Story by Aitana Yvette Mallari
Photo by Loren Worthington
Ernie Lizarraga holds up his latest project: a motorcycle helmet, painted to look like a blasted skull, the brain exposed at the back. An anatomy book lies on the ground next to his airbrush.
His attention to detail is impressive—and grotesque—but Lizarraga is not satisfied.
“Looks too much like intestines.”
Back to the workbench it goes. Once completed, it will join the other helmets, a family of silver and granite which look down from a higher shelf, lined like birds on a telephone wire observing newer works.
Exposed brain on a motorcycle helmet. It’s one of the last things one would expect Lizarraga to paint, given his history.
Vivid, Yet Fleeting
He stops at the threshold of a small white bedroom filled with pencil sketches. In one scene, a paratrooper looks out from the open door of a plane; he is ready to fall. In another, he’s hurtling toward the ground, caught in the harrowing milliseconds after deploying his parachute. In a third, he clutches his rifle in one hand and stands in the middle of nowhere.
Although the drawings are up to 25 years old, they still kick start nostalgia.
“They’re my experiences,” he said, waving his hand over them.
They’re not far from what snapshots of memories would look like. Fun, yet dangerous. Stressful, yet euphoric.
Vivid, yet fleeting.
In another room is a paint-splattered desk, the walls layered with posters and photos of firefighting and family. Every piece of memorabilia seemed to have an adrenaline-soaked anecdote attached and Lizarraga spoke of shooting guns, infernos and motorcycles with wistful admiration.
He owed his risk-taking mindset to an incident his fire department responded to 20 years ago. An Ahwatukee woman was struck by a bullet while barbequing and killed. The sheer randomness of it was enough to change his perspective on life. You could take every precaution but still be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Hiding from fate, he realized, was futile.
It’s why he still rode motorcycles.
“I knew,” he said. “It’s dangerous, it is.”
I glance at a couple school pictures on the wall.
“What about your daughters?” I ask. “Do they ride?”
Lizarraga purses his lips and answers with a firm no.
“They’re smart,” he said, reaching for a stack of photos.
As he shuffles them, I catch glimpses.
Fire. Metal. Asphalt.
“It Felt Like a Bad Nightmare”
In 2010, Lizarraga and seven other members of Phoenix recreational motorcycle club, MC Kruzers, were en route to Bartlett Lake. They were waiting at a stoplight when a sanitation dump truck plowed through without warning.
Lizarraga was thrown off his motorcycle and into darkness.
Paramedics swarmed the area, initially pronouncing the then-52-year-old Lizarraga dead at the scene due to the gravity of his injuries. He was in such good shape that they described him as a 40-year-old male. It was a compliment, sort of.
He would live to laugh at that.
He awoke six weeks later tangled in wires. He had 26 fractured bones, one collapsed lung and no sight in his right eye.
Four motorcyclists from the club lost their lives to the incident.
He would later learn the driver, Michael Jakscht (pronounced ‘snatched’, although Lizarraga pronounces it phonetically), was high on meth and failed to stop his 12-ton truck at the intersection when he ploughed into Lizarraga’s group.
“It felt like a bad nightmare,” Lizarraga says.
He sets the photos down and walks away.
“They Got Him Back”
It is October 31, 2017.
Lizarraga’s wife, Lorri Lizarraga, stands over the stove in the kitchen. She is making chili for her daughter’s Halloween party. Their daughter and son-in-law plan to dress up as characters from Ghostbusters. She’s especially excited about her grandchild.
“The baby is gonna be the marshmallow monster,” Lorri said, ushering us to the dinner table.
She tilts her head toward the rest of the kitchen and living room, which looks like a cover of Martha Stewart Living magazine. A Halloween movie plays on the TV to an audience of pumpkins, black cats and friendly ghosts.
“I used to go all out,” she said, referring to the decor. “But now I just keep it to the kitchen.”
As the chili warms on the stove, Lorri Lizarraga taps her chin.
“How would I describe Ernie?” she asks herself, taking a moment to collect her thoughts. “He’s stubborn, a very, very good artist, physically fit, great dad, great grandad, a hard worker…lots of great verbs.”
Lizarraga is next. “She cooks good, cleans the house real good…” he looks at his wife. She raises her eyebrows. “…and she states her opinion.” His short response earns a smirk.
Lorri didn’t learn a lot from the quick and panicked phone call following her husband’s collision. Although there would later be over 300 pages of police reports for that, she made a chilling realization: her husband wasn’t wearing a helmet.
“He wore one when he rode alone,” she said, “But in a group—he doesn’t.”
Lizarraga shrugs his shoulders. He doesn’t have a reason he wasn’t wearing a helmet.
“Stupid,” he grunts.
After the incident, Lorri faced medical bills that arrived at her doorstep in banker boxes and the herculean challenge of helping her husband re-learn how to breathe, eat, walk and talk again.
Thankfully, she wasn’t alone. With the support of his colleagues at the Phoenix Fire Department, Lizarraga regained his mobility and speech.
And he’s slowly regaining something more: his art.
When he isn’t working as a firefighter at the training academy, Lizarraga usually spends his days creating. You can often find him drawing for department yearbooks, or drawing a portrait of a fellow firefighter who fell in the line of duty.
He’s in the process of making a comic book on firefighting, complete with vignettes from his personal experiences on the job. It’s a project 25 years in the process.
Lizzarraga’s arm doesn’t work the way it used to and his artwork from the last few years look a little different from the previous. His standards, however, remain unchanged.
“His pre-accident art was absolutely perfect,” Lorri said. “He was—gosh, that could’ve been his other job.”
She’s seen his frustration firsthand. What used to be hours of work now took weeks.
“I’ll walk by and see him crumple his work and throw it away. He compares himself to how he used to be.”
As she leaves to finalize the chili, Lizarraga opens the sliding glass door to the backyard.
“I still have it, you know,” he said.
“The bike. I still have it.”
Outside, the world is blanketed in the afternoon sun. The scent of nectar lingers underneath a canopy of fruit trees and flower bushes. It was Lorri’s personal Eden, where life came in every shade of green.
On the concrete near a side wall, hidden behind a parked boat, was the motorcycle.
Lizarraga had attempted to repair it, but decided against it. Sunlight bounces off the broken windshield still burnished with skid marks the size of dollars, rust claimed the parts that paint abandoned. We stare in silence for a while.
“Does it bring back memories?” I ask.
We stop through the garage. There was the helmet again, along with the airbrush and anatomy book. Looking at the brain for a second time, it does look a little too much like intestines.
Lizarraga pats the helmet softly.
“I’ve always done stuff a little different,” he said. “I always have to be doing something.”
To Lizarraga, nothing was going to stop him from doing the things he did before.
Not even fate.
Aitana Yvette Mallari
Aitana Yvette Mallari is an online media journalist who runs on caffeine and WiFi. She’s lived in the Middle East, Asia, and both coasts of the US and writes about health, tech, and amazing people doing amazing things. She is studying at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications and probably has a deadline to get to.