Al and I met at the finish line of the Atlanta Marathon. It was Thanksgiving Day 1993. Almost 10 years apart in age, I couldn’t possibly have imagined we would become such good friends in the coming years.
To refer to Al as a friend would be an understatement, in the sense that he’s also been my constant running partner, go-to life mentor and the brother I never had.
I can’t tell you the exact number of miles we’ve run together – if I poured through my running logs, I could probably provide an exact amount – but I would imagine it’s in the neighborhood of 20,000 or so. We’ve raced together all over the country, from one side of it to the other. We’ve run in unbearable desert heat, snow-capped mountains that made every step an adventure, and local thunder and lightning storms that we weren’t sure we would survive.
As for being a mentor, through the years he’s taught me to ready, willing and able to accept that there would come a day that I would no longer be able to run as fast or as far as before, and to take it as a sign that it’s OK to take it easy; to rest on my laurels. In other words, Al was prepping me for the runner’s version of growing old graciously. Although I wasn’t the fastest learner, over the years it slowly became evident that Al had done his job well.
Al helped me through a number of rough patches, including the loss of both of my parents within a period of 24 days in the fall of 2007. Recently, he was there for me after the loss toughest loss of all: my son Josh.
Seven months later – on October 21, what would have been Josh’s 35th birthday – I put on a run to celebrate the memory of his life. Many people – family, friends and others I’d never met – turned out to lend their support throughout the day. Al was there until the very end, as he had been so many times before. He was excited for me to read the review he wrote about my latest book, “Finding the Words,” which I had written following Josh’s death.
I read Al’s review on Amazon the next morning, and it was absolutely beautiful:
If Tomorrow Never Comes
When I was about seven years old, my next-door neighbor died suddenly.
It was my first real exposure to death. As I followed my parents next door
to give our condolences, and I saw the tear streamed face of the widow,
I turned around and ran away as fast as I could. I just couldn’t find the words.
I still haven’t found them.
I’ve been close friends with Scott Ludwig for 26 years. This book, one of his best,
takes on special meaning to me because I knew most of the people he has written about.
Most were part of our running world.
As I read each story, I wondered how they would have done things differently,
had they known it was to be their last day on earth. We will never know,
The clear message here is…Don’t put your life off and talk about ‘someday.’
Someday may never come.
I sent Al a message telling him I thought it was wonderful and very, very, very well done, and ended by thanking him. He replied immediately: ‘Glad you like it. We are always at our best when the emotions are there.’
I went back to what I was doing – writing about Josh’s memorial run of the previous day – and a couple hours later a message popped up on the screen of my cell phone: ‘Hope died this morning.’ It took my breath away because my sister’s name is Hope.
Al’s wife is also named Hope. Hope, the woman with whom Al shared most of his life. Hope, with whom Al would celebrate 50 years of marriage next June. Hope, who was enjoying a cup of coffee in her favorite chair when Al went out for his morning run, both preparing to face another day together.
When Al returned, he was suddenly alone. The message I received – Hope died this morning – was from Al.
It took my breath away. Again.
I spent a few hours with my friend that day. We talked – about Hope, about Josh, about life…and death – up until just before Al’s daughter arrived from Nashville. I know they needed time alone, something I know – regrettably – from experience.
Even now, I still have a hard time thinking about Josh without choking up; talking about him is even harder. During my time with Al, I broke down probably six or seven times. As I write this, you’d better make it eight.
Like Al, I’ve spent my entire adult life with the same woman. Like Al, I never imagined having to live a day without her. Like Al, I always counted on her being there. Then, without notice and in the blink of an eye, everything was suddenly different.
From this point forward, I hope I can provide Al the comfort he’s always given me. In the days ahead, I hope I can help make things a little bit easier for him, the way he always has for me.
For now, I just want to be there. For him, like he’s always been for me.