The death of a good man, and the inevitable grief of life.

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.

7 responses to The death of a good man, and the inevitable grief of life.

  1. Walter Coker says:

    beautifully written Tricia, and an important message for all of us. sorry for your loss…

  2. Kim says:

    First, I want to thank you for sharing my blog. Living day-to-day watching this disease slowly destroy my baby is hard enough, but that friends like you take the time to try to help – It is a gift beyond measure. Thank you!

    And what a tragic story about your friend Brent and his wife Gerda. I hope in my heart that they are together traveling on to their next destination! However tragic, the poetic death of two lovers leaving this world together… at least they did not have to suffer the loss of the other, they did not have to watch the demise or suffering of the one they love, although I know this can’t help their family. I have to believe in my heart, that they lived a good life and they left this world together in love and happiness hand-in-hand. Bless their family, and please send my deepest condolences. All my love, Kim

  3. Lora says:

    How beautifully written on such a tragic event. This is my first time reading your blog . My friend for forever Kim shared it on her facebook wall. I am sorry for your loss and the families loss of what sounds like two wonderful people. And I too am going to thank you for linking your blog to Kim’s.

  4. Netherland says:

    I just learned of their passing today. I had just returned from a black history celebration when a friend of mine had called. i worked with Brent and Gerda here in Washington, D.C. at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Brent worked in the Cater/Food & Beverage/Sales dept. with me and his wife was the hotel’s head cashier. She handled all the money that went in and out of the hotel. Gerda was so very beautiful and Brent was also a gorgeous man with a wide and welcoming smile. HIs quick step and wit made him easy to like. They worked together at the Shoreham for many years, and while they worked in separate departments when they’d pass each other Brent always would say something to make Gerda blush and smile. I could not imagine seeing one without the other. Their transition together, while very sad and painful, just somehow seems to be the way it should be. I could not imagine or even see one of them being here without the other.

    • Tricia says:

      Yes, Netherland, it was such a sad thing for those of us who saw them every day. Thanks for reminding us that they inspired people long before we knew them, and will continue to be in our thoughts with love.

  5. Greg Martin says:

    I also worked at the Shoreham with this amazing couple in the early 80′ s. I read there was to be a service at the Shoreham in the spring. Any news?

    • Tricia says:

      Hi Greg – Thanks for reading. I unfortunately don’t know anything about the Shoreham service — we had a service this past January here in Ponte Vedra. Still miss seeing Brett everyday at the YMCA. Peace.

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