"Death tugs at my ear and says, 'Live, I am coming.'"
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes
Two Mondays ago, Cindy Sherwin's life ended.
She was riding her bicycle through New York City, training for the upcoming Ironman Triathlon in Lake Placid, N.Y., when she suffered an aneurism and became brain dead. Unable to save her, doctors at Roosevelt Hospital kept Cindy on life support so her brother -- married two days earlier -- could return from his honeymoon in the Maldives to say goodbye.
I first learned of this story when my wife hung up the phone, turned toward me and said, simply, "You won't believe this." Cindy was the daughter of one of my mother-in-law's closest friends. She was, at age 33, a model of vigor and health. Along with the five marathons and myriad triathlons she'd completed, Cindy worked as a personal trainer. Fitness was her life. Her passion. "The rabbi asked us to sit down and throw out words to describe her," says Elaine Schaller, Cindy's mom. "My thought was that she was a gift from an angel. She was my gift from an angel. 'Special' is too trite of an adjective for her."
My wife was right. I couldn't believe it. For the next few days, Cindy's death consumed my thoughts. One moment you're doing the Hora at your brother's wedding, the next you cease to exist.
Three days after Cindy was taken off life support, I switched on my computer and saw the headline CARDINALS' HANCOCK KILLED IN CAR ACCIDENT. Although major league baseball was my beat for nearly six years, I had never met Josh Hancock. Truth be told, I knew almost nothing about the man. Was he a lefty or a righty? Was he married? Religious? A smart dresser? A Travis Tritt fan?
What I did know was that in the ensuing days and weeks, precise rites of passage were certain to unfold. The media would zero in on the Cardinals, pull players aside, ask in (understandably) semi-hushed tones, "How do you cope with something like this?" and "What will you remember about Josh?" Members of the team would respond, in (understandably) semi-hushed tones, "We're gonna do what Josh would have wanted, which is to continue to go out there and play hard." Shortly thereafter, the Cardinals equipment manager would affix a black patch with Hancock's uniform number to a sleeve, or maybe somewhere above the chest. There would be moments of silence, the unveiling of a mural or plaque. A month later, maybe two, Hancock's relatives would throw out the first pitch at Busch Stadium. They'd receive a standing ovation. "Josh is loving this up in heaven," Jim Edmonds or Braden Looper or Chris Carpenter would say. "I'm pretty sure he's smiling down on us right now."
I am by no means mocking such a routine. Death isn't a 6-4-3. It's complicated. Slippery. Dimensioned to the infinite degree. But as I was wandering the streets of Manhattan last week, perhaps crossing some of the same blocks that had comprised Cindy Sherwin's final journey, I stumbled upon something of a personal revelation. When those close to us pass, we immediately -- often robotically -- turn to ritual. Jews like myself sit shiva, tell some funny stories and eat cookies. Military personnel fire off shots into the air and play taps on the bugle. Baseball players wear patches and hang the deceased's jersey from an empty locker stall. It's all in the name of healing; of finding a way to understand why a Cindy Sherwin or Josh Hancock passed and -- most important -- to soothe the pain.
Cindy Sherwin's family has set up a foundation to donate money to programs to support health and wellness. To contribute, send checks to:
Cindy Lynn Sherwin Memorial Foundation
But maybe, just maybe, we shouldn't be in such a rush to soothe the pain. Cindy Sherwin is dead. Josh Hancock is dead. Soon enough, you and I will be dead, too. We will no longer possess thoughts or feelings or hurt or joy. We will be lifeless. Nothingness. Such is not hypothetical, but reality. Life ends.
I want to force myself to think about that, and then embrace what Cindy Sherwin and Josh Hancock no longer can. I want to order the Reese's Pieces Sundae with extra whipped cream. I want to lounge in the sun at Shea Stadium on a lazy August afternoon alongside my 3-year-old daughter and a gimantic (her word, not mine) box of Cracker Jacks. I want to run in the pouring rain and belt a karaoke version of "Sometimes When We Touch" and drive for layups in Paul Duer's driveway and wrap my arm around my wife's shoulders as we watch the sun set from the bench in our front yard.
I am petrified of death. Beyond petrified. But do not soothe me. I demand to be reminded of my mortality every day. That existence is not permanent. That our time is fleeting and our hourglass easily breakable.
From my vantage point, that's the way we truly honor Cindy Sherwin and Josh Hancock and the many others who pass on too soon.
First, think of all the joyful, amazing, life-defining things they will forever miss out on.
Then, without delay, go do them.
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero", now available in paperback. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.