Every few weeks, I get an email from the Archdiocese regarding the death of a priest. Because I know of many elderly priests facing difficulties, such emails, while sad, are not surprising. But I was positively shocked to get one with the name of Father Chris Coleman, my friend who was in the seminary with me, and who was ordained in 2006. The last time I talked to him, a few weeks ago, we had vague plans to get together for dinner. He was 50.
The news reports indicate that he had just finished a round of golf on Sunday afternoon -- it was a beautiful day! -- and he was riding in a car with someone else driving. The driver lost control of the car, it flipped over, and Father Coleman died of the injuries. I don't know anything more about the circumstances, and nothing about what follows is in any way a hint or suggestion about what I think those circumstances are.
Yesterday afternoon I was out driving myself, after learning this terrible news, and three lessons in particular came to the fore:
1. Driving is serious business: respect it.
Nothing defines freedom quite like having a driver's license and a car. We all know older friends or family members who have had to give up driving, and it's a very difficult thing to do. I can remember when I first began driving, and I was a nervous wreck. My first few years driving, I wasn't that great a driver: I had several speeding tickets and few fender-benders; thankfully, nothing too serious. In my more mature years, I have managed to leave all that behind.
So it's easy to get to become blase about driving, forgetting that we are behind the wheels of something weighing close to a ton, capable of being propelled at speeds well over 100 miles per hour. In my lifetime, this casualness has been abetted by a succession of safety measures and conveniences. When I learned to drive in 1978, the car didn't have power steering or power brakes; it was an automatic transmission, but this was still deemed an upgrade from "standard" (i.e., clutch) transmission. Only in 1968 were seat belts mandated for cars, and I can remember riding in cars that didn't have them. Airbags seem like an "only yesterday" sort of thing; and there are many other ways cars are so much safer than they used to be. Injuries and deaths from car accidents were far more common in the past than today. It is very easy today to think of the car practically driving itself (and that's not science fiction anymore), and to allow bad habits to creep in.
Just because bad things don't happen most of the time, doesn't mean they won't happen to you. There used to be a thing called "defensive driving." If you don't know what it is, look it up: it can save your life. The techniques I'm talking about, I learned in driver's ed almost 40 years ago; and while I confess I don't always follow them, I know I'm stupid not to. Things like keeping alert behind the wheel, all the time, keeping an assured distance between your vehicle and whoever is in front of you, and paying attention to what's going on further down the road. Common sense stuff.
Driving is awesome, in all senses. Take it seriously.
2. Driving and alcohol don't mix. It's no secret that in this rural part of Ohio, drinking is a favorite pastime, even for many in their teenage years. A lot of adults wink at it. It's how a lot of folks spend their weekends.
I might point out that getting drunk is a mortal sin, because you are doing serious damage to your ability to make right judgments. To put it simply, drinking causes bad decisions to cascade; and it makes it a lot more likely you'll end up in a situation you may regret the rest of your life, or even seeing your life dramatically altered...or simply ended.
Also, realize that the legal limit for alcohol if you are driving is .08% blood alcohol, which is notably below what it takes, for many (if not most) people, to be "drunk." That is to say, you stop being legally qualified to drive a car well before you sense that you are snockered. Just because you know people who drove "buzzed" or drunk, and came out OK, doesn't confer any magic on you. Only a few months ago, a young man died along Versailles Road one night after drinking too much, and driving.
3. Death can come anytime for anyone. Be ready. Although airplane travel is far safer than driving, there is something about take-off and landing to focus the mind, at least for me. I have been on a plane when I knew I needed to go to confession, and made the most heartfelt act of contrition when it started shaking a bit from turbulence. On the other hand, there is nothing like the feeling of being absolved and being in a state of grace.