I MET RYAN about five or six years ago. His family lives just down the street from me, and his girls go to school with my girls. His wife and mine became good friends, so between the kids and the wives and the schools, I got to visit with Ryan here and there. I’d be lying if I said we were best buddies, but we saw each other once in a while, we helped watch one another’s kids, and we swapped favors with one another when needs arose. I liked Ryan. He was my friend. He was fifty-three years old. And he was buried on Monday.
I guess I just need to take a few minutes to say that a good man has gone away, and that I’m going to miss him.
I’m not sure how to adequately describe Ryan. He was uncomplicated, he was giving, and he was humble. He coached soccer for little kids. He always made a point to be at school functions with his children. He had a good job with good benefits and, as was his way, never said much about it except to say with a gentle smile that he’d done alright for a guy who never went to college and pretty much just knew how to turn wrenches. Ryan didn’t brag about things, but he wasn’t shy. He was the kind of guy who just couldn’t resist the practical benefits of a hospital gown; he was mooning people in the hospital a day or two before things went so horribly wrong. And Ryan was the kind of guy who not long ago got his pay docked for racing a truck down a dirt road and “rubbing” the back of another truck, while both were on the job. He sheepishly related the incident to me in his typical way; a sort-of talking, sort-of mumbling, gaze diverted down, half-smiling way of communicating. He told me he didn’t know why he chased down the truck in front of him and gave it a bump. With a shrug of his shoulders and a bit of a grin, he said it had just seemed like the thing to do at the time. “Kind of a stupid and immature thing to do,” he admitted with a chuckle. But I think I know why he did it; he loved to fly low in the desert. It was in his blood and bones.
RYAN ONCE TOLD me that he had this sort of “hobby” of riding motorcycles “a little.” He said motorcycles were “kind of my thing in life I guess.” The way he said it, I never thought much of it; I just saw him as a guy who was a husband and father, hung out with his family, and liked tinkering with dirt bikes in his garage. I was mistaken, and what I didn’t know until after Ryan died is that he was, for his age, one of the best desert motorcycle racers around. No, let me say that differently: Ryan was a world class desert motorcycle racer. You can’t place second in your class in the Baja 500 and the Baja 1000 without being so. And yet he never said a single thing to give me such an impression, ever, at all.
I was visiting with his widow last night, and I told her I wanted her to know something that I’ve been feeling. I talked about what I’d recently learned of Ryan’s accomplishments in racing, about how completely humble he was about all of it, and that I have been deeply moved by the beauty of his humility. I started to tell her that I looked on the internet to learn about him, but she interrupted me. “Ohhh yeah… I know…” she rolled her eyes dramatically Heavenward and raised her hands and nodded crazily. “He’s like a big rock star or something,” she said with a hearty laugh that seemed to imply she loved Ryan dearly, but maybe not so much the motorcycle scene. Then she went on to tell me all sorts of things; about his finishes in the Baja, about how his special skill was night racing, about how there are young racers who idolize him, about how people from all over call on the phone to get Ryan’s advice on tuning motorcycles and riding a race. She told me about how he’s done this all of his life, and that he never mentioned it to her until long after they met. “He never got all proud or tried to brag and tell me, ‘Oh I’ve done this and I’ve done that and I’m so awesome’.” She laughed again as she said those words, but her eyes only thinly veiled a loss and sadness still forming within her.
ONE DAY a year or two ago, I drove up to Ryan’s house and he was out back in the garage, with a bike engine opened up. He was doing something to it that I didn’t understand; something about perfecting a piston and how he built it up earlier in the day but had an idea about something that nobody else would care about, something that just wasn’t as completely right as it could be, and so he tore it all apart and re-did it all that same day. I remember that it seemed odd to me that after working all day on a motorcycle, nowhere was there any dirt, grease, or grime; not on the bike, not on the floor, not on the tools, not even on Ryan’s hands. And I thought of that day as last night his wife told me about what a perfectionist Ryan was about his bikes. She said that if he was putting a graphic on a bike and it got a tiny little wrinkle or crease in it, he’d work for what seemed like forever with a heat gun trying to get it perfect. If he couldn’t (and then she made a wide sweeping motion with her hand), he’d rip it off and start all over with a new one. I got the impression his patience and an almost pathological attention to detail could nearly drive her crazy. And she said he’d race his bikes all over the place, but they always ended up looking brand new after he’d gone over them in his garage.
Her words reminded me of something I read many years ago. Aldo Leopold once wrote about the importance of having a hobby. Among other things, he said it should be so engrossing that its practice removes a person from all the cares of the world, and it should be uniquely the property of the one who practices it. For Leopold, the fewer the number of people who knew about one’s hobby, the better, and a hobby was a person’s private little world that need not—and ideally should not—make sense to anyone else. I think Ryan knew this intuitively. He didn’t race to be seen, but rather he raced because he loved racing. Nobody else cared about a blemish on a bike that was about to get trashed in a race, but Ryan did. And so not only was Ryan uncomplicated, giving and humble; he had a deeply personal purity of mind and purpose that resided in a private little world, and I admire that. Perhaps that private world is what made it possible for him to be so uncomplicated, so giving and so humble. Perhaps it’s a consideration that I should take to heart.
THIS WEEK I read some comments on the internet about Ryan being an “exceptional” human being, about him stopping to help a crashed racer get a bike up and going again, and about how he gave of himself just by the way he made everybody around him laugh. I sat and recalled a semester during which I had helped one of his kids with a math class. Ryan called me up and said he had heard that I needed new brakes on one of my vehicles. I told him I did, because I didn’t know what I was doing and ruined them driving in the mountains. “Bring it over to my house and I’ll fix them for you, no charge. You helped my daughter, and it just seems fair, you know, to pay you back in a way I know how.” Ryan was like that. And the beautiful thing was, he had a way of making giving sound like it wasn’t. I admire that, too. Unfortunately, as is often the way life and relationships go, I never realized until recently the many things Ryan could teach me about being human.
When Ryan was on life support, as I and others prayed over him in the hospital, I thanked God for the life we had known as Flyin’ Ryan. I noted that every human life is beautiful and special, because it is born of the Divine and because it is a unique gift to the world. I noted that Ryan saw, experienced, felt, and loved in a unique combination of external and internal events and moments that no other human ever has, nor ever will. Of course I cried; life is a beautiful thing, and the mystery of it—the awesome mystery of all of it from birth to death—is the kicker. Confronting the mystery head-on, and having no choice but to let go, is painfully difficult. But as many of Ryan’s friends would say, you have to ride on. I know that’s what Ryan would do—he’d ride on. And so,
Ryan, I want to say that I am thankful for your life, and that knowing you made me a better person. I’m going to miss you, and we’ll do our best to help watch over your girls. Vaya con Dios, amigo. I’ll see you on the other side.
ON MONDAY morning Ryan’s coffin sat in the sun-lit foyer of a cathedral, his body resting peacefully, dressed in desert racing gear with a Rosary held in his gloves. Beside him stood his favorite racing bike, tall and lean, as if it were a trusted steed waiting in silent patience beside its fallen master. It was impeccably adorned with graphics. And it looked brand new.