Thursday, October 8, 2009

Flaming Out Young

This morning, the conductor of the Women's Chorus I sing with shook her head when we opened up a piece of music and said, ""Mr. Chopin. So many of the great composers died young. They lived hard and burned out, like Mozart. I'm surprised Mozart made it into his thirties. They were brilliant but maybe that worked aganst them."

Someone in the chorus chimed in, "That's still true today," and people started mentioning names like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, and others.

I was thinking about Leif. Those people were immensely talented and they achieved great success, so we know about them. But how many more of our brilliant young people who live hard, trying to experience something, trying to figure out how to use their talents, and end up dying young? I've heard too many stories of young men in their early thirties, like Leif, who took their own lives or died of the consequences of their dangerous lifestyles.

Mozart was 35 when he died of a serious fever with rashes and swelling, which at least one medical sleuth says was probably rheumatic fever. Chopin was 39 and died of tuberculosis. Without modern medical care, it may not have been so much their lifestyles as the inability to treat contagious diseases that took their lives. We have to wonder what glorious music they might have continued to give us had they lived a normal lifespan.

We worried about Leif from the time he was about 21 and bought his first motorcycle, driving it like a demon. He admitted to me that he reached speeds over 100 miles an hour. We worried about the way he drove his car, too. I was always glad to know, each and every day, that he was all right. When we all got cell phones about five years ago (Leif had one since 1993, long before most people got them, and paid for it with his salary), I always kept mine with me, including at night on my nightstand, in case something happened to him. More than once, it did. We feared he would kill himself or injure himself terribly in a crash. It was a daily fear.

He had two minor motorcycle accidents and two minor car accidents, a car accident that totaled his Dodge Stratus and hurt his neck, and then the motorcycle that shattered his collarbone and required surgery. Ironically, that one was not because he was speeding. He was on a street in Tampa, near his apartment, going back to work after lunch and a white Cadillac swerved in front of him. To avoid ramming into the back of it, he had to lay the bike down and he hit the pavement instead. How well I remember the phone calls. How glad I was he was not severely injured and disabled or killed.

Leif did not die directly of disease, like Mozart and Chopin, but he suffered from asthma and depression (and possibly bipolar disorder and PTSD). Without those, he might have been able to sustain his life and deal with all the disasters, disappointments and loneliness. With them and a gun, he succumbed.

He was so bright and talented, had so much he could have given the world, if he had ever found out where and how. How sad that none of what he had to offer remains.
This glowing and joyful photo of Leif was taken the night before his brother's graduation from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado on May 29, 1991. It was a great evening. He was ecstatic. He was 16 years old. He lived to be only 33.

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