blended with the fear in knowing that this may not. End. Well.
Fast forward again, this time 33 years. It’s 2017, I’m in a cardiologist’s office.
“You’re not a time bomb,” he assures me. This is despite my having collapsed on a treadmill during a workout, sending my heart rate into the 200s and prompting the discovery of a 4.9cm aneurysm on my ascending aorta. I turned 45 on the day I was released from the hospital. Open-heart surgery, he says, is a certainty. When? They don’t know – it depends on how much the aneurysm grows, and how quickly. If it ruptures, my odds of survival drop to about ten percent.
“What are the odds it will rupture?” My wife asks.
A long, long pause. “Low,” the cardiologist says.
Since then, I’ve filled in the ambiguity a bit. “Low” is statistically about five percent. Pretty good, right? Not according to life insurance companies. For me, a ten-year term policy with a $500,000 payout costs more per month than a luxury car payment. I am, you might say, a bad bet.
So, at 49, I am headed for an unknown day in the future when something happens: either a surgery that will pause my life for an indeterminate time, or… something else. The same could be said for all of us, but as Kevin Helliker put it in his Wall Street Journal article “Denying Death No More,” when you have this condition death takes on “a certain sharpness.”
That sharpness has lent a certain focus. Moving through time to a moment when my life will either pause or end is reminiscent of freefall to me – struggling to enjoy the motion, even though knowing there may be an unpleasant stop in my future. It reminds me of where we all are today.
We are, as a nation, falling through the dark a bit. There is no defined end to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are $28 trillion in debt, with more to come – uncharted financial territory that must be reckoned with, whether our government tells us it must. We have retreated from foreign commitments, while China rises to fill the void. There is throughout our society a sense that our institutions are failing to meet the challenge of a people pulling apart. Yet all around us, there is growth during decay.
All of this concerns me – not only do I ponder daily my own end, but the world I will leave to my daughter and son. And, dear reader, I need to put it down somewhere. So here is “The Freefall Journal.” In addition to personal stories, I will discuss the local news of my corner of the world, politics, and a bit of arts and sports. There may be some short fiction in here; I’m not sure about it yet. All of it is from the perspective of a man and a society struggling to slow its descent.
I hope you enjoy it.