Facing down the Grim Reaper

The death of a longtime good friend, who lost his life to pancreatic cancer at 72 late last week, reminded me that the ever-patient Grim Reaper awaits all of us.  It has been a factor for most of my 69 years of life.

The Reaper struck when I was nine months old, taking my father in an industrial accident in 1948.  My dad died at age 29.  His four brothers didn’t make it to 30.  My paternal grandmother outlived all of her children.  I approached my teenage years with a full expectation of dying before the the start of my third decade on this earth.

Almost happened at 20, when a serious accident put me in the hospital and on a death watch.  Survived that but hit 29 as a newspaper reporter and kept looking over my shoulder for the Reaper.

Reached age 30 in a bar in Alton, Illinois, with a toast of single-malt scotch when the clock struck midnight.  The curse was broken.  A male in my family finally made it to that golden age.

My body was already a road map of scars by that point.  I had suffered shrapnel wounds from flying debris, scars from a hard crash into a rock wall in a Shelby GT-500 Mustang and other injuries from misjudging my dismount from a moving train.

By age 40, friends suggested I had used all of my nine lives of a cat and might want to think about slowing down.

Thought about it but didn’t.

Passed 60 still riding motorcycles and a chance encounter with a black steer on a dark section of U.S. 221 between Cave Spring and the bottom of Bent Mountain on a Friday night on Nov. 9, 2012, left me lying in the middle of the road with a badly broken leg, part of my face torn off, most of my facial bones broken along with a fractured skull .

The Reaper must have been busy elsewhere on that Friday night but Mark Hirsch of Roanoke, wasn’t. One of the first to arrive on the scene, he got his emergency room nurse wife on his wireless phone and overcame his fear of blood as she talked him through clearing my airway and getting me to breathe again until the emergency squad arrived.  Members of the squad figured I would die before reaching Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, where I coded in the emergency room and again later in intensive care.

Walked out of the Carilion Community Rehab Center on Church Avenue in Roanoke on Christmas Eve, 2012, three months before they originally felt I might be able to leave.  A lot of support from friends in Floyd County, Roanoke and elsewhere made my recovery possible.  The lead doctor on my case wrote in his final report that I was “a walking miracle.”

Returned to motorcycle riding in 2014 after two years of rehabilitation and therapy.  Missed my time on two wheels.  The only thing Amy asked is that I stop riding at night.  She has a bike too.

Over breakfast recently at the Blue Ridge Cafe, a friend asked how many of my nine lives I have used up to now.

“Not really sure,” I said.  “Seventeen or eighteen maybe.”

No, I don’t have a death wish.  I do have an aggressive love of life and wish to live it to the fullest.

“If you’re not living on the edge,” my maternal grandfather, Walter McPeak of Meadows of Dan, once told me, “you’re taking up too much room in life.”

The Reaper is a patient man who knows that, in the end, he will win.

So be it. We can either fear death or get in its face and enjoy whatever time we have alive on this earth with an enthusiasm of living our lives to the fullest and on our own terms.

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