A few weeks ago while running at night, I cut across a plowed cornfield to avoid having to turn back through a cul de sac. Having made many such decisions in life, I knew there was a risk of falling, even hurting myself. The ground was not yet frozen and the clods of dirt were muddy. Sure enough, about ten yards before reaching the grass field I intended to cross on the way to the next road, I tripped and fell.
For a moment, I just lay there on the cool earth. My thoughts turned to a painting by Andrew Wyeth titled Spring that depicts a man seemingly melting through the snow from the landscape. And truth be told, if I had lain there long enough, out of sight from civilization, I’d sooner or later be in the same position. And if I did not survive, then my body would die and I would begin to decompose.
The cold weather would preserve it at first. There are human remains turning up in the world’s melting tundra now that global warming is having its way with the permafrost. Scientists have been fascinated to study these well-preserved specimens. Often their hunting gear and clothing are also well preserved. We can look back in time. Sort out how that person lived. And consider our own mortality.
Some might consider it sad that such human specimens never made it to the solemnity of a dirt nap. Yet Native Americans lifted their dead to the sky, and other traditions abound as well.
To some obsessed with a certain form of religious ideals, these would seem like the ultimate crimes of humanity. People get all freaky about what it means to be buried, to have a gravestone, and to be remembered by family years after the body is done with this world. Perhaps what drives them is the seemingly dirty little thought that the cycle will come for them too. But it makes no sense. The bodily remains disappear below the ground. Even encased in a coffin or cement, nature finds us somehow. There really is nothing of this worldly body that survives through any age. And what do we make of the spiritual bodies we supposedly assume beyond this world? At what age do we appear through eternity? Does that belief system about heaven make any damned sense at all?
Perhaps not. Yet somehow it sustains people against the thought that this is all we have. The fear of the dirt nap requires a nativity of the spirit. Gathered together, a manger of hope.
Get up and run
But rather than lie there and contemplate too long, I rose from the ground and inspected the dirt on my sleeves and pants. It made me laugh to realize that I’d just fallen. Athletes who take risks do fall now and then. As a steeplechaser in college, I never did fall into the 2.5 foot pit below the water barriers. But I saw people who did. All the way under they went. Baptised or buried in water. I could never tell which. They’d come up sputtering and soaked, then try to climb out of the pit with some degree of dignity. The dripping wet form of Lazarus?
Small crowds would often gather by the water pit to watch with morbid glee in hopes that some competitor would stumble and disappear below the surface. At some meet or another, a small school of carp was tossed into the water pit. They had to be removed lest someone really hurt themselves.
The symbolism of adding such a risk to a running race was never lost on me. I loved the extra challenge. The steeplechase more than any other event in track keeps you on your toes and makes you feel alive. The event was an exaggeration of the already harsh and honest world of track and field, where performance is measured in split seconds and aching laps.
But the steeplechase was even worse than that. It added additional pain to every lap. If you dragged your trail leg, it could hang down and whack a 4″ x 4″ solid wood barrier. That hurt. And every lap for seven laps, you had to leap onto the barrier before the water pit, step on it and launch yourself over twelve feet of water in an angled pit that led to solid ground.
Later in life, when similar exaggerated challenges came into my world, it was possible to realize that these too could be overcome. My late coach Trent Richards called me the day that he learned that my late wife had cancer and said, “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”
For a friend
When Trent was diagnosed with lung cancer that had spread into his bones, he faced the condition with the same strength of advice. We met up and discussed what he had to do. He wanted to know what the chemotherapy and other treatments might be like. What strategies might help him tolerate the difficulty?
It was suddenly as if our roles of athlete and coach were reversed. But that’s often how it is in life. We go from being children raised by our parents to adults caring for the elderly that depend on us. As bodies fail and minds wander, it all gathers a certain solemnity. And when a parent or a spouse or a dear friend passes away, we revisit their lives with memories of why they were important to us.
I absolutely love the scenes in the movie Trainwreck in which the character played by Amy Schumer recalls the difficult man that was her father. Colin Quinn played the irascible cuss to a sonic perfection. Griping, yet insightful, prejudiced but loving, he captured the imperfection that marks all the human condition. The eulogy given in his memory stirs everyone to tears, yet brings out the laughter because they all knew they loved the bastard in some way.
I’ve watched a few people very dear to me die over the years. First came my late wife’s grandfather and grandmother. Then came my own mother. Followed by my wife’s father. Then my late wife passed away four years ago in March. Last year my own father died. And just recently, my longtime coach and friend passed away as well.
Death still makes me sad. But I have learned that solemnity is a gift. It helps us reach out to others, and it can also help us feel truly alive. That wonderful little movie Inside Out that characterizes the dialogue inside a young girl’s head concludes with the idea that sadness is not the end of the world. Or any world.
I’ll admit that it was a strange, surreal sensation to walk out of a funeral home with my late wife’s ashes under my arm. That was her wish, upon which we both agreed. And since that time we have distributed small bits of her ashes in precious places. A bit at the Morton Arboretum where the daffodil glade rises each spring. My children and I scattered some in the center of a giant prairie restoration where she loved to walk. And recently, we took to the bulk of her ashes and placed them in a grave next to the site where her father was buried a few years ago. Some day she’ll be joined there by her mother and sister and brother. So they will all be together. And I think that’s how it was meant to be with that family.
But not yet
So while I miss these people and what they contributed to life, I recognize that it is our duty to live fully in their honor. The dirt nap is coming for us all, but like that handsome African character says at the end of the movie Gladiator as he buries the holy icons garnered from his heroic friend The Spaniard, we should look to the sky and brush the dust off our hands and say with a smile, “But not yet.”