Last Sunday, I found out that a dear friend of mine from college died...in April. That's right. He died six months ago, and I just found out...through the wonders of Facebook no less. I was shocked, deeply saddened, and angry. It's taken a few days to sink in and, of course, there's something I've taken away from the situation.
There should be a new word invented to describe John because current English vernacular just doesn't cut it. So let me do the best I can with what I have. We met when we were freshmen in college and he was magnetic - people were just drawn to him. The guys wanted to be his friend. The women wanted to date him. He was the proverbial life of the party without being obnoxious. He was handsome in a Mel Gibson kind of way (back when Mel Gibson was normal and popular), but didn't know it one bit. He made everyone he met feel special because he exuded warmth. He was quick to hug you, but just as quick to punch someone in the face if they were causing trouble. Once he was your friend, he was always on your side and he'd be harder to shake than a bad habit.
After college, he joined the military and we lost touch for a period of time while I was in law school. Then sometime after I moved to DC, we managed to get back in touch (although I'm not sure how because this was before the days of Facebook). Eventually we drifted out of touch again and then a couple of years ago, up popped a message from him on Facebook.
The thing about John is that it didn't matter how many years had lapsed, we could always pick up like no time had passed. In the intervening years, he'd been married, had two children, and gotten divorced. He was still in the Army, had been deployed I don't know how many times, and was now stationed in Oklahoma. I hadn't seen him since college, but we'd always talked about trying to see each other over Christmas when he'd be traveling to Nebraska to see his kids. Unfortunately, it never happened.
I know that I talked to John last Christmas, but I honestly can't remember the last time I talked to him this year. I got too busy with my house, Ironman training, etc., and it'd been several months since we talked. I had sent him some text messages and emails a few months ago because I hadn't heard from him. I even thought he "de-friended" me on Facebook because I tried to check his page one day and it wasn't there. So I sent him a text message, didn't hear back, and a few days later his page re-appeared. Finally, last Sunday, I went onto his Facebook page to send him a message and see what he'd been up to. I thought maybe I hadn't heard from him because he'd been deployed. I literally almost posted a message on his Facebook page to say "Hello, are you alive? Haven't heard from you, so drop me a line." Then for some reason I started reading through some of the other posts on his page. People were saying "I miss you. Wish you were here." "We felt your presence over us today." And as I continued to scroll through all of these posts, I slowly started to realize what happened....
John's last Facebook post was right before Easter, when he posted a message to his kids telling them to find lots of Easter eggs and saying how much he loved and missed them. Then a few days later, he died. I emailed one of his fraternity friends to find out what happened. Apparently, he had gone out for a run, came back to his house, and had a heart attack. That's it. This larger than life guy, who had kicked some major middle eastern ass as a First Sergeant in the Army, went out with a heart attack alone in his house.
I was beside myself. It was 11:30 at night and the first thing I did was call my boyfriend to leave him a message while he was sleeping just to tell him I loved him. Then I called my mom, sobbing. The next day I was a mess. Thank God most of my good friends are at work, so I was able to talk to a couple of them during the day and am so thankful for their support.
Besides just struggling with the fact that my friend was dead and I could never talk to him again, I was torturing myself because I didn't make more of an effort earlier this year to talk to him. I don't pretend to think that I could have somehow prevented him from having a heart attack. Although if I'd talked to him earlier in the year and he'd mentioned to me that he was thinking of going for a run, I may have advised him to consult a physician. John had always been pretty lean; but, judging from his pictures on Facebook, he'd gained quite a bit of weight over the years, due in part I'm sure to a diet high in beer. John had always drank a lot - he was a good Irish boy - and he liked hs beer and cigarettes. So although I'm not sure why his heart gave out, I wouldn't be surprised if the beer and cigarettes had something to do with it. Anyway, doesn't matter. What matters is that I don't remember the last time I talked to him and I didn't put in the effort to make time to talk to him.
I've already done the blog about what an ass I've felt like over the past year because I've neglected my family and friends because I was "too busy." That's not really what this is about. Yes, I've learned from John's death that life is precious - time missed with your family and friends is time you'll never get back. While your busy life is ticking away the minutes, someone dear to you can literally die. I certainly don't wish that upon anyway, but that's the cold hard truth. So, yes, from John's death I certainly have solidified my recent realization that I need to be better at balancing my priorities and making time for the loved ones in my life even amongst the chaos. This, however, isn't about what I learned from his death. I think that the best way you can honor someone who has died, is to take what you learned from their life and put it into practice. So this is about what I learned from John's life.
What I learned from John's life is this: Be a force. John was a force. He moved through everything in his life with a force. He had tremendous obstacles in his life to overcome, from both his childhood and adulthood. Yet through it all, good and bad, whether it was a party, a deployment in Afghanistan, time with his kids, or his relationships, he put it all out there. He put his heart, mind, blood, sweat, and tears into all of it. And you felt the effect of his force.
Merriam Webster defines a force as "strength or energy exerted or brought to bear; cause of motion or change; active power." I guess maybe that's the best word I can find to describe John - he was a force. In response to any obstacle, he brought to bear every ounce of strength and energy he had.
Next Sunday, November 20th, I'll be doing my first Ironman. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to him last Sunday was to hear his words of encouragement. John was always one of my biggest fans. He supported me, no matter what, and knew what to say to motivate me. Now that he's gone, I have to imagine what he'd say to me to settle my nerves. But what I don't have to imagine, are his actions and how he got through challenging times in his life. I can think about his courage, strength, passion, and heart, and I can draw on those. I can think about how he used all the strength and energy he had to move through any resistance he encountered in life. He truly was a force to be reckoned with, and I will do my best to emulate that - not only in the Ironman, but in all things. To honor my friend, I will be a force.
In all things in life, whatever obstacle or challenge you encounter, be a force...
"Obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it." - Michael Jordan