Behind the Story: Jigme Norbu’s Death–and Flagler’s Responsibility to His Last Steps
Pierre Tristam | February 15, 2011
[Note: A ceremonial tribute and a symbolic three-mile walk in Jigme Norbu’s memory was held on Thursday, Feb. 17, at the accident site. Details here.]
It started with an email from a trusted source (let’s call him Richard): “I just learned that the nephew of the Dalai Lama is on a walk along the A1A from St. Augustine to Palm Beach ‘Walk for Tibet’ and his group is staying overnight tonite (Monday) in the Hammock, and will be walking through Flagler Beach on Tuesday. Just going to meet them at JT’s shortly. Sorry about the short notice, but thought you might be interested.”
I was. But it was late. Richard had sent his email at 8:15 p.m. I read it at 8:40. I was wrapping up what I thought was going to be a shorter day than usual, trying at least to nominally have an hour’s Valentine observance with Cheryl, who was just ending her own marathon day with the youth orchestra.
I looked up the nephew’s website. There he was, Jigme Norbu, in a picture from the Jacksonville airport, under what proved to be his last headline: “Day before the walk Sunday, feb13th arriving at Jacksonville Florida.” I could always catch him the following day somewhere along A1A, as I had the “World Guy” doing his walk for Diabetes earlier this month. The World Guy had done his walk along less scenic, noisier U.S. 1. I’d asked him why. “Safety,” he’d said, citing the narrower, more gravely confines of A1A.
- A Morning Memorial on A1A for Jigme Norbu Before His Walk Resumes By Other Steps
- Dalai Lama’s Nephew Killed by a Car While Walking for Tibet on A1A in the Hammock
- Dalai Lama’s Nephew’s Last Day: Jigme Norbu Remembered, and His Mission Honored
- Walk for Tibet Website
Norbu was traveling with a small group. Catching him at the restaurant might be more convenient for all of us than interrupting him on his walk the next day. He likes to walk 25 miles a day or more. Liked. Valentine would wait.
As I drove up A1A I noticed in the far distance, past J.T.’s, that sinister twinkle of red and blue police lights. Wouldn’t be responsible to ignore them for a cushier interview. I drove on to investigate, parked behind a few trucks, walked up to the scene. The familiar faces of the fire police were there, as was the Florida Highway Patrol. Pedestrian hit by a car, I was told. A fatality. A sheriff’s deputy offered to get a highway patrol trooper who could give me the basics. He asked that I not walk further. I was on the sidewalk, paralleling the school district’s adult education building and parking lot. I looked around. From where I stood, I could see it: across the street, a body laid out, covered by a thin tarp.
I had no way to reach Richard directly. But this is how a reporter’s mind works, clinically, coldly, hoping to get every story whatever the circumstances: a body is laying across the road, and I’m calling Cheryl, asking her to call J.T.’s, locate Richard there, let him know I’d be late and ask him to call me.
Moments later the highway patrol trooper allowed that the body across the street was that of a man who’d been walking for Tibet. I was stunned, but didn’t—couldn’t—believe it was Norbu. He was traveling with three other people, maybe others who’d joined him along the way. He was an experienced walker: almost 8,000 miles so far, on terrains and in some countries less hospitable than A1A’s well-marked pavement. It couldn’t possibly be him. Not on a mission like that. Not that any mission’s virtue has ever interfered with cruelty’s alternate designs. Not that anyone one else’s life was less significant to lose in such an insignificant way.
Before leaving my desk I’d printed Norbu’s webpage’s Florida walk material. I took it out to show the trooper, who couldn’t tell me who the man on the ground was, though she read the printout several times, and gradually made it apparent that it was him. She just couldn’t say so. Norbu’s family in Indiana hadn’t been notified. Moments later I reached Richard by phone. He confirmed it.
By then it was 9:16 p.m. The call to the highway patrol had gone out at 7:26. Norbu’s body was only now being removed. It had taken the medical examiner that long to get there from St. Augustine. The group Norbu was traveling with had gone back to St. Augustine, having been told that that’s where the body would be returned that evening. The 31-year-old Palm Coast driver of the Kia that hit Norbu, Keith O’Dell, was still there, cooperating with police all along. He’d done nothing wrong. He may have been hugging the white line, but that’s not illegal. It is illegal, the trooper told me, to walk with traffic in Florida, though that’s not the sort of detail that’ll shield O’Dell from criticism that’ll be as unjust as it’ll be malinformed, criticism likely to pale compared with the guilt he’ll live with, given the dimensions of the tragedy. The word accident is often misused. Not in this case. It could have happened to any of us, in either man’s shoes.
I drove down to the Hammock Wine and Cheese Shoppe, where Richard was with Damian Collins, the owner, who’d been among the last—if not the last—to speak with Norbu, less than an hour before he died. She’d arranged with him to host him and his group for the night on her property. She’d set out three cans of coconut milk, some food, a big bar of soap and a towel on the picnic table between the gallery and the shop, and that note: “Please make yourselves at home. It is an honor to have you here.” It reminded me of the bowl of fruit and crayon note I’d left, 35 years ago, for my father on his bed the night he died, before I knew. (He died at 46. Norbu was 45.) Simple gestures like that take on a meaning we never imagined, and sometimes, like Damian’s note, speak words that say a lot more than they’d been meant to say.
But a little perspective is in order. The fact that this took place in Flagler County isn’t in itself relevant, and certainly shouldn’t be made relevant in the way that it risks being—in giving this county the kind of attention, however dubious, that it craves so much, sometimes to embarrassing excess. To seek a moment’s national fame out of Norbu’s death would have the same slapstick vulgarity as the passing mention of, say, Palm Coast on the Letterman show. It misses the forest for vanity’s trees. The tragedy, in this case, isn’t even Norbu’s death. That’s one death: enormous for the emotional resonance of the cause he represented, incalculable for his family, as any death always is, but also overwhelmed by a far greater loss. The point of his walks, the point of his devotion to his cause, was to bring attention to the ongoing crime of China’s oppression of millions in Tibet, of China’s murder of hundreds of thousands there, of China’s ongoing cultural genocide that, with time, may well reduce Tibetan culture to a memory. Norbu’s death was an accident. Tibet’s death isn’t. And given a globe’s complicit silence, it isn’t China’s doing alone.
Flagler County is a small world, often intentionally so, often too impressed by its own smallness, though that’s not a local distinction, either. Norbu’s walk was a small breach against the smallness. It would be compounding loss upon loss if his death had a greater effect elsewhere than in what will always be the grounds of his very last steps.
Flagler County now has a responsibility to those steps, to his memory, if not his mission. A few potted plants by the side of the road won’t do: let’s not bury this responsibility with Chinese silence.