A Matter of Life, Death, and Motorcycles: A Brief Glimpse into How I Got This Way

StevenHis grave is tucked away in a far corner of St. Benedict Cemetery in Crestwood, Illinois, not far from Blue Island, where I was born and raised. It wasn’t easy to find, but from all appearances, it hasn’t been neglected, either. Several youth-oriented Christmas decorations were left near his headstone the last time I stopped there, presumably by his mother (his father’s grave is now beside his) or perhaps his siblings. Regardless, the love and affection for this boy has withstood the decades.

His name was Steven and he died in 1975, exactly one month before his 14th birthday. Also just a few months before he and I were to graduate from the eighth grade. Steven and I had pretty much come through grade school together. I remember one time, when we were in sixth grade, he came from out of nowhere when some other kid had thrown a wild punch at me for no apparent reason – he was showing off his kung fu prowess or some stupid thing like that – and Steven basically came between us, asked the kid what he thought he was doing, and then proceeded to stare him down until he slunk back into the woodwork. Why had he done that? I don’t know for sure. I think I might have gotten him out of trouble once and he was repaying the favor. In any case, I appreciated what Steven did and still remember his gesture of friendship to this day.

My classmate died from what we refer to today as a pediatric brain tumor. A brain tumor diagnosis in 1975 may as well have been a death sentence. I do not recall all of the details, but I know that Steven’s troubles seemed to have come from out of nowhere, very quickly. I know that surgery was performed and I know my classmate did not survive. I’m not sure I believed the news at first, but was soon to be convinced.

His was the first wake I had ever attended, the first dead body I had ever seen in person. There Steven lay, a classmate the same age as me, whom I had known for about eight years and who by all rights should have still had an entire lifetime ahead of him. The top of his head was wrapped in a flesh-colored bandage, where his long, straight, black hair should have been. His skin had this unnatural pink hue to it, instead of the usual brown. He was dressed in his altar boy garments. None of this had a calming effect on me in the least. That kid showed up in my dreams for weeks afterward.

That was an ending, a rather unpleasant one, too. Forty years have gone by since then, but I have never forgotten about Steven. Through the decades, especially during some of the lower points in my life, I have found myself wondering why he was taken from us at such a young age and why I was left to continue on. The answer to that question has not yet been fully revealed to me.

Now there is no simple way for me to transition smoothly from what I’ve just told you to what comes next, but if you’ll just be patient and walk with me a bit, I promise you will see the connection. For the record, I went on to high school, then college; I graduated, got a job, got married, started a family, and so forth. Somewhere along the line, I took a fancy to writing. All of this is well and good, but there is a different beginning you need to know about, and this also originated in Blue Island.

Once when I was about four years old, my family had gone visiting my aunt, uncle and cousins, all older and cooler than me. Like many Italians at the time, they lived “below the hill” on the east side of town. The two families visited each other very often, but this time stands out in my mind because it turned out to be a pivotal point in my life. One of my teenage cousins had bought a motorcycle and was showing it to everybody. At some point he and several others present asked if I would like to go for a ride. I must have nodded or something, because I was suddenly lifted off the ground, placed in front of my cousin – more or less on the gas tank – and shown where to hold the sides of the handlebars. Then we turned around in my uncle’s driveway and headed off, among shouts of “Hold on tight!” and “Be careful!”

I can still recall the sound of that one-cylinder engine and the vibration through the handlebars as the engine rose and fell, going between first and second gears. At one point, we came to a stop and my cousin asked me which way I wanted to go. I pointed and off we went, cruising through the neighborhood. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. A few minutes later, we pulled back into the driveway. People were asking me what I thought as somebody lifted me from the bike and set me back on terra firma. I turned around, pointed to that motorcycle and exclaimed, “I want one of those!” My mother began yelling something in Italian and I don’t think she stopped for another fourteen years.

In the years that followed, I went for many more rides with my cousins, as they acquired bigger and faster bikes. Every so often I would be foolish enough to utter the word “motorcycle” in my mom’s presence and she would begin hollering again. It was great fun. But then I went to college, got a job, got married, had kids… It seems I had neither the time nor the money to get that motorcycle. I’m sure my mother was very happy, at least for a while.

