A Man Died At My Gym Today

by Charlotte on November 28, 2011 · 75 comments

A man died at my gym today.

In the space between one breath and the next, his heart flailed. Then failed. Slumped to the floor, his next breath came not from within him but from without. An unnatural gift from a stranger. A gift that was not quite enough. He died shirtless, vulnerable and alone. Alone save for the strangers pumping his chest and the strangers – me – watching from the balcony above and the strangers staring from the entrance. A Greek chorus to witness a tragedy.

This is not the first time I have seen someone die. Not even the second or the third. But in the past death has been holy, poignant, a string stretched taut between eternities – and then snapped. Today this feels gauche, crass even as we stare over a railing at him as if he were an actor in a CSI drama and we are the scripted extras. But is he really dead? Why would they keep doing CPR on a dead man? We are told he is dead.

“He’s old,” a friend – a pastor – says as he explains it to us, the first to tell us. Our friend was walking in the door when the man collapsed. But as I look down on him, his smooth skin, large pale stomach and dark hair belie this. Not old. Not young. 50, perhaps? Half a life lived?

“I hate being old,” says Krista whose friends are just starting to suffer the slings of mortality themselves. In the past two months: lung cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Lou Gherig’s disease.

“I need to go,” Megan declares. But she doesn’t. Because the body lies in the entrance way and she has two small children.

“It goes right through me,” whispers Allison, the youngest of us all, her hand on her chest as if to make sure her heart still beats true. The weight of such things crushes youth. Indeed, now a screen is being set up to shield the children in the daycare that is 20 feet away from a dead body. Yet somehow I think that beings so short into this world might be the ones to best understand one so quickly gone from it. A mere breath from one to the next.

“Who is he?” I ask finally, feeling protective of the elderly and disabled that are a fixture in our morning routine and then relieved when the answer is “No one we know.”

But somebody knows him. Or knew him. They miss him, even if they don’t know it yet. Information held in the space between one breath and the next.

As we stand in this place – this place where we come to stave off this precise inevitability – the futility of our fight against chance, against bad luck, against bad choices, is profound. We work so hard and run so fast. But we run in place, choosing to forget there is no way to put distance between us and death. All the hairs of our heads are numbered. No sparrow falls without the knowledge of Him who created it.

As we stand in this place, ringing him like angels, I wait to feel his soul. But it isn’t mine to feel and I feel nothing.

Is this writing a tribute or an invasion?

A man died at my gym today.



{ 72 comments… read them below or add one }

katie @momslrb November 28, 2011 at 9:41 pm

I’d like to say it’s neither…it’s an awakening. Life is heavy. There are sooo many unknowns and to your point..we must live it to the fullest.

I’ll keep the unknow gym goer in my prayers along with all the other people that are already there.


Charlotte November 28, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Thank you. He and his family are in my prayers tonight as well.


Katie McFarland November 29, 2011 at 12:01 pm

That is good news. Hopefully he’ll pull through .


Charity Froggenhall November 28, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Ugh, that is so sad.


Carli November 28, 2011 at 9:44 pm

You are a beautiful writer. It is a tribute.


Charlotte November 28, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Thank you. I hope so.


Cynthia (It All Changes) November 28, 2011 at 9:58 pm

It’s a tribute. He’s not trivialized as just someone else who died. He was someone…someone’s someone. He had value and meaning that can be felt even from your words.

I’ll be praying for his family as they mourn his loss. Also those going through pain and confusion having been at the gym today when he died.


Charlotte November 28, 2011 at 10:25 pm

I love this: ” He was someone…someone’s someone.” So true:)


Amy November 28, 2011 at 10:00 pm

How sad. I often worry about the older folks at my gym (not that a younger one couldn’t have something horrible happen, too). It’s a tribute – a message – to everyone that life should be lived each day.


Jeni Svestka November 28, 2011 at 10:01 pm

I t hought you articulated it beautifully. Death is a part of life. It’s so scary to think of where we will be when our days our numbered. I’d like to think that he was he in a place he enjoyed, doing something he enjoyed. He was about to go swimming . It’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around.


Charlotte November 28, 2011 at 10:27 pm

True – I hope he died happy!


Terri November 28, 2011 at 10:24 pm

What a beatiful tribute to someone you didn’t know. I think John Donne said it best:

Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Strangers may have surrounded him, but they were strangers with compassion , who felt his passing.



Charlotte November 28, 2011 at 10:28 pm

I love John Donne. I also love Hemmingway’s take on that same passage. Thank you for the reminder!


Joshua November 28, 2011 at 10:26 pm

It is a tribute, even if you didn’t know him, someone did, and would appreciate the beautiful words.


