Our eyes meet as the paramedics jog the gurney away from me down the dreadfully long hall hurrying toward the waiting ambulance. I attempt a reassuring aspect but fail miserably. His color changes from pasty white to gray in an instant. He struggles to breathe. I hold my breath. I swallow a sob as I see the life fade from his eyes.
I want to follow but it isn’t my place. I want to hold my friend’s hand but that isn’t appropriate for business colleagues, either. I don’t want him to be alone. Standing frozen with the others, helpless there in the hall, I blink back tears. Sound disappears. Silence engulfs me as I watch my friends, colleagues, acquaintances scurrying to help. Halted with disbelief.
Moments before, he stopped the strategic training session to break for dinner. Attendees gather for their plates of steaming pasta heavy with marinara sauce, colorful salad, and warm Italian bread. There’s small talk, banter, and light laughter.
I fill my plate. Heading toward my place at the table a staff member lightly touches my arm and whispers that there is a situation outside the conference room. Abandoning my food, I see him in the hall leaning against the door jamb gasping. “Are you Ok?” I ask, knowing he isn’t.
I implore him to sit in a nearby chair. He’s reluctant, repeatedly but calmly stressing that he isn’t able to catch his breath. His face reddens. The situation escalates to an emergency rapidly. My friend and agency director, Michele, is dialing 911. Two women are at the entrance doors at either end of the building waiting to intercept the ambulance and head paramedics in the right direction.
I ask him if he’d like water, he nods. Rushing to fill a glass, I knock my fear back with a pleading prayer, ‘God, please help us!’ and a mental admonition to stay calm. Handing him the water he takes a sip and immediately the plastic cup slides out of his hand spilling on the floor. He apologizes with a mild expletive.
Helplessness hits me like a tidal wave.
“Where in the hell is the ambulance?” I say through clenched teeth.
‘Hold on!’ I scream in my head.
“Where’s your cell phone?” I ask attempting an air of nonchalance.
He weakly motions to the conference room. I rush through the maze of tables and chairs, grab the phone realizing I have no idea what his code is to unlock it. He can’t speak to tell me. Luckily a calmer, savvy woman next to me grabs the phone and simply says, “Call Emergency Contact.”
I look at her in disbelief as the phone dials. She quips, “All you need to do is ask the phone to call the emergency contact person and it automatically dials – no code needed.”
I wanted to hug her. I give the phone to Michele so she can to talk his wife.
“The ambulance is coming,” I tell him as I kneel in front of his chair. Urging him to hold on without saying it.
“It’ll be alright. We called your wife … and son.” I relay the information; he barely nods.
‘Hold on. Hold … on … please …’
His body shakes. Cardiac arrest? The paramedics deftly slide the gurney into the open ambulance doors, slamming them shut as they climb inside. I realize I’m praying …
Hail Mary, full of Grace …
The Lord is with Thee.
Blessed are Thou among women
And Blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
Then I start over and over and over. I don’t know how many times I recite the simple prayer. I say it for the next four hours. Running it over and over in my mind.
I say it as I explain to the meeting attendees that our strategic planning session is postponed due to the emergency of our presenter, my friend, my colleague.
I say it as I clean up my untouched dinner plate.
I say it as I drive another friend and colleague across town to his home.
I say it as I drive back to the conference room to pick up Michele. We agree to go to the hospital together to wait for his wife and son to arrive.
I say it as we struggle to chit-chat, my heart thumping in my chest. Hoping against hope my fears have not become reality.
I say it while waiting at the hospital for his family to arrive; hopeful I have the strength to stay composed. To reassure them. Of what? I don’t know.
I say it as I sit in my car before leaving the hospital to drive home. His family with him – my job is done, he’s no longer alone.
I say it as I stop at Starbuck’s and order a venti green tea latte with coconut milk. I need comfort food.
I say it as I set the green tea latte with coconut milk aside. I can’t drink it.
I say it as I drive home in the dark. I don’t recall the 20-minute ride.
I say it as I lean into my husband’s chest and he wraps his arms around me while I sob – unable to explain the ordeal.
I say it as I fall into bed exhausted although I haven’t exerted any real physical energy in the past four hours.
The next morning, I say it as I answer the call from Michele. I know what she is going to tell me. Don’t you always know?
He is gone. Confirmed.
I say it as I recount events and reflect on our friendship.
The evening started with a hug between us. We were enthused to be working together after a several months absence.
Michele introduced us six years ago. He needed marketing expertise – that’s when our friendship started. From the moment I met him for lunch at a popular chicken joint, he was a gentleman. The aroma of fried chicken and French fries wafting around us, I knew he was old-school – a firm handshake, look you in the eye, tell you like it is, gentleman. A great guy everyone wants as a friend.
He’d hired me to develop a marketing and graphic design plan for a new venture he’d started. During that first project and subsequent projects, our conversations ranged from life’s tragedies, how fast time flies, to difficulties of caring for aging parents and teenagers, as well as the unbelief at the ability of co-workers, employees, people, in general, to look you in the eye and lie to you. He’d often joke, “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it!” referring to baseball pitches, business opportunities, deception from a person or the swiftness of life.
Over the years we’d established a routine of beginning our meetings by debating which was the better baseball team – Chicago Cubs or St. Louis Cardinals – always good natured – always respectful – lots of laughs and jabs.
After a hello and a hug, typical meetings started off this way:
Me: “What’s up with Strop’s ridiculous sideways hat?”
He: “Rosenthal can’t hit the side of a barn!”
Each conversation similar just the player’s names changed. Then we’d settle into a serious discussion of baseball – reminiscing how I coached, how he coached, the rules, the players, the salaries, the strategy, the current controversy. Then we’d visit the business at hand.
He encouraged me as I left the corporate world to become an entrepreneur. He boosted my confidence. We vented shared stories about the crumbling moral structure of business, of integrity being replaced by money grabbing and ladder climbing. We held very similar value systems and even though we were partners, co-workers or clients, depending on the project, our favorite motto was: Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.
He emboldened me to carefully choose clients with integrity and to walk away from those that had none. He listened and advised, sometimes criticized with the best of intentions. He made me a better entrepreneur and a better person.
God chose that strategic planning meeting for his final moments. I wonder for what reason. It all happened so fast. He was vibrant and joking and then fighting for life in literally a blink of an eye. I wonder why I was one of the chosen to be the last to look him in the eye, to pray for his soul. Swiftly it happened and just as swiftly he was gone. I can hear him laughing as he admonishes, “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it!”
I blinked, and I really miss him.