Death, Airplanes, Internet and a Proper Hug; What’s the Connection?

I didn’t sleep at all last night. I was haunted in the night by the spirit of a young woman I observed, dead, earlier in the day.

I’d spent my day running with my running club. We are weeks away from our first full marathon of the season and the mileage is mounting. We ran eighteen miles. The parched state of California received some much needed rain the night before, and whether it was the mileage, the prospect of running in the rain, or the combination, turnout for our long, autumn run was very light. In my pace group, where there are often a dozen or more people, only five of us assembled. Of the five, two stated they’d only be running four of the eighteen miles before turning back. The three of us that persevered consisted of a coach, myself, and one other young female team member. It was perfect running weather; cool and a little damp, the dust of summer washed away with the rain from the previous night. Leaves were plastered to the asphalt pedestrian trail as though decoupaged there and clouds littered the otherwise sunny, blue, sky, allowing the sun to warm the morning just enough to take off the chill and to penetrate the damp.

We were just over halfway through our eighteen miles; the plan was to run upstream seven miles, back and past our origination point two miles further downstream, then return to the park. We were running, keeping a steady and comfortable pace, and commiserating about the amount of will it would take to run past where our cars were parked after fourteen full miles for the last four. I could hear sirens in the distance, which is certainly not uncommon. The parkway we run along nearly every Saturday morning parallels the American River, for dozens of miles, winding through the greater Sacramento metropolitan area, which now boasts a population of well over a million people. Sirens are common in such high concentrations of suburbia. The sirens did seem very close, though, at the moment, this didn’t really register. A man approached us, opposing us, a runner, on the other side of the trail, per proper trail etiquette. He spoke to us, half shouting something about the sirens and directing the police in the direction from whence he came. I thought he was joking, at first, making light of the sirens, as though he were running to flee some feigned crime, but then he mentioned a runner, ahead, in cardiac arrest. My heart nearly stopped, cold, at the thought. Cardiac arrest. That’s what that means; the sudden cessation of heartbeat, of blood flow, of circulation, of oxygen to the brain. Of life.

We continued to run, the three of us, at first with a few forgotten words of acknowledgement, then in silence, in shock, then in dreaded speculation. Our running club, though with a low turnout today, has over five hundred members. Our membership, especially after the impressive lightning, thunder and rain the night before, accounted for most of the athletic activity on the trail this early, Saturday morning. What were the chances the fallen was one of our friends, our teammates, maybe even one of our coaches?

We rounded a corner to find a crowd of team members around the form of a fairly young, female figure, prone, on the dirt, next to the paved trail. Our coaches are all trained in CPR, and, so, CPR was being administered by people familiar to us. I’ve been certified numerous times in CPR, in first aid, in wilderness first aid. I’ve had to employ some of my wilderness first aid skills, but, never, gratefully, have I had to actually employ CPR. In fact, I’ve never actually witnessed CPR being administered on anything but those peculiar, somewhat other worldly, vaguely androgynous, mannequins, used in practice. To see CPR in real life is shocking. The young woman’s head was, correctly, tilted back, enabling the opening of the air passage in the throat. It is an extremely artificial posture, though, and just added to the horror of the scene. Another team member was rhythmically pushing down on the victim’s chest with the force and violence required to artificially pump the blood, from a still heart, to the brain, but the force and violence required, you knew, especially with this woman’s very tiny frame, left every rib and the sternum fractured. Her face was visible, distorted by the grasp of the hands of the rescuer tilting her head back, her pallor was an alarming and very unnatural shade of blue-gray. Everyone standing nearby, the entire pace group ahead of us and a sprinkling of others, wore grim expressions and looked on from an encircling crowd, like a crowd that gathers around a particularly gifted street performer, everyone positioned themselves to better see. I didn’t want to see. I’d seen enough. Cardiac arrest. She was, medically speaking, dead. Her life force, the flow of blood and oxygen, was mechanical, artificial, and temporary, at this point.