Charlotte November 28, 2011 at 10:29 pm

I hope so. Thank you Joshua:)


Gym Buddy Krista November 28, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Inna Lilahi wa ina elayhi rajioon. I kept saying this in my head as I watched him. “To him we belong and to him we shall return”.


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Beautiful, my friend.


Mandy November 28, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Beautifully written Charlotte. A lovely tribute.

May his family find peace .


Georgia November 28, 2011 at 11:02 pm

I have chills reading this, Charlotte. An awful, albeit timely (for me), reminder of the fragility of life…
We much embrace the moment!


the Bag Lady November 28, 2011 at 11:04 pm

We don’t get to choose the time nor the place from whence we will be called home. Nor can we choose the witnesses. Even though he may have been surrounded by strangers, at least he wasn’t alone. His family may take comfort knowing that.
This was a beautifully written tribute, Charlotte.


Katie November 28, 2011 at 11:08 pm

Oh my god. My heart goes out to his family. I hate stories like this, but they do serve as a reminder about life and living it. Take the good out of the situation? I think your writing is perfect for this – I wouldn’t call it a tribute, but its a fitting post for a sad day written in a very well-meaning way.


Kat November 28, 2011 at 11:12 pm

I don’t even know what to say… other than the way you wrote it made me feel touched… and that I’m sorry you had to witness someone else dying… it’s one of the most humbling, harrowing things…


Alyssa November 28, 2011 at 11:25 pm

I’m so sorry!
And, no,it’s not exploitation,it’s a lovely tribute to a man and his loved ones. As others have said, he passed surrounded by people who didn’t know him,but cared enough to try their hardest to save him, and to pray for him when they were unable to.


Ryan @NoMoreBacon November 28, 2011 at 11:51 pm

Wow… just wow.


Kay in India November 29, 2011 at 12:10 am

I have never witnessed someone die–I have seen dead bodies of people after they are dead, but haven’t seen it happen. Don’t think I have the strength to do it either.

As the poster above said–it is an awakening of sorts. Makes you realize that there are circumstances over which we have no control.

Beautifully written tribute.


Sue November 29, 2011 at 12:13 am

Wow, how sad! I’d say it’s a tribute, a very compassionate, respectful one.
This story is another reminder that life is indeed short, and that we should be thankful for every moment we get to spend with our loved ones.


esmemerrie November 29, 2011 at 1:09 am

It’s a tribute. Through nursing school I’ve seen people escape death, surrender to death and die too young. You’re right, it crushes youth. But it also gives us perspective, and often the further we get from the shock and pain of such events, the further we get from understanding how fragile life is. And that understanding is so very precious. It is not bad to be reminded that death is a reality.


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:42 pm

This: “But it also gives us perspective, and often the further we get from the shock and pain of such events, the further we get from understanding how fragile life is. And that understanding is so very precious. It is not bad to be reminded that death is a reality.” gave me chills. Perfectly written. Thank you.


esmemerrie November 30, 2011 at 12:14 am

And you made me tear up! Thank YOU!


Tracy November 29, 2011 at 3:50 am

Every time I take CPR, I hope/pray that I never have to use it….God bless those who rushed to his side, for his loved ones, and you for sharing this with us not in a voyeuristic (sp?) way, but respectfully. I do hope the children were diverted, but if not, it is an awesome time to have an age-appropriate conversation about life and death.


Tracy November 29, 2011 at 3:52 am

Also, let’s remember those who are emergency responders especially at this time of year. Such a profession is a calling – not just a (meager) paycheck.


redhead November 29, 2011 at 6:18 am

And boy are you right about the meager part. And people talk about teachers being underpaid…


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Yes, the first responders were magnificent. Thank you for this reminder!


Averie @ Love Veggies and Yoga November 29, 2011 at 4:08 am

This is so sad. Someone died in my world over the weekend. Such a shame and so tragic.

I am sorry for this man’s family and their loss.


Cort The Sport November 29, 2011 at 4:38 am

Oh, so heartbreaking. And to think that the whole crowd of people knew before even the first member of his family. It will be hard to walk in there and not think of him, maybe not such a bad thing to be reminded of what we have here and now. I think this is a tribute and a recognition that his passing had an impact.

Hugs :-(


Crumpled Moments November 29, 2011 at 4:39 am

This is a tribute and a reminder. A reminder to “never let your last words be angry words” and “live every day like it’s your last”


redhead November 29, 2011 at 6:10 am

When I saw this headline, I first thought of the guy in Walmart somewhere (not sure where) who had a heart attack or a stroke while shopping last weekend – and people continued to walk around and over him to keep shopping. A nurse finally saw him and stopped, but at that point it was too late. I’m not sure why I thought of that… but if your reactions weren’t to just keep going around him (or take the dumbbell from his hand), then you definitely weren’t crass.

