• Steve Martin

Sportbikes, Sorrow, Longing, Loyalty


Michael and his broken Kawasaki Ninja


Michael


“Even though I was fine physically, I was broken emotionally,” said my younger brother Michael, during a recent phone conversation while he was sitting in his car waiting for an automatic car wash to start, reflecting on the aftermath of his 2013 motorcycle accident which resulted in a fatality for the other motorcyclist. “More than melancholy, I was distressed. I started asking myself questions, like, ‘Even though this was an accident, what’s going to happen to me?’ And, ‘Where do I stand with God?’”        

Michael was born two years after me. He is taller and has more physical strength, resembling a blonde Stan Mikita, our not-to-distant relative who played for the Chicago Black Hawks. Married with two kids, Michael recently graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in business. He’s one of the politest people I know, and responds with a “Yes, sir” even to me sometimes, a respectful relic of his growing-up years in the South. He’s a spiritually minded soul and a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in which both he and I were raised. He’s optimistic and positive.

Michael’s interest in motorcycles took off after completing his church missionary service. He returned home to California, bought my mom’s Kawasaki Ninja 500R sportbike with a sub-four-second 0-60 time, completed a motorcycle safety course, and then proceeded to use the motorcycle as his main transportation—to school, work, church, the beach, in sun and rain. After his wedding, my brother moved to Arizona and kept riding due to the favorable cost and precipitation levels.

During one of Michael’s regular morning commutes in December 2013, while turning left from 107th Avenue onto Van Buren Street in order to then cut across almost all of Phoenix, another young man on an orange Honda CBR tried to beat the same light. My brother turned on yellow. The other guy ripped the throttle and ran on red, colliding head-on with my brother and his black Ninja, which was already halfway through the intersection. The impact stripped the bike from underneath my brother and sent him pinwheeling into the sky.


Lying on the Ground


“I’m just lying there,” said Michael. “I waited for what seemed like forever. And then the light changes, and I just start seeing the cars going around me. I’m guessing they were late for work. Just like me.”

Through the visor of his helmet, he saw a face peer over his face.

“Are you ok?” the face asked.

“I think so,” Michael responded. “But I’m just waiting for the paramedics and trying not to move.”

The face left him for a second: he wiggled his fingers, he wiggled his toes. My brother thought the other guy on the orange Honda was going to walk over, kick him, and yell at him for the accident.

“I remember what I was taking to work for lunch that day: homemade vegetable soup,” said Michael. It was all over his backpack and the asphalt, as he laid there in the intersection, soup everywhere, bike somewhere, and cars going around him to their next destination.

The face returned.

“‘Hey, how’s the other guy doing?” Michael asked.

The face’s expression changed.

“I don’t know how the other guy is doing,” it said.

Then the paramedics surrounded Michael. He never saw the other motorcyclist or the accident.

“I tried to look around. I wanted to see where my bike was, where the other guy was. I kept trying to ask them, ‘How’s the other guy?’ They said, ‘We don’t know. We’re focused on you.’”

The other motorcyclist died there in the intersection. My brother was later told the blood spots were like the left-over ripples of a skipped stone across the placid surface of a lake.



“He died at the scene.”


First, the paramedics scissored off my brother’s backpack and expertly moved him to a stretcher. Then he remembers being inserted into the back of an ambulance where the rest of his clothes were cut off.

On the way to Banner Hospital and now naked, Michael told the paramedics he should call his wife. They fished his cellphone out of his shredded pants. Michael was still lying down on the stretcher, trying not to move anything but his arm. “The first thing I said when she picked up was, ‘I’m ok.’”

My brother’s wife met him at the hospital. After medical imaging to rule out below-the-surface damage, my brother and his wife were directed to wait in their own room. A police officer came in and wanted to know if she could ask some questions. “My wife and I had been laughing and the spirit in the room was really light,” said Michael. “Then she came in.”

Before the officer asked the first question, Michael asked the police officer,

“First, I kinda want to know how the other guy is doing. I keep asking people and no one is telling me how he is doing.”

“He died at the scene,” she said.

“I just started crying,” said Michael. “I was bawling. My wife was holding me. I was holding her. Even after seeing lots of dead people. (Note: Our father is a retired funeral director, and we lived and worked around the funeral homes for a good part of our lives. We have seen many dead bodies.) I couldn’t imagine I’d react that way. The police officer left for a couple of minutes, so I could gain my composure. I did my best to answer her questions.”

