Last night I attended a post-work happy hour with co-workers from an earlier period of my life. It was a reunion of sorts, but far from a happy occasion.
We gathered to celebrate the life of a friend and colleague who was taken from us way too soon, 10 years ago this week.
I was far from his closest friend at work. But I occupied the office next to his for a few years, and we had a great office kinship. We discussed everything from last night’s games, to politics, to world events, to office gossip.
I was two years younger than him, but we were in very different places. I was married with two young kids, while he was enjoying everything that life as a young, successful New York bachelor had to offer. And yet, what we talked about a lot was family. He told me, on more than one occasion, that when he was ready to stop playing the field, “I want what you have,” in a way that made me proud.
I had the office next to his during the period we learned of Ryan’s diagnosis. There were some difficult days. He was the type of person with whom I felt comfortable sharing my fears and hopes. He listened. He asked questions. He seemed to know what to say to pick me up when I was down. He cared.
He did not offer many details of his family story. But it was obvious he was incredibly family oriented. To me, he appeared to be someone who had the world in the palm of his hands — and he did.
He was smart, successful, full of life. He was destined for big things in his career. But there was something about him — a spark, an unmistakable charisma — that you couldn’t help but notice. He was the type of person that, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet once or twice in your life. A light that draws others in. He seemed to be better at the game of life than everyone else, but not in a Gordon Gekko, titans-of-the-universe way. His joy and zest for life were inclusive. He lived to surround himself with friends and create experiences in which others could share.
Every person in the office that knew him liked him and considered him a friend. I couldn’t imagine anyone ever had anything bad to say about him. He squeezed every drop of juice out of the pulp of life. He collected experiences and friends. He was a gatherer, a connector. The life of the party, the center of every social orbit. He was the type of person that could close the bar, and be the first one up the next morning to go lead a community service project.
He was deeply involved with the Special Olympics, and used his interpersonal skills to convince large, red-tape filled organizations to make things happen. He created an entire Special Olympics event in New York City seemingly out of nothing more than the force of his will and his considerable charm.
And then, one day, he didn’t come to work. There were hushed conversations, obvious concerns. Soon, we learned the terrible truth. He had gone to sleep and not woken up. The most full-of-life person I had ever known was gone at just 34 years old.
This occurred in the midst of a miserable professional period, just days after many colleagues were laid off in a work stoppage. The sadness was crushing. The unfairness was indescribable. Incredibly, he was the third of his parents’ children to pass. I doubt I will ever see a feat of strength that surpasses watching his father deliver a beautiful eulogy at the funeral.
Last night, we gathered to raise a glass in his honor. Many of us only knew each other through him. We had all been co-workers once, but from different areas of the organization. He was the common link. Colleagues I hadn’t seen in years stopped by, some making extraordinary efforts to be there. We reminisced. We showed off pictures of kids that were toddlers then, middle- and high-schoolers now.
It was not a sad occasion. Here we were, 10 years on, still connected by our association with our dearly departed friend. I can’t help but think that somewhere, he was smiling, having brought people together once again.
For me it was a reminder at the rapid passage of time. Where did 10 years go? My goodness, I was in such a different place then. If my friend taught me one thing, it was this: seize each day. Squeeze it until the juice runs dry. Surround yourself with friends, with family. Collect experiences and people. Don’t. Waste. Time. Certainly don’t wish it away.
He was taken from us, unfairly, far too soon. But he lived every single day to its fullest. It was a life incredibly well lived. In the obituary, his was described as “a life of good works, unfinished.”
I try to remember his lessons and apply them in my life. Nothing is promised but today. Make an experience — today. Make a memory — today. Those are the things that will matter when our time is up, no matter when that is.
Thank you, Pete. I miss you. I was proud to call you a friend. I remain in awe of the way you lived your life. Shemenahah!