Other than the well made up, embalmed figure of my deceased grandmother at her “viewing”, prior to her funeral, expertly made up like a Broadway star, closed eyes, lips, and rosy cheeks accentuated colorfully, I’ve only ever purposefully looked at one dead person; my father. And, really, I wish I could unsee that, it was horrid, it was dreadful, and as hard as I try, I will never forget that final glimpse. I’d said goodbye to him several days before he finally passed. I recognized the moment his true spirit left his body, some other quasi-dad-spirit inhabited him for the last couple of days; angry, confused, disoriented, surreal. I’d arrived at the hospital as quickly as I could when told “it was time”, driving nearly eighty miles, but I arrived too late. A dear and helpful cousin was there with my, somehow, disbelieving mom. I was encouraged to “take a last look”. The form behind the curtain with the twisted face and the grotesque, gaping mouth was not my father. Someone had shoved his dentures in, post mortem, giving him the look of a low budget horror film skeleton. I have no regrets in life, but for that one. That is not how I wanted to remember him, I find it horrifyingly unforgettable.

The scene along the running trail was as horrifyingly unforgettable. I wasn’t sure if I recognized her, the fallen runner, or not. I remember the absurdity of noticing how cute her argyle running skirt and hot pink compression socks were. The mind is a freaky thing. The ambulance arrived as we did, and the paramedics leapt into action, wheeling the gurney across the running trail in front of me, at precisely the moment I attempted to pass. In some almost comically awkward and inappropriate moment, I blocked the gurney and the gurney blocked me. With reflexes like frozen molasses, I realized the situation and stepped quickly around the paramedics and the gurney, allowing them access to the victim and me to access to the open trail ahead. Our coach remained behind to assist, if needed. The remaining team member and I ran on. A few minutes later, the ambulance passed us up, quickly, silently, with lights flashing. I never know how to interpret these things.

We ran on. And on and on. We chatted a little, about the incident, what else? We managed to keep a reasonable pace, coaching ourselves, timing ourselves, for nearly eight miles. We found the fortitude to pass the parking lot and run downstream the additional two miles, as planned, to turn at precisely the appropriate point and begin the final, excruciating two miles back to our originating and finishing point. A mile and a half from our destination, we met our coach, going the opposite direction, finishing out her mileage. We cheered her on, she cheered us on. Runners are awesome like that. She mentioned that the downed runner was not a part of our club. What did I say? I said, “Good.” Then quickly added an appropriate disclaimer, that it was still, all, terrible, whoever she was, but I was glad it wasn’t someone we knew. Still, it didn’t sound right, seemed vulgar and crude, but I didn’t have the faculties to articulate anything more appropriate. A hundred yards further on and my running partner gave up; she was too tired to go on at a run. I was stiff and sore from activities earlier in the week, my knee was ablaze with pain and walking was far worse than running. I couldn’t continue at a walk. I just wanted to run, she just wanted to walk. We parted ways; I ran in alone, she walked in alone. I wouldn’t have left her, alone, especially in light of the day’s events, but I knew another pace team from our club was shortly behind us and would catch up to her in moments. I kept running. I ran faster. I ran a lot faster, the last mile and a half, my speed increasing the closer I got to the end. I couldn’t make all of this end fast enough. And though, now, the run is over, and the day is over, and the fitful night of restlessness is over, I don’t think the memory will ever escape me. I have been touched by this person’s experience with death, fleeting or final. I still don’t know whether she was resuscitated, or whether she passed, nor do I have a way to find out. I don’t know if she had a known, pre-existing condition, or if she was smote down by some unknown, congenital flaw. Or was it as a result of some risky behavior? Things I’ll never know and will always wonder, if only for selfish reasons, to prevent such a fate in my own future. My brush with death. My brush with mortality. My brush with someone else’s mortality.

