There is a man called Valentino Rossi, and he’s the reason my friend is alive.
Valentino Rossi is a Moto GP rider. You probably knew that already, but I didn’t. Not until very recently. I didn’t even know these guys were called riders rather than drivers; I had to look it up on Google. I barely know what the Moto GP is, except that it involves a bunch of crazy people whizzing around on motorbikes, mostly sideways, at speeds that I cannot begin to comprehend, and the rate at which they fly off their bikes or spin off course or go up in flames makes me wonder how any of them are still alive. But they are, and so is my friend.
This Rossi is good, that much I do know. He is fearless on that bike, and determined; his critics call him an old man, and that makes me feel a vague affinity to him as we are roughly the same age and neither of us is done yet. And the old man regularly leaves his younger competitors behind. If it were me, I’d be tempted to stick two fingers up to the lot of them with every race I won or even completed, but Rossi doesn’t strike me as either arrogant or smug. He’s just a man doing what he does, and he does it well. And he does it regardless of everything: this is the man who suffered a double leg break recently, fracturing the tibia and fibula of his right leg in training. “I’m very sorry for the incident,” he said. “Now I want to be back on my bike as soon as possible.” And he was; within a few weeks he was. Back where he clearly belongs.
I am a writer, and my mind processes everything as stories. This is a story I like: this Valentino Rossi, always smiling, chasing a dream that he can never quite catch up with, because every time he reaches the finish line it moves to the next competition, the next Grand Prix; defying both time and death riding a motorbike sideways, and saving lives. I’m tempted to look up more information about him, to learn about his background, where he started from and how. How he got his first bike, how many times his dream went up in flames or spun off course, what obstacles he had to overcome to get to where he is. But I kind of like my version of him, the picture I’ve formed in my head, put together from half a dozen interviews and a handful of photos, and the way my friend talks about him. I like the way he feels to me, strangely familiar and unfalteringly positive, with that open face of his, and his laughter lines, and a glint in his eyes that tells of the kind of sense of humour I like: the ability to laugh at himself. I can imagine hanging out with Rossi, Vale, as the guys at his fanclub referred to him (I wrote to them; I sent them some half-deranged effort at fanmail-once-removed, and they were nice enough to answer), and feeling very much at ease. Though I have no personal desire to do so; I’m sure meeting him would be lovely, but I wouldn’t go to any distance to make it happen for myself. He is a hero to many, thousands who stand on the sidelines with their faces painted, screaming his name and urging him on, and I am only a fan once-removed. But I owe him a debt much bigger than the collective love and loyalty these people give him every day, because he probably saved my friend’s life.
Probably. Symbolically for sure, though literally the life saving was more down to the surgeon who fixed his heart. Seven hours in surgery without general anaesthetic, because my friend (let’s call him Tom) refused to have the surgery he would most certainly die without if they put him under. He’d had an earlier brush with death, a motorbike accident that almost shattered him completely; he survived the crash, barely, and the helicopter ride to the hospital in Athens, only to nearly lose to his life to sleep, as the doctors worked on fixing his bones. The drug had refused to release its grip on him, and Tom refused the drug, this time around. Seven hours of heart surgery, fighting to stay conscious, fighting the urge to succumb to shock, and to the sweet release of giving up. And the surgeon, another hero in this story, holding onto him as tightly as he could, keeping him tethered to a life that kept trying to get away from him, a life not yet lived, by talking about motor racing and Valentino Rossi. Can you imagine? I can, and I can’t. Tom tells this story easily, because it belongs to him and he survived it, but I find it hard to listen. With every telling, with every devastating detail he supplies, as he sits next to me with eyes sparkling and a flush to his cheeks and limbs dancing and blood pumping rhythmically through his veins, thanks to a heart that was fixed, more alive than anyone I’ve ever known, all I can hear is how close he came to not being here at all. How frightened he must have been.
