Death as a Reminder for Life

Like many fellow atmospheric scientists, I was stunned to learn of the recent death (by cardiac arrest) of German severe weather researcher Nikolai Dotzek. He was born one year earlier than me. This fine meteorologist, husband and father departed this world far, far too young.

While I didn’t know Nikolai as well as several of my Norman colleagues, who were fortunate enough to venture to Germany and experience Nikolai’s legendary hospitality and generosity, we met when he was at NSSL several years ago, and since had some great communications via e-mail about tornado data, rating storm damage, techniques for forecasting supercells, and the beauty of Salzburg (a common place of travel for each of us). Nikolai had done a couple of very good reviews for EJSSM, among many more for other journals, and our correspondences always were pleasant and insightful. He had begun discussions with fellow editor Dave Schultz and I about setting up some serious collaboration of the European severe storms community with EJSSM. This was a dream of Nikolai’s, one I certainly hope we can realize with his colleagues…somehow, some way.

Though I didn’t know Nikolai personally, this hit home in a way that I have heard such events often do once one folks start rolling down that segment of the timeline somewhere between 40 and 50. Granted, people about my age, that I’ve known either superficially or well, have died every so often throughout my life, ever since a neighbor kid and playmate died when we were 11 after a window fell on his neck and broke it. [I saw him gasp his last breath as the ambulance arrived.] Multiple teenagers whom I knew became gangbangers and died as a result, whether then or later in their 20s. Cancer and accidents have claimed a few young lives I knew. I can count a handful of occasions when I easily could have been killed, whether by stupid kid stunt, street battle, bike crash, lightning or car wreck. In some ways, because I did witness more death and dying as a youth than most of the folks I know, I became rather desensitized and ambivalent toward it.

Something is different about that now. Back in the teens and twenties, in the ignorance and self-delusional immortality of youth, death was just something that happened to “old” people as a matter of normalcy, or a freak thing that happened to other young people who, for the most part, either brought it on themselves (the gangbangers) or were hit by the most rotten of low-probability luck. However, when respected peers in their early-mid 40s start dying of natural causes, something presumably becoming ever more common from now on, it’s a humbling lesson and reminder: in the brevity of our own fleeting window of mortality, in the value of now, to take no day for granted, to appreciate blessings, to see and do whatever you can while you still can, to waste no meaningful opportunity, to not slack off any worthy effort, to strive for no less than personal and professional excellence, to not waste time on wasteful endeavors, to experience places and moments to their deserved depth instead of just enduring or ignoring them, to fight to the fullest when a fight is necessary, to love to the fullest when you love somebody, and to let no love go unsaid.

In short: don’t waste life! Whether you believe in the afterlife (as I do) or not, this truth still holds: We’re only here for a finite period, and it may be much shorter than you think.

It’s simply horrible that Nikolai and others are hit by death in their prime, with so much left to contribute, so much more to accomplish. Still, from the grim and the painful can arise great good. God has a way of turning tragedy and gloom into blessings if we are open to it. If we remember the aforementioned lessons and live by them, that’s what happens. In that way, Nikolai will have left a legacy extending well beyond his immense scientific footprint. I hope that, once the acute anguish of his loss subsides enough, that his family, friends and colleagues can take some solace from that notion, from the idea that his legacy will uplift and motivate numerous people in ways large and small and perhaps even unknown, and that his influence extends well beyond even those people he had met.

RIP, Nikolai. You will not be forgotten.

[EDIT] Updated links:
Here are some great BLOG tributes from those who knew him personally: Dave Schultz and Chuck Doswell, and professionally (ESSL tribute).


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