My brush with someone else’s mortality kept me awake. All night, every time I closed my eyes, I kept seeing her form on the ground, a crowd around her, her alarmingly blue face, smashed and distorted between the caring hands of one of her rescuers, her thin, tanned, fit legs sticking out from the adorable, argyle, running skirt and peeking, again, behind the fabric of her hot pink compression socks. Her shoes, small, bright, colorful, still laced perfectly. The ambulance, large, red, obnoxious and obscene, on the pedestrian only trail. Running almost into the gurney as it was wheeled across the paved path. The shocked look on the paramedics face, mirroring, I’m sure, the shocked and horrified expression of realization on mine as I scuttled out of the way like an unwelcomed rodent on a crowded city sidewalk. The thought that kept me awake more than any other was the connection I felt to this complete stranger, the intimacy of seeing someone’s face in the first moments of their death. I’ve only ever glimpsed my own father in such a compromised state, and that, unwillingly, hauntingly, regrettably.

It was the thought of connection that occupied my mind for much of my sleepless night, the connections we have with those in our lives we consider large, important, crucial, vital; our parents, our lover, our children, our friends, our relatives, and then the tiny connections we have with others, fleeting, momentary, mostly unrecognized or unnoticed; people we pass on crowded sidewalks, or a running path, even those miniscule connections where we make brief eye contact with another soul, or someone we smile at for some imperceptible reason, or greet, never to be seen again, strangers in passing cars whom we acknowledge in a brief moment of passing, people on a crowded subway, pushing like hungry lions towards the kill, into the car, then out again, only to disappear into the crowd, forever, on the platform at some station.

I once wrote a piece, though I’ll be damned if I can find it, about connection. I wrote it from an airplane, in the dead of night, from 38,000 feet above what I assumed was the Midwest, below. I flew in the dark of night, often, for work, and I would usually pass the time by looking at the tiny pinpoint sized dots of light below. Each dot perhaps the light of a car, maybe a window in a home, a light illuminating some moment of life for some other person. I often wondered if, perhaps, one of those people associated with some dot of light below, might just be gazing up, at me, within a tiny pinpoint of light, blinking across the darkened sky. Did we unknowingly connect in some very abstract manner? And, like some sort of synapse, would this tiny, unknown connection foster some cosmic reconnection at some point in our shared futures?

As sleep eluded me last night and my mind was filled with thoughts of a young, dead woman in a short argyle skirt and a smashed, blue face, my man slept more soundly, in my presence, than he has in a very long time. So as not to disturb his well-deserved slumber, I quietly sat and stared out the window. I stared at the dark shape that is Mt. Tamalpais, a sight that entrances me any time of the day or night. I have a strong connection to that mountain I can’t quite justify. I stared at the stars, though few, in the inky sky. There, too were clouds, or a fog, creeping along the edges of the sky. And, every few minutes or so, on ascent out of San Francisco International Airport, northward at first, to a point, then the course altered according to carefully calculated plans, to some other destination on this globe, an airplane, a small, blinking, pinpoint of light. Is it possible, that within one of those aircrafts, sat, by the window, a sleepless creature, peering down at a random dot of light on the earth’s crust, speculating some remote and tenuous connection with a soul associated with that dot of illumination? With, perhaps, even, me? Did we connect on some infinitesimal level, a future synapse set to fire?

We all have millions more connections with others than we can ever begin to count, or realize, or even begin to imagine. But what of the connections we have to those we have occasion to care about, those that “matter”. The big, orbs of bright light within our cosmic view, the swinging, swirling, searchlights that seek to draw our attention to them, constantly, incessantly. Are we nurturing those connections? Caring for them? Fostering them? Cultivating them? Or are they just a bright and annoying nuisance we wish we could block or shield from view? This is what really deprived me of sleep; am I connecting with those I’m connected to? No. That’s the true thief in the night for me; thinking that, perhaps, I am not connecting, at a level I’d like to, with just about everyone in my life. Are you? I suddenly felt very, very alone, not too unlike the downed runner in the argyle skirt, my connections suddenly and unexpectedly felt fragile, tenuous, distant, and sometimes, even, forced. Like dial-up internet.

