I remember the day that they announced who was going to nationals. We had been supposed to have two more races to determine who got to go, but Coach had lied to us. The names were read out and I’d known I wouldn’t hear mine, but it was just worse knowing that I had run my last race that would ever mean anything without knowing it was my last.
They set us free to go for our cool down run, but instead of joining the rest of the team on the trails, I sprinted back to the gym by myself and I collapsed on the grass in the back and cried.
A little bit later Daniel walked out the back door and stopped in his tracks when he saw me, like he wasn’t sure I wanted anyone around me. Awkwardly he said, “Um…hey?”
I whispered “Hey,” and waited for him to either ask what was wrong or leave me alone, but instead he just followed my lead and didn’t say anything. I felt like I should clarify my tears, so I added “I’m not going to nationals.”
He nodded and said sincerely, “That really sucks.”
I was so struck by the lack of any stupid cheer-up speech that I started crying again; he hadn’t given me any reason to pull it together and pretend to be happy.
He looked around, maybe hoping another girl would come out and comfort me, but then he sat down beside me. He didn’t say anything for a minute, which I liked, because I didn’t think anyone could say anything to make it better. But finally he said, “I wish you were going with us.”
Anyone else would have said something like “It’s okay!” “You’re still important!” “You’re a great runner!” It wasn’t okay, my season hadn’t mattered, and I’ve always been perfectly okay with the fact that I’m a hilariously terrible runner. Any of those things would not only have failed me to cheer me up, they would have made me put my guard up and suck in my tears and change the subject because in trying to make me not be sad, you’re telling me it’s wrong to be sad.
Daniel made it okay. Daniel let me be sad.
Daniel is exactly the kind of friend I’d want to talk to if something terrible happened.
Except Daniel was the one who died.
A lot of people said things like that in the days following that Mother’s Day from hell.
I wonder if he had any idea how irreplaceable he was.
I never told him how much that day behind the gym had meant to me. I never told him that every other person on the team made me want to scratch my eyes out that week; every one of them knew that nationals meant the world to me, but he was the only one who knew what to say to get me to smile again.
I wonder if everybody else just didn’t happen to get a chance to tell him things like that either. I wonder how many other people wished they were better friends with him outside of running. I wonder if all that had been different, if he would have stayed. I wonder if he thought he was protecting everybody he loved by leaving. I wonder how much time needs to pass before I give up on wondering, because even if I spend my whole life wondering, he’ll still be gone.
This Sunday when I got in my car to leave church, the radio was playing How to Save a Life by the Fray, appropriate because I listened to that song a lot the week it happened.
I would have stayed up with you all night, had I known how to save a life.
I wonder if he had any idea how many of us would have done that for him.