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.