The year was 2002 and I had turned 41 years old. Chalk it up to middle age crisis – why not, my wife did – but somehow that long-dormant desire had reawakened and I decided to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic Rider Course. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford a bike of my own, but I reasoned that it would be satisfying enough just to see that “M” classification added to my drivers license. So I did it… and I failed. That’s right. I had gotten a perfect score on the written exam, but lost my nerve on the riding range and gave up too many points to pass.

I was crushed. Didn’t these people know I was destined to become a motorcyclist? Apparently not, except for one particular instructor who had seen that gleam in my eye and understood how much it meant to me. On our way out, she pulled me aside and advised me to come back in August, because although all the MSF classes are booked solid by March, the end-of season classes end up with vacancies and I could likely just walk in and register.

I spent the rest of that summer mentally repeating the range exercises over and over again, until I was executing every maneuver flawlessly. When August came, I walked into one of the scheduled classes and was able to register, just as that instructor had said. I took the entire course over again, asking more questions and getting much more out of it than I had the first time. The range exercises were less intimidating, because I had performed then all hundreds of times in my head. When testing day came, I went first and came within one point of a perfect score. At last I was a motorcyclist!

Turns out I had been sorely wrong about one thing: Getting that “M” on my license wasn’t enough. The motorcycling bug had bitten me hard. Less than a year later, I had acquired a gently used two-tone Honda Shadow A.C.E. Like most new riders, I started out by riding through my neighborhood, gradually going farther and farther. But I was riding alone, and I am not a good alone person. Because none of my friends at the time were motorcycle riders, I began seeking out opportunities to ride with other people. After doing a little research, I came across a local event called the Chicagoland Ride for Kids®, a fundraiser for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

It was like being struck by a lightning bolt. Pediatric brain tumor? Steven!

Back in ’75, when a tearful teacher told her classroom full of stunned kids what had caused Steven’s death, she hadn’t used the word “pediatric”, so it might have taken a second for me to understand what I had found – an organization formed to fight what had killed my classmate. I knew I had to do this. So despite having not one minute of group riding experience, I showed up at the Allstate Insurance corporate facility on July 14, 2003, for my first escorted charity ride. There we were, just me, my then-11-year-old daughter and roughly 3,000 casual acquaintances.

Me n TreWas I nervous? Not at all. I was scared. But we did it! And together with all the other motorcyclists, we raised $325,092 for pediatric brain tumor research that day. Thus began a new tradition for Teresa and me. My daughter and I have been raising money for pediatric brain tumor research by actively participating in the Chicagoland Ride for Kids every year since 2003.

Now a funny thing happened in 2005, when my son, then age 12, began expressing an interest in our efforts. A motorcyclist companion of mine learned of his interest and offered to carry my son on his bike at the ’05 event. I graciously accepted and in so doing, incurred the ire of my daughter, who had come to think of the ride as “our event.” Oh, the shame of it all!

Of necessity, for the sake of keeping peace in the family, our tradition then expanded and I began participating in two Ride for Kids events per year. Each July, my daughter and I would ride in the Chicagoland event and in August, my son would ride with me in the Wisconsin Ride for Kids, which was held in Middleton. Both of my kids were happy with that arrangement, an accomplishment in itself.

Last year, for the first time, the Chicagoland and Wisconsin Ride for Kids events were held concurrently, out of Lake Geneva. Lucky for me my son, now in his twenties, has a motorcycle of his own and his sister no longer sees it as a supreme insult for him to participate in the same event as us. Even my wife, who does not ride, showed up at last year’s event, making our endeavor a true family affair.

RFK 2015 Group ShotAnd so it continues, year after year. Me, I wouldn’t miss this for the world. And now you know why. Thanks for listening.

If you would like to support our efforts with a small donation, please visit my fundraising page at http://pbtf.convio.net/goto/daversa. We would be grateful. I even have a No Shave November promotion going on, where the amount of my beard that gets shaved off will be determined by the donations made via my page this month.

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