I don’t know. I think death always seems scarier when it’s unexpected, rather than a drawn-out illness where you know it’s coming – because if it’s unexpected and he didn’t know it was coming, then anyone could be next, even people you don’t expect – like yourself, or your friends or family. I think that’s part of why it freaks people out. Logically, of course, most adults know that at any point some freak accident could occur, from a car wreck to something almost like Final Destination – but actually SEEING it is another thing. My take away from it has always been to send good thoughts to the family (if you don’t know them – if you do, send good food), be grateful you’re still here and, keeping in mind that sometimes it comes unexpectedly, make the most of it. Not in a “today could be my last day so I’m going to not vacuum or clean or brush my teeth but spend every moment with my family! And then tomorrow could be my last day so I’m going to do it again, and spend all our money on going to the fair, because it could be our last day!” type of thing, but more just trying to focus on the positive and put the small things in perspective. Getting a flat tire sucks, but at least I’m here, with great friends to come pick me up and a great job to help me afford another tire and you know what, it’s a pretty day, type of thing.


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Yes, I agree totally with this: “ut more just trying to focus on the positive and put the small things in perspective. ” Thank you!


Naomi/Dragonmamma November 29, 2011 at 6:18 am

The day before Thanksgiving someone died at my gym; a competitive triathlete in his early 50s who seemed to be in the peak of health and had an unexpected heart attack.

Besides a tribute, it’s also a warning. We never know how long we’ve got.


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Oh my – I’m so sorry! His poor family…


Jody - Fit at 54 November 29, 2011 at 7:05 am

That first quote Charlotte – means A LOT!!! I keep telling myself that I will learn from the deaths that have happened around me – way too many * many, way too soon. Yet, I do complain about the aging & I do think & fear death more as I get older & closer. This is a wake up call & your first quote is a big one.

As for this post – you have made a difference & with that, made this man’s death something that says, he did not die in vain….


Dr. J November 29, 2011 at 7:44 am

I am no stranger to death! Yet it never loses its profound affect. A man I was close to died at our fitness center several years ago. He was old. Died while swimming. Prior to this day, he had told us that if he died swimming it would be the way he wanted.. That helped ease our loss.

Very powerfully written piece Charlotte! (No surprise there coming from you!)


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm

I find this: “Yet it never loses its profound affect. ” very reassuring. Thank you:)


Heather November 29, 2011 at 9:16 am

Wow, a powerful post.

Since I didn’t read it until just now, your update was already posted and I’m so glad they were able to resuscitate him. I hope he recovers…talk about miracles of the holiday season, huh?


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Indeed – I hope he continues to get his miracle!


Kat November 29, 2011 at 10:14 am

Very well written entry. So glad to see your update that he did come back. If your gym doesn’t have AEDs, I’d be pushing for them.


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Our gym does have AEDs and they did use one. It’s my understanding that it didn’t work at that time but I didn’t see that part…


Colleenzo November 29, 2011 at 11:27 am

A beautiful tribute, but I’m glad to read that it was written too soon!


Cheryl November 29, 2011 at 12:20 pm

I am so glad he came around – that itself is a miracle! We are having it drilled into our brains that CPR alone isn’t enough, using an AED must be used to kick start the heart again. But I can imagine how scary it must be to see someone have CPR and then think he’s passed on. I think most people – even with an AED don’t come back – hence my comment on the miracle. The percentage is very low. Let’s hope he is able to recover with minimal damage.

PS – I was haunted for days when my first patient died. I think its necessary to write out emotions and thoughts to work through something so traumatic.


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Thank you – I felt a little silly for “needing” to write this out but I felt so much better after I did! And thank you Cheryl for all of your hard work – I’m guessing you are a nurse or doctor? Thank you for caring enough to be haunted:)


Cheryl November 29, 2011 at 11:20 pm

I am a nursing student – almost done though! It will certainly be the longest four years of my life, thats for sure!

Sometimes I wonder if I am either too detached from my experiences with patients, or too involved. I guess it varies on the day and the patient. But I have definitely found writing out my emotions and experiences to be the most helpful overall.


Liz B November 29, 2011 at 3:25 pm

When I die, I want you to write my obituary! That was beautiful!


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:53 pm

I will NOT because I refuse to let you die before me!!!! We have a date, remember? You, me, rocking chairs and whistling at the mailman (who will probably be all electronic by then but whatevs, we’ll do it anyhow.)


