Great. This guy again, I thought.
It was Joe. A guy I used to work with.
He was a newspaper reporter just like me. Only he worked for a different business publication in the same office building.
I liked Joe. And I didn’t always hate when he’d stop by my desk and talk my ear off.
But I did much of the time.
People think I’m really nice sometimes when I’m actually not. I’m not always patient. I’m not always kind.
I just don’t say anything because I’d rather feel stress and discomfort than tell someone to their face that something they’re doing is bothering me. I’ve always been this way.
On the days I didn’t want to talk to Joe, I’d pick up my phone and pretend like I was calling someone or listening to a voice mail if I saw him approaching my desk.
Despite being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I don’t have anything bad to say about Joe. He was just one of those guys who talked to you a lot longer than you’d prefer sometimes.
He was a really nice, friendly guy.
It would almost surprise you, because he looked intimidating.
Broad-chested. Long, dreadlocked hair, usually pulled back in a ponytail. Lots of tattoos. His look earned him the nickname “Voodoo Joe” in the running community.
Joe ran a lot of marathons. He traveled throughout the country to run in various races.
His travel stories were great. But I sometimes wasn’t too interested in hearing about the finer points of his training regimen.
I don’t run, Joe! I don’t care! Stop telling me about it!
Sometimes he’d be talking to me and the phone at my desk would ring.
Thank God, I’d think.
“I gotta take this, Joe,” I’d say. “I’ll catch up with you.”
My First Lesson in Unexpected Loss
I was 17. A senior in high school.
I was working as a cook at the local country club.
The kitchen phone rang.
“Matt, it’s for you,” someone said.
I grabbed the phone. “Hello?”
It was my father, 500 miles away in Illinois.
My uncle David was dead. My father’s only brother.
He was 37.
I didn’t get to see him very much. He lived in Wisconsin where he had a good job working for an airline. I’d be lucky to see him during one of my two annual visits to Illinois where my dad lives.
He and his fiancée were road-tripping to Chicago in a Chevy S-10 pickup truck to attend a Chicago Bears game. Uncle Dave was obsessed with the Bears.
During the drive, a white Pontiac Grand Prix was weaving in and out of traffic and sped by them from behind. The driver was being an asshole.
He did something to upset Uncle Dave. And my uncle, being my uncle, sped up so he could express his displeasure with his middle finger.
The white Grand Prix swerved into him in response.
My uncle lost control. The small pickup rolled violently and eventually ended up on its top on the side of the highway.
The white Grand Prix never stopped.
The roof of the truck caved, trapping my unconscious uncle until emergency personnel could pull him out. His fiancée Trish in the passenger seat didn’t have a scratch on her.
Oxygen had been cut off to Uncle Dave’s brain for far too long.
He was gone.
It was the first time someone close to me died unexpectedly.
My dad and Uncle Dave had stayed up really late talking on the phone and drinking beer the night before.
Lots of “I love yous” exchanged, something these two men hadn’t said much to one another throughout their lives, growing up in impoverished and dysfunctional conditions I might write about someday.
It was the last thing my father ever said to, or felt, about his younger brother.
That phone call got him through the funeral. That phone call is why my father could fall asleep at night.
They never caught the driver that killed my uncle.
He might be out there somewhere. Right now. Maybe he still drives recklessly. Maybe he told his buddies over drinks about the time he ran some asshole off the road for giving him the finger. Maybe he knows that asshole—my uncle; my father’s only brother—died in that accident. Maybe he doesn’t.
It always bothered me more than it did my father. That no one ever found the guy.
My dad is phenomenal at only worrying about what he can control, and taking the rest as it comes.
What he could control was telling his brother that he loved him in a rare and touching moment between the two.
My father displayed immense strength and grace during the funeral. Being the rock for his two sisters. And for me. And for Trish, who lost her fiancé.
“How did you do it, Dad?” I asked.
“Because we shared that phone call,” he said. “Because I got to tell Dave that I loved him.”
A Second Lesson
Nobody knew where Joe was the next day. The day after he’d annoyed me by being friendly and talkative. The day after I was relieved when he finally stopped talking to me.
Joe never called in to let anyone know he wouldn’t be coming to work. He didn’t live far away, so someone drove to his house at lunchtime.
His Jeep was there. But he didn’t answer the door.
The police were called.
They found Joe’s lifeless body in bed.
He died in his sleep. Heart attack. He was 37.
I made the two-hour drive to his hometown a few days later for the funeral visitation.
I hugged his mother.
She was so appreciative that I’d made the effort to drive down.
I didn’t tell her about her son bothering me a few days earlier.
I shook hands with his father.
He thanked me for being there.
I didn’t tell him his son—his wonderful, good-hearted, nice-to-everyone son—was someone I would intentionally avoid some days, just because my work schedule and writing habits were sometimes more important to me than kindness.
I cried for Joe’s parents.
I cried for his siblings.
I cried for his friends.
I cried for his girlfriend.
I cried for me. Because I’m selfish. Because a person I genuinely liked was gone.
And my final act toward him was one I’m not proud of.
It was polite. It was well-mannered. But it was bullshit.
Because I wanted him to go away.
And then he did. Forever.
And now I wish he was here. I wish he’d gotten to marry his girlfriend. To be a dad. To pass along all that kindness to a new little person.
I wish I could get a do-over for that final conversation. To listen to Joe’s story about running, through the prism of knowing it was his final day.
To respect his passions and interests.
To appreciate his kindness.
And to hold those feelings in my heart while I watched and listened to him in his final moments.
Live Every Moment
I try to remind myself and those I care about to Take Nothing For Granted.
Because I think it’s important to be mindful of the fragility of all this.
It’s why I need to call my mom more.
It’s why I need to visit my grandparents.
It’s why I need to maintain perspective when my son is frustrating me.
Everything changes when we’re reminded of our mortality. On the inside.
We’re just—different—in those moments.
You’d never flip off that asshole driver if you knew he was going to die in 30 seconds.
You’d never call your boss a psycho bitch if you knew she wasn’t going to wake up tomorrow.
You’d always remind those who matter most how much they mean to you if you knew this was their final day.
The bottom of the hourglass is always filling up.
Do I really want to sit in a cubicle 40+ hours per week?
Does my child’s behavior really warrant this reaction?
If today’s my last day, where do I want to spend tonight? And with whom?
Who needs reminded of my love?
Who should I thank?
Who makes me happy?
But we shouldn’t be passive when we ask ourselves the hard questions.
What can I do right now to make someone’s day better?
How do I want to be remembered when I’m gone?
What must I do to achieve that?
What behaviors am I least proud of?
What can I do to change them?
Does my behavior hurt others?
Am I who I want to be?
What actions can I take immediately to be the best version of me possible?
I don’t like that I take my family and friends for granted.
I don’t do it in my mind. But I do it with my actions.
I do care about people. I care about my family. My friends. You.
But I don’t always act like it. Is that curable? Or is this simply who I am?
A guy destined to regret inaction and the missed opportunities to remind people of their importance?
To fail and hurt, only to fail and hurt some more.
But I’m going to try not to be.
If tomorrow never comes, I hope the people who know me best remember whatever good I had to give.
I hope you know how important you are and how much power you have to shape lives and bring joy to others.
And I hope you try hard to be kind. To everyone. Because the top of their hourglass is getting lighter too.
Thank you for your kindness.
You were a good man.
And you are not forgotten.