The officer was trying to piece together the scene, asking about the chronology of events and evaluating my brother’s competency. He said he was turning left, and while he was scanning the environment and oncoming traffic, he saw the headlight of the motorcyclist far down the street and judged that he had enough time to complete the turn. He continued through the intersection but could see out of the corner of his eye the headlight suddenly get bigger. My brother stopped to straighten the bike, minimizing himself as a target, hoping the motorcyclist would go around him. The next thing he remembers was being in the air and then landing on his back looking up at the sky. The officer’s questioning didn’t take too long, and she said that if the police needed any additional information, they would contact my brother.

“The whole mood was light and just changed,” said Michael. “Not just there but for a long time after that.”

Me (center) and my older brother Jon (left) and younger brother Michael (right) as kids.


Sorrow


My brother took a month off from work. He appeared in court twice, the resulting verdict: an accident. No one pressed charges. “Their son was being stupid. I could’ve been more careful. It just turned out worse for their son,” said Michael.

My brother didn’t feel any physical pain, except for his ankle after the medics removed his boot. But he felt emotional and, as he put it, spiritual pain over what transpired. He wondered why other people would just continue to drive around him in the intersection. And even though family, friends, and an Arizona judge told him the death was an accident, Michael blamed himself.

My brother experienced post-traumatic stress, relieving the event every time something reminded him. A court summons in the mail. Medical bills. Another visit from a police officer. Calls from the insurance company. More medical bills. Being a passenger in a car that was turning left. One thing after the other.

“I never knew I struggled with depression, but I did,” said Michael. “This brought my depression up and forced me to work through it.”

Michael’s depression led to suicidal thoughts, and so he checked himself into a mental health facility for about a week. The treatment and the time off helped him reframe everything, though the process wasn’t fast or easy. He spent time with his family. He spent time with my parents in California. He spent time trying to get closer to God.

“I felt sadness. I felt for the family. I felt for him. Whatever he was doing with his life. He was on his way to work, too. That’s where the sorrow came from.”

My brother told me that every December, the sadness returns. “I think of him. I think of his family. I try to have some mental tribute to him,” said Michael. “But with the tribute also brings sadness. This recurring sadness used to last the whole month of December. Then a week. Now, I feel like I can do it all in a day or a couple of days.”

Michael doesn’t live on that side of Phoenix anymore, but he says that every now and then he’ll end up driving through the intersection where the accident happened, yet he feels ok. He and his doctors decided long-term medication was not needed: proper exercise, sleep, and diet provide the most balance for him. His black Ninja, now with a twisted fork and buttons hanging by wires, sits in his in-laws’ garage, not far from his $95 crutches he used to exit the hospital.



Longing and Loyalty

My brother’s riding days might be over. “It’s not if you’ll get in a crash; it’s when and how. If you’ll die or live.” As he says that, I can tell he’s more worried about hurting his family than himself. Michael once told his wife that if he got in a crash and someone died, he would stop riding. A once-flippant assuaging to which he’s now adhering. 

Yet, Michael still has his mangled bike and longs for that world—the ease of tapping into his “flow” state, the satisfaction of extending himself through that unique complex machine powering his movement through time and space, a palliative for all things “life,” even the uniform of a helmet and a leather jacket.


My brother’s story isn’t a cautionary tale about motorcycles; too many motorcycle deaths could be prevented by people riding sober and wearing the proper gear. And Michael’s was a freak accident - two motorcycles driven by strangers colliding in an intersection. No, this is a story of commitments and acceptance. Michael rode his motorcycle everywhere, a both-feet-in devotion delivering instant gratification of pleasure and purpose with inextricably linked consequences. Crouched on his sportbike, he accepted heat from the sun, chill from the cold, wet from the rain, and pain from the crash. Now he’s choosing to not ride, a collision of two other commitments: when Michael committed through marriage to honor, love, and protect his wife and when the guy on the orange Honda that one December morning committed to beat the light. With the broken sportbike parked in his in-laws garage, he’s hoping to spare his loved ones from a particular pain by locking himself out of the playground.


So Michael’s new normal is a Fitzgeraldian reconciliation, holding within himself two ideas which seem to be in opposition: longing and loyalty. As I’ve seen him do his whole life, he does so without complaint, his quiet mind-made-up-ness.

Michael’s riding days MIGHT be over. “God forbid, anything happens to my wife,” said my brother. “But if she’s no longer in my life, I’ll probably get another bike.”

“But not now, and I’m ok with that,” he says as the hum of the car wash takes up all the space in the background of the phone call.