Are we paying the appropriate amount of due to those we cherish in our life? Parents, children, lover, friends, relatives? Likely not, we are overcommitted, distracted, and overwhelmed. Though I’m certain some of our connections get more bandwidth than others, connectivity to those we love parallels the basic ISP we pay for; well-intentioned but somewhat sporadic and not nearly adequate to serve all connected. So, if we were to suddenly become “premium cable”, what would that be, how would that differ?

While money may buy you a better level of quality of internet connectivity, with our relationships, time is more important than money. With that being said, we need to make more time for those we love and, if as a result, accept making less money. Every now and then, we see something on social media that reminds us that our loved ones will be much more likely to remember the time we spent with them than the money we spent on them. Physical human needs are basic, and, really, the simpler these are met, the better, that we realize this early enough in life to make a difference is a blessing. One of the most critical human needs, next to air to breathe, water and food, is love, and, my friends, love, in its purest and most true sense, is free. It costs us nothing to hug, to touch, to kiss, to hold hands, to listen, to share stories and engage in conversation, or just, simply, to be present, and these actions are, by far, the most valuable. And like all things of great value, there are varying degrees of quality, and, quality matters.

Connection as a value vs. connection as a duty; connection is a two-way relationship. It takes two for there to be a connection; very simply, you cannot connect two dots with a straight line if there are not two dots. If one party bases their connections on value, and the other out of duty or obligation, the connection will be an effort, there will be a strain, a sense of obligation on one side and a sense of lack on the other. This is where feelings of resentment and corresponding feelings of being taken for granted arise from.

When both parties connect based on values, the connection is fulfilling and nurturing for both parties, it grows and is strengthened, it is solid and more lasting. If both parties connect out of duty or obligation, it is little more than a transaction; temporary, momentarily necessary, empty, minimally gratifying, purposeful, but only briefly, and, if not distasteful, then certainly not memorable.

After a long, haunted, sleepless night, I remembered what I’ve always known; life would be more joyful if we didn’t take for granted the deep connections we have with our lover, our parents, our children, and our friends. If we approached these vital connections from a sense of value rather than a sense of obligation or duty, they would be far more fulfilling to all involved. Why would we ever consider anything less than that? If we nurture our connections with those who matter to us most, meaningfully, on every level possible, we’d find more peace, joy and fulfillment, and so, too, would they. We simply need to touch, to hug for longer than a second, to kiss deeply, to press cheeks together, to feel one another’s skin, to hold hands, to caress. We only need to connect more holistically, to listen wholly, make eye contact, smile, ask, do, surprise. Cherish. Adore. We need to prioritize that which is most important, in the moment, and minimize that which is not; put the cell phone aside, be so engrossed in conversation that no one dares interrupt, embrace, put the past behind and future away, live only in the moment. Find joy. Life is uncertain, but certainly short, we need to connect our dots with the straightest of lines.

I watched a movie the other night, a French film featuring eighteen, five minute short stories about love, in Paris. One of the stories was about a man who was married to a woman for a long period of time. In that time, everything she did that he once found endearing, became irksome. He took a lover. He planned to meet his wife to tell her of his love, of his affair, and of his intent to leave her. His wife, instead, told him of her leukemia and that she would die. In this moment, he knew, out of duty and responsibility, he must rise to the occasion. He ended his affair and focused his energy and focus on his ailing wife. He rose to the occasion by connecting with her as he once had, he acted as though he didn’t just love her out of duty, but that he loved her as he once had, that he was “in love” with her. He found himself, shortly, as in love with her as he been when they’d first fallen in love. But, alas, she died, and he was sad and tortured and saw the things that reminded him of her, those things he once found endearing, then irksome, everywhere he looked. He became haunted by them. Yes, a tragic story, but what I took away from it is that love, relationship, connection, can migrate from endearing to irksome if we do not nurture it, always, as we do when it first sprouts. Like a plant, we water it and care for it and sing to it when it is a seedling, but after a season or two, it will no longer flower or thrive unless we continue to care for it. Such are our connections.

