This morning, after getting two hours of sleep, I headed down to Manhattan for a memorial service for my friend Richard Grace, who succumbed to a brain tumor three weeks ago. I knew Richard through the children's athletic program I volunteer for. He was a physical fitness trainer and the athletic director for the program. As such, he'd pop his head into the dojo every week to make sure the kids were getting to their activities on time, and to shoot the breeze with us coaches.
Richard was the very picture of health, six-foot-four and a fanatic fitness buff. He was the consummate ladies' man without being a cad, and if you want an indication of how handsome he was, he married a Rockette. He was most emphatically not the sort of guy you'd predict would not see the age of sixty.
About a year and a half ago, he fell. It turned out that he had a brain tumor that caused his finely-honed body to rebel against him. He had always lived with gusto, tempered with his sense of duty to the kids he mentored. When he became sick, he took on the challenge of fighting his illness with the same bravado with which he did everything.
Today, the eulogy was delivered by another one of the coaches of the program, who had known Richard since they were both seven. He had cut short a Hawaiian vacation to attend the memorial service, and had arrived at the church directly from the airport. His eulogy was perfect- a humorous yet poignant celebration of Richard's life. He recounted a visit to Richard after he'd gotten a craniotomy: "I told Richard, 'Even after what you've been through, you look better than me.' Richard laughed his inimitable laugh and I asked him if it hurt when he laughed. He responded, 'No, it hurts when I don't.'"
Richard came down every Saturday that he could, even though the right side of his body was paralyzed and he was wheelchair bound. When one of our sixteen year old counselors tearfully came up to him and said, "I'm so sorry", Richard took her hand and whispered to her, "No, be thankful." He fought his illness with bravery, and a determination to boost the spirits of his friends and family. Up until his final hours, he was a rock.
At today's memorial service, I sat with a bunch of my colleagues- soccer coaches, judo coaches, wrestling coaches, track coaches, swimming coaches, administrators- and families of children who were enrolled in the program. An entire church pew was occupied by old girlfriends of Richard's, which prompted my friend Frenchy to joke, "He really was a 'Hall of Famer'." Our taekwondo coach, who a year ago had been fighting for his life from a kidney ailment, made it to the memorial- he's another guy who had almost died, and his survival was due to the fact that he was in such incredible condition so that he could live until he received a kidney transplant.
The memorial service was uplifting and humorous, just as Richard would have wished. Even as he dealt with his weakness, he was a source of strength and inspiration for his friends. He was a guy who, as the cliche goes, "did everything right", but it wasn't enough. He was strong in middle age, he should have lived to a spry old age... the fact that he's gone is shocking and sobering. "Be thankful", he'd say. Every day is a gift. Every friendship is a gift. Before he died, we all made a promise to Richard that we'd be there for his young son. Remember the departed, but live for the living.