I learned today that a former playmate of mine, Steve, was killed in a car accident last Saturday. I was shocked and deeply saddened. I had spoken with him last on Friday afternoon.
We had been playmates for quite a while, but all that stopped when his wife found out. Well, it didn't all stop. After a few months, he contacted me and we chose to try to keep the friendship part of the relationship alive. That doesn't mean there wasn't any sexual tension or desire to connect in a more physical way, but that we both were at other places in our lives and the friendship would have to do. Besides, a good friendship is something to be treasured.
Over the past three or four months, our communication became more regular and frequent. I'd get an email and a text from Steve every day. We'd talk as often as we could - several times a week - about what was going on in our lives. He helped me get through some difficult transitions in other relationships in my life. I helped him make some sense out of all the changes he was going through.
The last few months for him weren't easy. His marriage of over 40 years was at a breaking point. They recently had tried a trial separation, but he was still unhappy. For the first time, he was seriously considering divorce. If he hadn't passed away, I'm almost certain that he would have chosen divorce in the near future.
He had gone through several bouts with melanoma in recent years and was weighing if he should try another devastating round of chemotherapy.
Just a couple weeks before his fatal accident, he was in a bike accident during a triathlon that left him with a bunch of broken ribs, a broken collarbone and a lot of road rash.There's no way he should have been driving last Saturday, especially on a mountain road, but that's how Steve was. He was sure that he could do things that other people couldn't do. And he was right - most of the time. He went back to work the day after they let him out of the hospital after the bike accident, against my vehement protests. "Would it kill you to just relax at home for a couple of weeks?" I argued. He said, "I can sit in my office as well as I can sit at home. Besides, if I'm in my office, I can talk to you" Of course that made me smile. He always diffused any little bit of annoyance by saying something that touched my heart or made me smile.
He was an athlete. At the age of 64, he was still competing in 10+ triathlons a year. It turns out that we figured out that he and I had competed in the same triathlon in 2005 before we knew each other. That forged a bond between us early on and, when we were seeing each other, I tracked his training and competitions closely. There were several times when I wouldn't meet with him for playtime because I knew he was behind on his training schedule and he'd hate himself later if sloppy training resulted in a poor showing in his next race. He'd whine a while and then we laugh as I came up with an "extra special incentive" for him to perform in the top 5 in his next race. It worked every time. ;-)
His wife was jealous of his training time, and she'd pressure him to train less and be with her more. I never understood how she could possibly act that way knowing how important his athletic activity was to him. His training time was when he'd decompress from work and get to think without being interrupted. It was the only time he was alone with his own thoughts. I believe it is what kept him sane and healthy over the last several years when everything else in his life was blowing up.
His work life was extremely stressful. He was in the mortgage business and he owned a brokerage. The economic events of the last several years had beaten the crap out of him and his business and he was struggling to keep it afloat.
Most recently, he had decided that he wanted more from his life than being trapped in a marriage and a job that he believed were killing him, literally, with stress. He was making plans to begin to phase out his business and go into a completely different line of work. He was demanding more time for himself at home. He was seriously contemplating divorce. For the first time in many years, he started to think about his life as his life, rather than thinking about himself as the provider so everyone else in the family could have the lives they wanted. This third round of melanoma had him thinking about mortality. He wondered when they eventually wouldn't be able to cut it all out or when he wouldn't be able to fight it off. He was already close to deciding that he would decline any more chemo, something that I understood and supported, even though it made me sad to think about the potential of life without him.
I never thought it would come so soon. Neither of us did.
Recently, I went through the many photos Steve had sent me over time. He loved to send pictures. Part of it was because he was prompting me to send some to him, but he also just loved to share the good stuff in his life. I must have more photos of his granddaughter than anyone outside the family, I think. She's adorable. And the look of love in his eyes as he looks at her is priceless. Then there are all his training and race photos. He'd pull out his camera and snap a photo and send it just to share the moment. I often wonder what the other racers would think. People are usually not taking pictures like a tourist during triathlons. But Steve did, and he'd still beat his best time.
When we last spoke last Friday, he was feeling good. In spite of being a little annoyed with me because I wouldn't steal away from work to see him, he was playful as he talked about an upcoming surgery to repair his broken collarbone and his plans to visit with his little granddaughter (born last spring). He was excited as he talked about the next stage of his plans to exit from his current business into something more rewarding and less stressful. He talked about making peace with his decisions regarding the end of his marriage. I heard hope in his voice.
He finished that call like he did every other call - by telling me that he loved me and thanking me for being in his life. Later Friday, I got an email from him with a list of potential times we could get together over the next week, and telling me that he wouldn't take no for an answer. That made me smile because it was so like Steve to tell me something like that. I wrote him back saying that I might be able to make some time, unless I got a better offer from JJ, which I fully expected to get because any offer from JJ was superior to any other. I knew that would make him laugh and cringe at the same time. I couldn't wait to get his reply.
It never came.
Even though he had been writing every day, I assumed that he was just busy with family stuff over the weekend. I wrote to him anyway. By Monday, I was concerned. By Wednesday,. I assumed something had happened, but I thought it must have been related to his surgery. Maybe they moved it up? I waited for a call or an email. Nothing. I sent more texts than were prudent. I sent him a frantic email begging him to make contact. Have someone call me. Anything.
This morning, I held my breath as I Googled him, hoping I'd find nothing out of the ordinary, but the first listing was the news report of the accident. I started at it in disbelief for what seemed like a long time. Then it started to sink in. That's why I didn't hear from after Friday. This afternoon, I called someone who knew him and he confirmed that it was true. Steve was gone.
I've gone from feeling numb to feeling sad to being relieved that he's free from all the awful stuff that had been tearing at him for so long to being angry - angry that he's gone and angry that he had to live his life the way he did. Steve was full of life - active, funny, smart, creative. I'm angry that the people in his life who were supposed to be sharing his life and supporting him were, in fact, sucking the life and joy out of him. And I'm angry that he let it happen and didn't grow some balls to stand up for himself until it was too late.
I know I'm not done feeling this loss. All I can think about right now is how short life is. Steve had all sorts of plans for how he was going to change his life and make it into the one he wanted, but he'll never get a chance to implement those plans. I'm looking at my life. Am I living the way I want to live? Am I putting off changes I want to make in my life? Am I wasting emotion on things that don't matter? Am I spending enough time with the people I really love - friends and family? Am I living as if this day might be my last?
That's the lesson I'm getting right now from Steve's death...and his life.