After child's death, parents can't regret letting him race

OTHER VOICES

September 29, 2007|By Mark McGuire | Mark McGuire,Albany Times Union

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- The day Connor LaFrance lost control of his motorcycle on a routine practice run, his father, David, held him in an Alabama hospital as the rest of the family rushed south just in time to say goodbye.

It was then that Andrea LaFrance said the three most important words her husband, David, could hear.

No, not "I love you."

"Don't feel guilty," she said.

David LaFrance understood, even if it contradicted his initial remorse: "I brought Connor to the track under my care, but I didn't bring him home."

A motorcycle racer himself, the Air National Guard pilot and former ski jumper could have been felled by overwhelming whys and what ifs after his 14-year-old son's death. Why did I let him race? Why did I let him take the risk? What if I just said, `No?'"

But reflection provided the parents and others ready answers.

"That was Connor," his dad said as he prepared for his son's wake and funeral. "That is who he was. He was a motorcycle racer."

It's that simple. Friends and family of Connor LaFrance - accomplished snowboarder, rising dirt and road track motorcycle racer, star travel team hockey player, adrenaline junkie - knew instinctively no one here deserves the burden of guilt.

Connor LaFrance was doing what he loved, being what he loved. What framed his life resulted in his death at Barber Motorsports Park outside of Birmingham, Ala. While his death is heartbreaking, its manner seems somehow fitting, those who know him said.

"If he would have died getting hit by a car or some other way, that would have been more tragic," Andrea LaFrance said. "He went out the way he should have gone out.

"But I didn't want him to leave yet."

The parents have been remarkably composed after their only son's death. They have two daughters, ages 16 and 11. They might not be at peace with his death, but at least they are with the way he died.

David and Andrea LaFrance have answered for themselves the intrinsic question all parents anxiously ponder: How much freedom - and inherent risk - should kids be afforded?

Parents want to protect children from dangers real, overinflated and imagined. Perils can be found in any pursuit, whether going to the corner for milk or riding a bike to a friend's house.

Pursuing any passion comes with risk, whether it is love (rejection) or art (poverty) or sports. Kids suffer injuries, some catastrophic, every day in football and soccer and baseball. Otherwise healthy basketball players die of arrhythmia. It doesn't have to be motorcycles. Stuff happens.

Parents can remove many of life's risks. The question then becomes: Does overprotectiveness rob a kid of his or her life? Here's another: Can setting undue limits not only stunt youths but even compel them to rebel in unhealthy ways?

Yes, the LaFrances could have said no to motorcycles. But they know it would have eaten at their son. "He wouldn't be happy," his mom said. "He wouldn't be Connor."

This was a kid who would speak to a special education class on his own time. Who had flocks of friends. Who at age 10 printed business cards offering "Connor's Kid Services ... Helpful & Dependable."

His dad and uncle took him to a Green Day concert a couple of years ago. While the men were out getting a beer, the band pulled Connor onstage from the masses. (He then squirted the crowd with a Super Soaker.)

Still, concerned moms would continually confront Andrea LaFrance with the same question:

"How can you let him race? Doesn't that scare you?"

"How can I not?" she'd reply. "That's what he lives for."

Connor LaFrance began riding motorcycles at age 5, but his dad let him begin racing only in the past two years. This year, the son took over his dad's racing number: 767.

The crash itself seemed routine, not at a very high speed. The bike seemed to be functioning properly. From his vantage point, David LaFrance couldn't see exactly what happened. Likely, he'll never know.

Connor's room remains as he left it. His headboard is covered with hockey and lacrosse trophies. Racing trophies take up much of his closet floor, his dresser and a corner of his room. Plaques won for racing are neatly stacked by the door, still in protective wrappers. He was looking forward to winning money instead.

Connor LaFrance was an indifferent student. Too indoors. But he did get praise and a sticker for one second-grade paper. The assignment: "What Shall I Be?"

"I want to be a dirt bike racer. I want to be the fastest dirt bike racer in the world. I want to win money! I want to b a professional one too! This is what I want to do when I grow up!"

Good parents encourage their kids to follow dreams. Sometimes, those kids actually achieve them.

Mark McGuire writes for the Albany Times Union.

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