“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
Awhile ago, I read that a man named Sean Taylor, a professional football player, was shot in his home by an intruder. He died the next day at the age of 24. I don’t follow the team that Sean played for and knew very little about the man, but I’m struck both how young and how violently he died.
I think even 24 is terribly young to die. This particular age resonates with me because of something I experienced when I was 24.
It was Christmas Eve. I was working as a reporter for a daily newspaper in Southwest Florida, covering general assignments – a little bit of everything. I was scheduled to work until 10 p.m., but the newsroom was very quiet. Christmas Eve is typically a very slow news day. I was eager to begin my drive to Jacksonville to visit family, a nearly five-hour trip to the northeast corner of the state. Around 3:00 p.m., my editor said, “If it’s still this quiet at 6:00 p.m., you can knock off early.” I was hopeful and in a hurry, thinking of how fast I’d need to drive to make Jacksonville by 10:00 p.m.
All stayed quiet until about 5:30 p.m., when an alarm from the police scanner sounded, followed by a squawky voice giving police code for a serious car accident. My editor dispatched me to the scene. When I arrived, I saw an odd smoldering hunk of metal about the size of a car engine in the middle of a 4-lane highway. Later, someone told me that hunk of metal had been a motorcycle, but it wasn’t recognizable. About 50 feet from the bike was a body covered by a bed sheet. Two more bloody bed sheets hung from the windshield of a wrecked car in the median.
A police officer explained that a car driven by an elderly woman had pulled in front of the speeding motorcyclist, who apparently didn’t have time to brake. The motorcycle shot into the driver’s side door like a missile, instantly killing the car driver, her passenger and the motorcyclist. Turns out the guy was driving his new motorcycle to get to Jacksonville in time to share Christmas with his family. Saddened for the families, I asked the officer the ages of the victims. “Both women in the car were 83,” the cop said. “Young man was 24.” It shook me a little, as I was 24, too, hoping to see my family that night in Jacksonville.
I returned to the newsroom to file the story – ruminating on my new-found vulnerability – then got in my car and began my late night trip, requiring me to drive on the same road past the same accident I had just covered. The sheet-covered bodies were still there. I drove the speed limit the whole way to Jacksonville. To this day, I don’t speed much. And anytime I hear of a young person dying, I think of that 24-year-old who never made it home for Christmas.