I was already in mourning when I saw the twin Trade Towers fall. My heart's been bruised ever since February, when I lost my hero, Dale Earnhardt.
All those thousands of deaths in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took my grief to a level deeper than I could ever have fathomed. God knows that morning unleashed a hellmouth of horror unimaginable even in our wildest dreams, and for days I downloaded images from The New York Times, candid photos of smiling individuals who fell so suddenly at Ground Zero, until I could put a human face on the carnage. But I had to struggle to find a personal connection with those who died there and at the Pentagon and in that grassy field in Pennsylvania. Dale's death was a more intimate loss, wrapped now in a greater tragedy. Grief takes its toll, even as it takes its time.
One thing I've learned from teaching how different cultures handle death and observing how my own spirit deals with the loss of loved ones is that, to quote an old African tribal poem:
Those who are dead are never gone:
They are in the thickening shadow.
The dead are not under the earth:
They are in the tree that rustles,
They are in the wood that groans,
They are in the water that runs,
They are in the water that sleeps,
They are in the hut, they are in the crowd:
The dead are not dead.
Earnhardt ran only one race this year, but his presence haunted the entire 36-event NASCAR season, from the first contest at Daytona, where he was killed, to the last at New Hampshire, originally scheduled for Sept. 16 but postponed to Nov. 23 after the world went to hell and back in about the time it takes to run a 500-mile race.
As you may know, Dale died after hitting the wall on the last lap of the Daytona 500. At the time, he was running interference so his son Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip, both driving cars owned by the elder Earnhardt, could jockey for NASCAR's biggest win. In a scene too dramatic even for Hollywood, Waltrip took the checkered flag half a car length ahead of Junior and half a straightaway past Earnhardt's mangled car.
One week later, my younger brother and I met at Rockingham to mourn our loss, and we were comforted beyond words to watch Steve Park, piloting another of Earnhardt's racecars, drive to victory in the Dura Lube 400. Two weeks later, Kevin Harvick, the rookie driver who took over Earnhardt's ride (minus the trademark Number 3, painted over with Harvick's Number 29), pulled into Victory Lane in Atlanta's Cracker Barrel 500.
It gets better: At the second Daytona race, the Pepsi 400, held on my brother's birthday, July 7, Dale Jr. and Waltrip played hopscotch, Little E finishing just ahead of his teammate. After the finish, they both spun doughnuts in the infield grass and climbed out of their steaming cars to give hugs and high-fives. We watched the race at my father's, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Afterward the moon hung silent in the distance as I shot bottle rockets off Dad's deck and watched them blaze up, pop and disappear down the dark mountainside.
The very next week, Harvick again drove Dale's car to victory at Chicago's Tropicana 400. As if that wasn't enough, Junior took two more races. On Sept. 23 he won the Dover Downs MBNA.com 400, and on Oct. 21 he grabbed what might have been the sweetest prize of all: the EA Sports 500 at Talladega, the fastest track on the circuit and also the last race his father ever won.
The specter of Earnhardt was not always a friendly ghost. Steve Park hit the wall in a Busch Series race at Darlington in August, and when rescue crews covered his car with a huge blue tarp so they could extract him, that old bastard Death reared his ugly head again. But Park survived the crash, and after rehab, plans to race again next year.
Perhaps the most certain evidence of Earnhardt's survival was a stunt pulled by Robbie Gordon, the young upstart who will take over as Harvick's teammate in 2002. In the last race of the year, Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt's nemesis who became his good friend, had already wrapped up the season championship and was leading in the final laps. The other Gordon slipped up behind him and, in true Intimidator style, tapped his rear fender and spun him out. The usually unflappable Jeff, a devout Christian, was so incensed he later rammed Robbie's car from behind. So much for turning the other cheek. After years of swapping metal with Earnhardt, Jeff must have felt haunted indeed.
They say you don't appreciate something until it's gone. My struggle this year has been to keep my interest in a sport that's lost its main draw, a trial I saw my own grandfather weather after his favorite driver, Fireball Roberts, was killed in a nasty wreck at Charlotte back in the 1960s. It sure as hell hasn't been the same, not even close, but week after week I've watched Earnhardt's legacy come into its own. After all was said and done, NASCAR held its annual awards banquet at New York's cushy Waldorf Astoria hotel, and both Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick, who was voted Rookie of the Year, sat at the table reserved for the season's top 10 drivers, tuxedoed good ol' boys basking in the urban spotlight.
All 10 award winners spoke of their admiration for Earnhardt and their grief over losing him. The champion Gordon, one of Earnhardt's fiercest rivals, recalled their friendship and the many things he had learned from his mentor, both on and off the track. He also spoke of seeing the incredible devastation on his recent visit to Ground Zero and recognized the police and firefighters who had given their lives there.
Garthzilla Brooks sang his megahit "The Dance" as a tribute to Earnhardt, and though this pop-country superstar leaves me cold, his words struck a nerve that connects both my smaller and our larger griefs:
And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end
The way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I'd of had to miss the dance.
Who could've imagined NASCAR and country music would take over the world? As my grandmother always said, "If you live long enough, you're liable to see just about anything." Humans walking on the moon, the Berlin Wall torn down, commandeered airliners demolishing skyscrapers--just about anything.
The most touching tribute of the evening was the appearance of Earnhardt's widow Teresa, who has all but disappeared from public view since his death. After a standing ovation, with a trembling voice she accepted in Earnhardt's absence an award the ornery driver might never have won had he lived to see retirement: Most Popular Driver. It blessed my heart to see that Teresa had somehow found her smile. As Dale Jr. stood to receive his Top Ten award, with his blond hair, Cheshire Cat grin and granite jaw, he was the spitting image of his daddy. Evoking both the humility and the indomitable spirit of Big E, he said, "When I reflect on the past season, I feel both grief and happiness. Losing my father was difficult, but I feel confident moving into the future. I've missed my father's approval very much, but one day soon my team will headline this joint."
At the Darlington race just nine days prior to the terrorist attacks in September, I removed my hat as I stood before one of the signs hung in an inconspicuous corner of the infield. The sign commemorates the drivers who have won at the infamous Track Too Tough to Tame, a site I've loved since I saw my first race there when I was 10, now hallowed ground. The sign read, "Darlington Winner's Alley: Dale Earnhardt," and listed his nine victories. In my mind's eye, I saw one of the things I liked and miss most about Dale: his moustache, half hiding that sweet, cocky smile. Somehow that bristly caterpillar across his upper lip reminds me he was a man, by turns foolish and inspiring, intimidating and generous.
How could anyone so alive, so full of piss and vinegar, just up and disappear? I don't know, but his death has changed me, as so many of us have been altered by the events of the past months. I'd like to think I take fewer things for granted, especially the people I love and who love me. I try to listen a little more attentively to what folks say and how they say it. I take closer note of the fear and hope in their eyes, and I'm a bit more willing to shake a hand and to give and receive a hug. Maybe most important of all, I find deep comfort in the knowledge that those who have gone on before, who no longer walk this mortal coil, are still in a very real sense here with us. If we take time to remember them, to truly appreciate what they meant to us and the things they taught us, we can draw strength from their continued company and experience their presence in ways we never could while they were still alive.
The dead are not dead.