I remember running. It’s weird to think back to it actually, there were people everywhere, back when hundreds of people could gather in the same place without fear of becoming ill. There were so many different colored shirts and shorts and leggings and vests and shoes. We looked like a mob of tropical birds fleeting from prey, but more graceful. I’d like to think of myself as more of a “gazelle-like” runner. I’m probably not.
It was October, not Halloween yet, but close enough for the race to assume the title of, “The Haunted Hustle”. October 17th. There were 4 of us. My mom and I, my friend, Noelle and her mom, Shelby. We had known each other since daycare and became bestfriends, so our moms had no other option than to befriend one another. It was a 5k and the 2 of us who were a bit more youthful decided to run the race while each of our moms chose a leisure walk. To be honest, I’m unsure why we signed up for the event in the first place, we did enough running in our athletics and our moms weren’t exactly “runners”, but hey, when you’re in the 6th grade and don’t have a driver’s license, you go wherever your parents take you.
So we were running. Noelle was a bit faster, so I had to work a little harder to keep up. Our strides became synched and we passed time by people watching and chatting about who was driving us to soccer practice that week and what we would do at recess tomorrow… optimistically assuming I would be at school tomorrow. I don’t think I have guaranteed myself the next day since.
We crossed the finish line with ease and found a curb that wasn’t covered in gum to plant ourselves on and wait until our moms were done walking and talking. They had who no sense of urgency, so it’d be a while. Waiting for them was taking much longer than we expected. The race finished near the parking lot, so we weren’t worried about missing them. We stopped paying attention and distracted ourselves in conversation and childish games.
Out of nowhere, Shelby, my friend’s mom, came rushing towards us, her eyes filled with tears and my mom nowhere in sight. I panicked and asked her what was wrong? “Where’s my mom”? Through the dripping eyes she eased my immediate concerns and told us to get in the car, my mom would meet us there. “Meet us where”? I was so confused and searching my brain for any possible outcomes. My hands were sweaty and my throat felt dry, like no amount of water could revive it. We sat down in her red little car in silence. Shelby driving, the two of us scared and unaware, she finally worked up the courage to say it…“Marks gone. He passed away”.
I can still feel myself sink into the seat of the car. The smell of leather and faint cigarette smoke lingered, a smell I was used to because of our frequent carpools. My face, I felt the color leave it. I didn’t believe her, I had thousands of thoughts racing through my mind, but couldn’t spit any of them out. I felt my body temperature rise like it does when you are holding back a burst of tears and wails. The thoughts in my head wanted to eject themselves from my stomach.
A neighbor, but so much more. A second father to me, my personal bodyguard from the big kids, our families nightly comedian, my dad’s best friend, everyone’s favorite sideline coach, a player on every men’s and co-ed softball team available; the father of the neighborhood. The news came as a shock.
As the world passed by the windows of the car in a blur, we pulled into the driveway of the house. I opened the car door and was hit by blood curdling screams and loud cries that broke me immediately. The joyful, carefree day I had before this disappeared instantly. The first person embraced me. We held each other up to keep from collapsing as we cried. Every corner of the yard and house was filled with groups of people sobbing and clutching one another as if squeezing tighter would make the pain subside. We continued substituting hugs with each other and shared nothing but sorrow for hours.
The following days were spent talking about the memories and missed opportunities. Our nights yearned for his voice to fill the downstairs with laughter. All that was left was the spray painted purple and green dash in the middle of the cul de sac that Mark drew as our free throw line. There was a vacancy in my heart that felt like your stomach after a day of fasting. Normalcy seemed as if it’d never return. It never really does.
So, tell them you love them. Hug them (but not right now because social distancing). Take pictures and cherish your time with them. Look them in the eyes so you’ll always remember how kind they were. Time is often cut shorter than we expect, so ask them the question and tell them the story. You’re going to miss them.