I know this about myself: I am obsessed with death.
As I was saying to some writer-friends earlier this summer, aren’t all writers obsessed with death? It is, after all, the complete and final denouement to all stories—the story of our character’s lives, own lives, and the lives of those who’ve gone before us.
I know. I’m awfully morbid.
The unstoppable grind of time certainly plays a role in deepening my obsession. In the past ten years, I’ve lost my dear grandparents, an adored aunt, and other loved ones who took part in raising me.
Predictably, death has leapt across from that generation and is now beginning to worm a slow and methodical path through my generation, and I’m not feeling very happy about that. I’m a little freaked out, and now, often when I’m driving on the highway, a bit of panic rises up in my chest as all these yeahoos careen around me like aggressive and/or drunken idiots. I grip the wheel tight and think: these dumbasses are going to kill me.
“Rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” poet Dylan Thomas implores. Yet we know that such rage will burn itself out, and the grim reaper will eventually come knocking on our door. “Nothing gold can stay,” said Robert Frost.
I know! I’m a sick freak. I’m sorry. Please, though: read on.
I usually write here about biking and how it circumscribes life in general, but before I was a rider, I was a runner. In a way, running is more primal, requiring no equipment or machines, and uses one’s own body as the only machine for locomotion.
Now, my running friends—those teammates I’ve suffered with, those young men who blazed through the streets, the fields, the woods, and around the track with me—are dying.
First there was Dave R., who was a nerdy but nice and very determined guy who used to slip in behind me during NCAA track races and let me pace him. And then, as I tired, he’d bolt past me without even a cursory glance back or a nod of thanks or encouragement. It used to drive me absolutely nuts. But in the end, he made me run faster because I damn well wanted him to pull me along, like I did for him.
Once, we were traveling to an away meet and the team bus left him at a truck stop and he had to chase it down, pounding on the door to be let in. In my mind I joked that he’d probably thought about drafting behind the bus for a while, but thought better of it.
Anyway, about ten years ago, I was looking through the alumni magazine when I saw his name in the “In Memoriam” column. I don’t know what happened, but I knew he was gone. (Turns out it was a plane crash.)
A year ago I learned that Mike, a guy from my grammar school that my classmates and I all adored, had passed away. That was a true shock, as he was the Golden Boy, the true athlete, the football star. His obit said he battled leukemia tenaciously for six years. That’s exactly how I remember him: tenacious. And ruthless. In his way of seizing the day, every day.
Not even his strength and beauty could avoid the end that will come to us all.
(I know! I’m bringing you down. I am very sorry, but I can’t help it. Please continue.)
And then just about a month ago, Mark, younger brother of a classmate in junior high, left this earth.
Sure, that last phrase is a bit over-dramatic, but how else can I describe it? Passed away seems so trite, and saying he died sounds crass. They do leave this earth; their spirit, their voice, their personality, disappears. I can only pray that we do end up going someplace else, but I don’t know.
I can still hear Mark’s voice, similar to Erich’s. I remember hanging around their house, playing wiffle ball in their back yard, or goofing around with their brood of Siamese cats, some of them with crooked but gorgeous blue eyes. The three brothers were all talented runners—gutsy, smart, and fast. The eldest ran on his tippy toes, his head held high, as if he were prancing. The others—Erich and Mark, ran head down, a deep furrow to their brows. Mark wore glasses, which gave him a slightly spacey look, though he could fly, just like his brothers.
I haven’t seen him in probably 30 years, but still it’s sad to lose someone like that, a fellow runner. The pain and effort we all shared, cruising around a track in a pack, our legs striding as one. Pushing ourselves as far as our young bodies could go, all for the sake of the team, for the need to test our own limits.
The awards and personal bests and championships fade away, and we grow slow, slower. And even if we no longer run, the bonds we built through miles and miles of effort remain. Such a brotherhood refuses to be broken.
I remember studying this poem in high school, and I suppose I never fully comprehended its meanings, but now I think I do. I hear it’s quiet, somber voice, it’s movement up and down–both in imagery, carrying the winner in joy, and then the casket in grief, toward burial, and in musical tone, with low, sonorous “o” sounds and the higher, aspiring “u” sounds.
I share this poem in memory of Dave, Mike, and Mark.
To an Athlete Dying Young
By A. E. Housman
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.