Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A (Small) Matter of Life and Death

Today, one of my son's friends died. I don't know for sure how old he was -- probably 20 or 21. He died in a car accident that apparently happened while he was answering a text message as he drove home on the interstate Monday night after work. I didn't personally know this young man, but it's really sad to think of a life of potential brought to such an abrupt end.

The reason I'm writing about this on the blog, though, is because of something else that happened recently, and the combination of these two events really drives home to me how much our fragile human lives depend on the smallest of things.

My parents are farmers. They are around 74 years old and still very active with taking care of their beef cattle and their commercial chicken farm. It is quite inspirational, actually, to see how healthy and active they still are when so many people their age are having serious health issues. I'm sure a big part of that is because they just keep going.

One day last week, they were trying to load a cow into a trailer so they could bring her to the barn and monitor the birth of her calf (she seemed to be having trouble). My dad was chasing her around a small pen, trying to get her to head into the chute that would force her into the trailer. He said he could tell she was getting agitated (as is understandable, I suppose, if she had been in uncomfortable labor all day....), so he headed for the fence to get out of the pen and let her calm down a little. He was able to climb up onto the metal tube fence before she caught up to him, but she butted him hard enough to lift him off the fence. Fortunately, he managed to hang on to the fence, so he didn't fall (which would have been very serious). The back of his right leg was very bruised and sore for several days. Last night when I visited with them, he said it was feeling better, so that's good.

Here's what ties those two incidents together in my mind: in both cases, one small detail made all the difference in the outcome.

In my father's case, suppose the cow's head had been angled so she hit his leg straight on rather than at an upward angle? His leg would have been crushed between an unyielding metal rod and a cow's hard skull moving at rapid speed with a bulk of at least 1,000 pounds behind it. I can't calculate that force because I am a writer, not a physicist, ha ha. (My dad can figure that one out - he taught physics and math for 25 years before "retiring" to be a full-time farmer.) Anyway, I know it's a lot, certainly enough to break the leg. Since it hit him on the back of the thigh, that would have meant a broken femur, the biggest bone in the body. A broken femur would be hard for a 74-year-old person to recover from -- and that's assuming the shock and pain from the break didn't make him fall under the cow's feet to be trampled. But all that bad outcome was avoided because the cow's head was moving upward rather than forward when she hit him. An amazingly small difference.

For my son's friend, the amazingly small difference went the other way. I don't know the details of the accident. But I've heard lots of speeches (LOTS) about texting and driving and how far a car travels at certain speeds in the brief time when a person's eyes are on the screen rather than on the road. From just a split second of distraction, a car traveling at 70 miles per hour (the speed limit on the interstate) can lose control and spin or flip or crash into something. Within just that one tiny bit of time, a person's life can be irreversibly changed, or as in the case of my son's friend, ended.

I guess that is a sort of morbid way to look at the world, and certainly, we wouldn't be able to function if we went around second-guessing every tiny detail of our lives. But it always amazes me to think how our future - for good or for bad - may hinge on something small, something that we wouldn't even notice in other circumstances.