A couple weeks ago, I got one of those phone calls you don’t want to get, the ones that — this you realize later — divide time into before and after.
What?” I said. “What?” Uncomprehending. Because Mike was a runner — perhaps the best known runner in this large and lively running community — and 47, fit and vital. And yet: a heart attack at home. A natural death that could not have seemed more unnatural.
Most of us know though painful experience that the death of a loved one changes our lives forever. That phone call reminded me that the death of a person we don’t know well can also rend the fabric of our lives by dint of sheer goodness, a rare commodity in a world that has never needed it more.
Mike had been an inspiration to me, a serious runner with a bountiful sense of play that enlivened everything he touched. Smart, funny. I met him years ago, a lean, handsome guy who could have blown by lesser runners without a second look, but always offered a winning smile and encouraging words.
I first saw him during a training run that involved long hill repeats up a winding road that marked the turnaround in an upcoming trail race. I was 50 then, and managing about two repeats to every four cranked out by the younger runners. Me slogging up, Mike flying down. Catching my eye, offering that smile and encouragement: You’re looking great! Keep it up!
His memorial service a week ago was packed with people who knew him as I did, because Mike was heavily involved with the local running club. He organized a sunrise training group, co-directed a four-race winter series and frequently volunteered at other events. I saw him regularly on training runs and at races, always encouraging other runners. It was Mike who shared my exuberance after an improbable age-group win at a half-marathon two years ago, Mike who poured my celebratory beer in the finish area.
It became clear at the memorial that this generous spirit permeated every area of his life. Whether with family or friends, at the office, or volunteering for other organizations, Mike was remembered for his support, his work ethic, his good humor. He had inspired countless others, strangers to one another who were now connected by grief for a man many of us barely knew but already missed in a way that was difficult to articulate.
Maybe the service consoled them; I hope, at least, that it comforted those who really knew and loved Mike. It left me feeling empty and irritated by the officiant’s deference to God’s mysterious ways, which seemed wholly inadequate. I found no sense — let alone solace — in the notion of a God who supposedly felt compassion and shared our sorrow over a death He — being God — presumably orchestrated, or at least could have prevented.
But beneath my anger I felt what filled that chapel, which had nothing to do with God and everything to do with human hearts breaking because something deeply, demonstrably good in our lives — whether at the core or along the edges — was suddenly, shockingly gone. We were helpless, and none of us knew what to do or say. But we were gathered there, hundreds of us, and into that still and fragmented space rushed whatever stories we had to tell to get through it. Because that strong runner’s body containing the big and kind heart we could not imagine failing was lying embalmed in a casket about to be put beneath the earth. And the travesty of it — the indecency — could not abide silence.
I am telling a story, too, the one that comforts me. In it, Mike’s spirit has rejoined the whole from which it was cleaved when he came into his body 47 years ago, his energy reunited with the greater energy from which we come and to which we eventually return. For him, there is an end to the suffering that inevitably arises as we are cast into skin, an end to the essential separation that haunts human existence. Mike is back home.
Maybe this is true. And maybe not. It’s just my story, the story I tell to fill the void Mike left.
But this I do know: Some people hold a space for goodness, an expanse whose size and shape cannot be fully apprehended until they vacate it. The power of their presence is seen clearly only in hindsight, starkly illuminated by their absence. Something larger and finer than a single human departs when such a person dies: a grace, a hope, a loveliness. An encouragement in a world that desperately needs encouragement.
The phone rings; I pick it up. Time stops, wavers, then reconsolidates jaggedly around a space, a feeling, a time. Before and after.
Before and after Mike.