Can you imagine? Twenty-seven years old, and definitely not done yet, probably not even started, lying pale and flat and still on a surgical bed when he should have been out and upright and flitting around like he always does, being reckless and wild and rebellious and fucking carefree, and a stranger to these bleeping machines for many, many years to come; fighting to keep his grip upon a life that had barely started, only because he was born with a heart that was the wrong shape for beating. Retroactively, it makes my own, healthy heart miss a beat. I’m crying as I write this, and if he knew he’d tell me off, and he’d be right, because he survived and his heart is beating. He’d be right, but it makes me wonder why it had to be so hard; why he’s had to try so hard to survive, when the rest of us, most of us, just muddle along. He’s had to be so strong, so tough; he’s had to harden himself up in many ways, and come to terms with how fleeting life is, how loose our grip on it, too many times, too soon. When he should have been fucking carefree.
I don’t even know if he believes in something, in anything more lasting than each day he wakes up in this world; I don’t know if he believes in miracles, though it’s a miracle that he’s alive. Of the least religious kind there is, the kind of miracle that people make – the kind my non-religious soul can believe in. Tom is from a small Greek island, connected to the mainland, in the off-season months, by three boats a week. The surgery he needed, right now, to save his life, could only be performed at a private cardiology hospital in Athens. At a cost that his family could not afford, thousands and thousands of euro, in exchange for a twenty-seven-year-old boy who was nowhere near done flitting around. The people of his island came together and, within two days, collected the money to cover his hospital fees. And though the donations were anonymous, and his family did whatever they could to keep it from him, Tom found out. And when he did, when he returned to the island after weeks of lying flat and still on a hospital bed, he begged and threatened and managed to get his hands on the bank’s confidential record of those who’d made donations, and he tracked every last one of them down to thank them personally. And this is the man who won’t accept a thank you when he’s done something for you; and he does a lot of things for a lot of people. This is the man I call my friend, and I wouldn’t be able to call him anything if it weren’t for those people, and his doctor, and Valentino Rossi. There is a debt here, and it is mine, because my life would be poorer without him, and I can’t imagine a day when he doesn’t wake up in this world.
They’ve all been thanked, the surgeon who took care of him, the nursing staff at the hospital, the people of this island who put their hands in their pockets, no questions asked – all, but Valentino Rossi. And perhaps this is my thank-you note to him, my half-deranged love letter from a fan once-removed. I’d like to stand before him and thank him personally, look into his eyes and shake his hand. But there’s a distance between that wish and its fulfilment, and from where I stand today, on a random little island in the middle of winter, it’s a distance that only my words can hope to breach.
I have a fantasy, however: that I could bring those two together. That Valentino Rossi will turn up on our little island, and have a drink with Tom. Non-alcoholic because, you know: heart condition. That he’ll turn up, and surprise him, and be a miracle my friend can believe in, so he can start believing in other things, good things and positive outcomes and times ahead that are easy, and in himself, his own worth and his own strength. In things more lasting than each day he spends in this world. In impossible things coming to pass, and sharing a drink with the man who saved your life. Sometimes I revise the fantasy with reason: it is too far for Valentino to travel, out here to our random island in the middle of nowhere, and he’s a busy man. But he’ll invite Tom to his village, Tavullia (I looked it up), and they’ll have a drink there, and talk about getting their first motorbikes and how fast they went, or whatever it is that motorbike people talk about. In a life full of impossible things, in a world full of unlikely heroes, could it happen? Is there a distance I could travel to make it come to pass?
I sort of wish Tom were a little boy, all cute and cherub-like and pitiful, and I could say “Oh Mr Rossi, would you come visit little Tommy and make him smile?”, and it would be a great photo opportunity and all the rest; the media would love it. But, for better or for worse, this Tom, my friend, is a thirty-year-old man with a shaggy beard and a death stare to challenge Darth Vader, and he is often grumpy, often prickly, almost always abrupt, and he is much more likely to send you to hell than to give you a compliment, but he’s the kindest, most generous man I know and, fuck, I’m glad that he’s alive. And he’s not the least bit pitiful – little Tommy wins on that count – but I have a feeling that Valentino, my version, would like him; I think there’s an affinity between these two men that transcends all the distances between them, that goes far beyond a shared love of riding motorbikes sideways and defying death.
So, Valentino Rossi: thank you. I owe you a debt that these words can’t repay. You are a hero to many, but also to me. I won’t paint my face in your colours, but I’m urging you on and I hope you never stop chasing your dreams. And if you’d like to join me in putting a twist in this tale and giving it an impossible happy ending, just show me the distance, and I’ll travel it.
Any inaccuracies in this story are my own.
Image credit: Ultimate Motorcycling