As the saying goes, it’s complicated. We all know there are “inherent risks” in riding motorcycles. Some know it better than others. My stepmother has lost two brothers—decades apart—to head-on collisions while riding motorcycles in eerily similar accidents. Before there was such a thing as “distracted driving” the brothers were killed in separate accidents while riding motorcycles as motorists crossed the centerline and struck them head on. Secondary to the unimaginable grief of losing two brothers this way, it made life difficult for the others in her life who still loved to ride.

My father pretty much gave up road riding after the loss of her second brother out of sympathy and respect. I myself hesitated to ride to their home for visits, choosing to drive instead when possible. There was always the underlying, unspoken sense of foreboding brought about by her tragic losses that made riding out for a visit just feel wrong. Following the second accident, it was no longer just my life that was a risk, but the future wellbeing of my stepmom, too. I rarely rode to their home, but have never considered putting an end to my riding.

Whatever self-imposed pressures I felt to keep the details of my riding to myself must have been 10 times worse for my stepbrother, her son Jeff. Jeff and I knew each other from a very early age and in his adult life Jeff was a Harley rider, with the Electra Glide being his bike of choice. The last one I saw him riding was black, glimmering in the summer sun. Jeff had many of the characteristics people think of when they think of “bikers.” He was big, bald, goateed and worked in the industrial fabricating trades most of his adult life. Before that, he bounced around a series of odd jobs including running an ice cream truck, but that was years ago.

Oddly enough, we didn’t spend much time together as kids or as adults although we shared many similar interests. I suppose that’s part of the complicated part. Jeff and I hadn’t seen each other much recently until our “blended family” began to face some challenges brought about by age and fate a couple years ago. My father’s passing necessitated that my stepmom move from their farmhouse to something more manageable. That move was almost immediately followed by an unfortunate car accident on a snowy day involving my stepmom resulting in injuries to her which required extensive rehabilitation. Jeff and I stayed in touch more during that time than we had in years. Eventually with the help of her family she was well enough to return home.

Jeff quit riding a few years ago, and though we never talked about it directly, I’m certain that his uncle’s fatal accidents and mom’s peace of mind weighed heavily in his decision.

At 59 years old, with a good job, it seemed Jeff was on a gilded path to his golden years… until six weeks ago when fate came knocking in the form of a terminal cancer diagnosis. A mere six weeks later he passed at his home with his wife by his side. As you would expect, the loss has hit my stepmother hard. Losing a child at any age is unnatural, an experience I hope and pray I never have to endure.

I work for a major cancer-fighting nonprofit and have for 10 years, not as a scientist or researcher, but as a community manager, a.k.a. fundraiser. When people I know are lost to cancer, I feel like I haven’t done enough to beat the disease. There are no brownie points in the cancer-fighting game. Nobody gets a pass because they’ve helped fund research, treatment and patient services so I really need to learn to cope with that a little better, but it’s tough.

In many ways it’s the same with motorcycling. You can be a well-trained, highly-experienced rider wearing all the right gear and still be met around the next bend with an unspeakable fate. That’s also part of the complicated part: a family member gives up motorcycling and ends up killed by cancer.

So, what’s the answer? Do what we can to avoid tragedy but live a life that makes us happy. A happy life is the best revenge.

If that means riding a motorcycle, ride it well and do what you can to be reasonably safe in the process. The right gear, education, skill level and visibility are a good start. If that means fighting cancer, get the appropriate screenings for your sex and age and weigh the risks you expose yourself to. Listen to your body. You know you better than anyone else does.

In all the time I’ve been writing, I’ve avoided quoting Hunter S. Thompson, but there hardly seems a more appropriate passage to mark Jeff’s passing than Thompson’s quote from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “Buy the ticket, take the ride.“ Godspeed, Jeff.


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