Our local pizza joint serves dollar pizza and dollar beers every Thursday, and it seems like half our community goes to indulge. The kids run around like wild banshees, and the grown-ups chat and leave big tips for the frazzled waitstaff.
We didn’t go last week, but my friend Brent Ashton went with his wife, Gerda. They walked over from their home in a beachside community across the road.
After dinner, as they crossed the street back toward home, they somehow stepped in front of a pick-up truck and were hit. They both died instantly.
I didn’t know Brent as well as I would have liked. He worked at the front desk of the YMCA where I teach, and I saw him nearly every day for the past nine years. He was a kind, funny, friendly gentleman – a grandfather, a gourmet chef, and one of those people who just gives you a good feeling inside. He had a smile as wide as the moon, and he used it often. Everyone knew who he was.
Something else happened last week. My friend and fellow blogger Kimberly wrote about her daughter, 8-year-old Sanna, who has been diagnosed with a rare, progressive, incurable liver disease called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, or PSC. Her only hope is for an eventual liver transplant – unless she develops cancer, which is characteristic of the disease. Then she no longer can have a transplant. And she’ll die.
Last Friday morning, after learning about both of these developments, I crawled into bed and slept fitfully for two hours. I was exhausted from grief and stress. I would doze, and wake up thinking about my to-do list – Christmas shopping, laundry, packing – then remember Brent’s grown son, and that terrible, mind-altering phone call he received. I’d think of Kimberly crying every day, begging people to donate to the organization trying to find a cure for PSC so that her daughter won’t die. I couldn’t reconcile the two extremes – the incomprehensible grief of tragedy combined with the mundane stresses of life.
“I guess we have no problems,” I told Hot Firefighter Husband. “We think we have problems, but compared to what other people are going through, we don’t.”
Husband had a different perspective. “Of course we have problems,” he said. “Everybody has problems. Are they as serious as they could be? No.” We drove for a few moments in silence. We were on our way to support the national economy by playing Santa.
“But I think,” he added, “that this is a reminder that life is full of tragedy. And tragedy is going to happen – to everyone. People die. Stuff happens. And it’s going to happen to us.” Note: This is the kind of fatalistic philosophy you get when you live with a firefighter/paramedic.
Husband went on to say that because he knows how fleeting life is, he has a dual approach to it: first, he tries to enjoy these relatively carefree days, and two, he doesn’t let himself get too high with happiness or too low with sadness. This is why he manages without medication, I guess. He has chosen to walk the balance beam of life that’s raised enough to give him some buoyancy, but not so high that he’ll be terribly hurt if – when! – he falls.
I want to step onto that beam with him, but it’s difficult for me. I’ll be mailing letters to Santa, listening to Christmas music and sharing holiday cheer with friends. Still, I’m writing these words, and they will stick with me. So mixed in with the fun and excitement will be some tears, and I’ll feel a small but definitive lump of fear resting against my heart. It’s the knowledge that somehow, somewhere, my time will come.
Peace to you, Brent.
And please, visit Kimberly’s website and do what you can for Sanna. Because one day, sooner or later, you’ll be asking Kimberly to do what she can for you.