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I was watching a Seinfeld episode, the one with Lieutenant Bookman, a man with a badge and too much power, the enforcer of library fines and overdue books. Typically, this sitcom makes me laugh from the first scene through the credits, but by the end of this episode I was in tears.
The show is almost over when Jerry says to Lt. Bookman “…I hope there’s no hard feelings.” “Hard feelings? What do ya know about hard feelings?” Bookman shoots back accusingly. “Y’ ever had a man die in your arms?”
Wrapping my blanket tight around my body, curled up in a ball, I lay on my bed, trying to fathom how this could have happened to me. I never imagined something so dramatic and heart wrenching could pierce my ordinary teenage life.
I was running with my cross country team when we passed a man on the ground shaking, having a heart attack. We called 911, we ran for help, my friend and I gave him CPR. Time moved slow, then fast. During the thirty compressions and two breathes I held his head in my hands, tilted at an angle just like I learned in health class. I was so nervous; every thump of my heart sent a booming vibration echoing through my chest. I looked at my hands, expecting them to be shaking uncontrollably, a sign of my fear and incompetence, but they weren’t. Despite the whirlwind of emotions I was feeling, my body was calm, in control, and ready to take action. Having our teammates’ support right there with us, we continued giving the man CPR until the ambulance came. In a hazy blur, I remember them putting him on a stretcher, easing him into the ambulance, and driving away, leaving us to run back to where we started.
This man passed away that day. The weather was warm with a slight breeze, the new grass was crisp and green, the leaves on the trees were just starting to appear, precisely placed perennials were budding along the path. Everything was so disturbingly peaceful; astonishingly normal. In the lake ducks floated on the water’s sparkling surface, dazzling in the sun’s rays. The calm, harmonious tranquility loomed throughout the park, eerie and perturbing. How could the robins, high in the maple trees, keep singing? How could the sun’s rays still feel so comfortable and warm? How could two walkers passing by be smiling despite the horrific tragedy I had just witnessed? I couldn’t believe it, were they actually laughing?
I felt shocked, sad, and confused. A strange combination of these emotions, scrambled together to create a new feeling entirely, lay in the pit of my stomach. At school I couldn’t stop thinking about it. At night my mom comforted me while I cried.
This Seinfeld punch line was like a blow to my stomach. I had to stop and catch my breath. I was forced to acknowledge the reality I was desperately trying to ignore - a man had died in my arms. One second he was there, breathing, running through the wooded trails, healthy and in shape, a teacher at Madonna college, a family man with a loving wife and two young daughters, then, in minutes, maybe it was seconds I can’t be sure, he was gone.
As I was distressed, others were congratulating me. My principal, my coach, my parents, and my teammates all smiled at me with pride and admiration. Hearing their praise just made me feel unworthy. I was uncomfortable every time the term ‘hero’ was used. I didn’t feel brave, I felt hollow, defeated, and regretful. Could I have done something differently?
I thought I was meant to be there, as if a higher power had somehow manipulated the circumstances, bringing my team to that exact spot, at that exact time. Our location, a result of a last minute route change, our timing, just the right second, and my phone, which I rarely bring on runs but fortunately carried along that day, seemed significant. These instances were glazed over with the mystery of coincidence, appearing to be signs of fate. Like a mirage, however, these supposed signs of fate were too good to be true. If fate had controlled this situation then I would have saved this man’s life, but I hadn’t.
For me, these coincidences were just hopeless, deceitful distortions trying to euphemize the harsh reality. While others were marveled by them, I couldn’t care less. I didn’t want to hear others’ pointless preaching of benevolence and luck. At the time, it was like I had tunnel vision. My gaze was impenetrable to any signs of faith or optimism. I only saw the misery and grief following this tragedy: his poor mother who never thought she would outlive him, his dear daughters who drew self-portraits with crayons to bury him with, his mournful brothers who lost their best friend, his loving wife trying to console her daughters despite her own breaking heart. This man’s death was just the starting link of a depressing chain of sorrow.
At the funeral, I was bombarded with hugs from his grief-stricken mother, father, wife, and brothers. They were all so grateful my team was there to care for their loved one. Their gratitude was contagious. Seeing tears running down their faces, I realized how appreciative I was that I could reassure them their son, dad, husband, or brother wasn’t alone during his final breathes.
We toured the funeral home and saw pictures of his high school running days as a stand- out competitor on his cross country and track team. Not only was he a cross country runner, but a girls’ cross country coach as well. His brothers asked if he passed us on our run before he collapsed, and laughed, saying that would be just like him. They even joked that if he could have chosen the way he wanted to go, running would have been it.
I have decided that this man’s history of running is far too inspiring to be a mere coincidence. I now have faith that this instance was manipulated by fate; the effects are too substantial for it to be considered as anything less meaningful. This man brought each member of my cross country team closer together, in a way nothing else could. He has motivated me, as well as my team, to give one hundred percent at every cross country meet we have yet to race, in honor of him. The resolution he has inspired in me, the pride he has instilled in me, and the gratitude he has blessed me with are cherished gifts that remain as reminders of him. Initially, I desperately tried to erase the tragic memory of this man’s death, but now I hope to never forget the impact he had on me.