As an example, when you kiss your lover, on an “ordinary day”, assuming you kiss every day, is it  a  quick tapping together of the lips, with closed lips and eyes, like second graders in a school play, made to kiss by some cruel story plot, like the conciliatory kiss of a numb and bored couple after thirty years of bland matrimony, or the type of kiss you’d concede to applying on the lips of your great aunt, with her bad fitting, slippery, yellowed, dentures, or to someone a bit too well acquainted, recently, with onions, or not well acquainted, recently (or ever), with dental floss. I was the recipient of the best kind of kiss, just today, after my haunted, sleepless and very thoughtful night. It was warm, sweet, lingering, and loving, and what every kiss between lovers deserves to be.

What is an embrace? A hug? It is not the quick draping of limp arms about ones shoulders with an even quicker retraction, like the lifeless arms of a marionette on strings, thrust up, then dropped, with zero feeling. Do we embrace others as we would a fitful toddler, not our own, covered in snot and the remnants of chewed up graham crackers, or like a congratulatory embrace of an athlete having just finished a very sweaty feat, or of that thrifty uncle who saves money on both water and soap by only imbibing in their application weekly, or so?  A meaningful embrace, a quality hug, is not too loose, not too tight, one that says “you’re welcomed within these arms, but you aren’t being controlled or forced to stay.” An embrace that is long enough in duration for nearly every sense to be engaged and nourished (though I don’t always lick people while they hug me, so the sense of taste may be optional in a “good” hug). A nourishing hug is a hug that is long enough in duration to compliment the level of intimacy of the relationship; a few comforting moments for the snotty, food encrusted, non-related toddler, and the stinky uncle, but perhaps the better portion of half a minute, at least, for your lover. While I don’t whip out a slide rule or my calculator app on my smart phone, some term of time in between is apropos for other special people in our lives.

I had the best embrace, ever, today. A Sunday morning where no one was rushed to be anywhere, me after a poor night’s sleep, and him having an unusually restful night. In the bright morning light, a mutual embrace of uncertain extent, minutes maybe, perhaps an hour, or more. Sweet, loving, wholesome, nurturing, tender, comforting and fortifying. I fell asleep in this perfect hug, four arms enwrapped, and I slept like a child after a long, nightmarish, night and woke feeling completely loved, more rested, and restored. Nearly restored.

Don’t impede opportunities for chance connections to occur; smile at strangers, say hello, hold a door open, shake hands, guide, help carry something for someone overburdened, wave at benevolent drivers, or offer someone the spot in front of you in traffic. Every connection, whether a pinpoint of light or a beacon, has some impact on your life, to acknowledge this, to recognize this and to make as many of these connections as purposefully positive as possible is the path to joy, for you, and for the other dot at the end of the line.

Life is short. Life is uncertain. Life is certainly short. I believe we are so connected with our world, with “the universe”, that things happen for a reason. I believe it is through some level of individual effort and consciousness, through contemplation, that we attempt to discern some of those reasons, those lessons. From this experience, from this story, I have become more aware of the fact that life is fleeting, life is tenuous, and life is what we make of it. Make joy. Through this experience, I realize that many of my connections, my relationships, aren’t receiving as much of my positive energy as they should. Lessons I’ve learned in the past have been fortified; I am grateful for each and every moment as they arrive and as they pass, I am grateful for the people I cherish in my life now, for the connections we have, the connections we will accentuate, I am grateful for the connections I will make in the future, both brief and lasting, and I will make every effort to focus on them, to acknowledge them and to keep practicing drawing the straightest line between two dots I can.