Heather @ Bake, Run, Live November 29, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Oh Charlotte, my thoughts and prayers are with you and that gentleman.
I have seen 2 people die, both are a memory that will never leave me. It should remind us all how precious, and short, life is.
I’m sure your kids got an extra hug and kiss last night.


Ed November 29, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Wow you got my attention with this post! Sorry you had to witness that, even though it seems you are handling it super well…will send some prayers that gentleman’s way….crazy


Lindsay November 29, 2011 at 7:32 pm

That is the saddest thing I have heard! I hope he is in a happier place!


Heather Eats Almond Butter November 29, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Not the blog post I was expecting to arrive in my inbox tonight. It’s amazing how quickly death can happen. One minute someone is walking and talking, and the next they are gone. Reminds me never to take life for granted. This post was beautifully written Charlotte, and I’m so grateful that he is alive. Praying. :)


Sable@SquatLikeALady November 29, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Oh my gosh. You brought tears to my eyes — first they were sad, and now they’re relieved tears thanks to that update!!!

Last year a man had a heart attack and died walking out of the gym on base. His wife was there. I can’t imagine. It makes me shaky just to THINK about it to this day.


Deb (SmoothieGirlEatsToo) November 29, 2011 at 8:45 pm

OMG i’m stunned! So happy that he survived and hopefully he will come out of it ok. A Thanksgiving blessing to be sure. Wow.


Gianeli November 29, 2011 at 8:45 pm

The post really interests me to read this over and over again…But I am sorry to hear that some one died at the gym…


Annie November 29, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Life is short, live well. Lots of good stuff in this post.. but the part I hope people “get” is that this man has a chance at life because someone knew how to give CPR… it’s so simple… but really can be the difference between life and death.. and if you’re afraid of the mouth to mouth the newest version is “hands only”.. I’m six months away from 50… and have already lost my brother and sister… life really is short…


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Excellent point. This is definitely why I re-up my CPR certification every year. Thankfully I’ve never had to use it yet. And you do NOT look 50.


Annie November 30, 2011 at 7:47 am

Oh Charlotte.. DO, go on… LOL and thanks!


Lindsey November 29, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Very powerful post and I’m also glad to hear the good news. When I was very young, I witnessed a car accident and I remember not understanding the urgency of everything. I remember them covering the driver (who had flown from the window) with a white sheet and at first thinking she must be cold but wen they covered the whole body I knew she was gone. It was the first time I realized that death can happen to anyone, that it wasn’t something reserved for “old people.” Its strange how in the moments closest to death we can feel the most alive or the most present, the most aware. I really loved your writing here. Thanks for sharing.


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Thank you Lindsey! I totally agree with this: ” Its strange how in the moments closest to death we can feel the most alive or the most present, the most aware.” Very apt sentiment and I’m so sorry you had see that as a child!


Joanna Aislinn November 29, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Hi Charlotte–glad you’re feeling better :)

Wow–that’s some experience you witnessed–glad to hear the gentleman is improved.

I worked in a hospital for close to nine years. Will never forget one of our regular patients–a sweet, very old Jewish man–taking his final walk in the parallel bars. One of the physical therapists was providing support when, in this little voice, she said, “Help me.” She supported his full weight until someone got a wheelchair under him. They transferred him to a mat and called a Code Blue. This one ended there. It was so sad and really made you realize how quickly things change–in a heartbeat, or lack of one.

Thanks for sharing your story.


Charlotte November 29, 2011 at 9:59 pm

My mother worked in a hospital for years too and has her own “very old Jewish man” stories – I don’t know if I could take having to deal with death on a daily basis. Maybe. But you have my utmost respect!


Joanna Aislinn December 1, 2011 at 10:40 pm

You’re very kind, Charlotte. I was ten when I read my first-ever ‘hospital novel’:Candy Stripers (and yes, I became one as soon as turned fourteen, lol). That book referred to a hospital as a ‘place where most people got well’ as opposed to being a place full of ‘sick people.’ To this day, I love (and still miss) that as my work setting. (I’m currently in school.) There were some exceptions, but mostly I dealt with life.


Laura November 29, 2011 at 11:20 pm

That is so amazing! He will be in my thoughts.


Geosomin November 30, 2011 at 11:13 am

That is fantastic news that he is in hospital…it’s quite rare for CPR to be able to make a difference, but on those few people it can – so wonderful! :)


Cherry December 4, 2011 at 11:19 pm

I am sorry to hear this and I hope this will serve as a lesson to everyone too…


Jenn (GH) December 5, 2011 at 1:17 am

I’m glad to hear is he didn’t die. I also wanted to say your writing is beautiful. The verse about the sparrow is one of my favorites in the Bible.


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