Franz Kafka posited that “the meaning of life is that it ends.” There is something to that. Everything precious gets at least part of its value from limited supply. If every rock and stone were diamond and every surface gold, it would be the end of the engagement ring industry. But it’s not just the finitude of life that defines it. Life’s uncertainty also adds meaning. We cannot change the past, nor can we control the future; those who understand this and live fully in each passing moment are the ones who are truly alive.
Travis Roy, for example.
In the small but passionate world of college hockey fans, Roy was both a tragedy and an inspiration. Tall, blond and handsome, he was one of the most heavily recruited players in North America before enrolling at Boston University in 1995. On Oct. 20 of that year, the gifted freshman skated into his first game with the defending national champion Terriers. Eleven seconds later, he crashed into the boards at high speed, something he had done countless times in games and practices over his career.
But this time was different. What a meaningful sentence. We think we know what to expect from life. We’ve driven this same route 100 times. We’ve had plenty of headaches, and they always go away. We’ve never slipped and fallen in the shower before! But this time was different.
Roy snapped his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae, which is to say he broke his neck. “It was as if my head had become disengaged from my body,” he recalled in a memoir. The injury left him almost entirely paralyzed from the neck down. While it was not the end of his life, the injury ended the life Roy thought he was living. He thought he was a freakishly gifted athlete, a tremendously disciplined workhorse, a future professional, a fully independent young man. If someone had asked him to describe himself, he would have said, “I’m a hockey player.” Now that was over. That person was gone.
It turned out there was much more to him than that. He was not just a hockey player. He had a good brain in the wrecked splendor of his athlete’s body. After a year of grueling rehabilitation, Roy returned to BU and completed his degree in four years, despite his injury. He was an indomitable spirit, a great soul, an inspiration to dozens of audiences each year as he traveled to deliver motivational speeches. He was a catalyst who brought out the best in others, raising millions for spinal injury research and other grants through his Travis Roy Foundation.
Four years after that moment of difference, that fracturing, that lightning bolt, Boston University retired No. 24 — an honor never before bestowed by the venerable hockey program. Roy was singled out not for the 11 seconds he wore the number in competition, but for the new life he made after his first life ended, a life he had never imagined until he was thrust into it.
Paralysis generally entails further medical problems. Roy’s caught up to him on Thursday, when he died in Vermont of complications after surgery. He was 45.
It was a freak accident on the ice that night a quarter-century ago. But I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older that an awful lot of lives involve a freak accident of some kind or other. We start out thinking of them as utterly improbable, as unreal as a cartoon safe dropping from a clear blue sky. With time, we realize that it’s raining safes, first in a sprinkle but then growing steadier. The one (or more) falling toward us may involve injury or illness, or it might involve the loss of a love, a job, a fortune, a home. The only certainty is uncertainty.
Roy didn’t take the ice against North Dakota with the intention of posing existential questions. But 11 seconds later, he put such questions before us. If all the trappings were stripped away, leaving only my true self, who would I be? Am I living fully as that self in every moment? And when it ends, will my story have meaning?
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