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I think of him now and smile

Updated: Dec 30, 2018

I was feeling pretty good about life. I was halfway through my first semester of college, my grades were good, and it was fall. My favorite time of year! The leaves were dying in a burst of color, the skies were crisp and clear, and the air was beginning to nip at exposed skin. This was the season when I liked running most. Exertion left the body glowing and alive, not drenched and slippery with sweat.

I felt the euphoria building with every step I took. I smiled as I realized that this was the best I had felt since Tony died four months earlier. But at the mere thought of his death, the smile faded from my face. One moment euphoric, the next flooded with depression, I could do nothing but keep running as the memories, both sweet and bitter, ran with me.

I slipped deeper inside my thoughts, thinking fondly of Tony and I training side by side for years, running countless races together, celebrating each other's victories, and consoling each other's loses. I remembered how we had talked about what our futures held after most of our friends and classmates had gone off to college and visiting the local Air Force recruiter together. But of course, those plans never came to pass. As those thoughts, like a weeks-old kitten played warmly in my mind, the battle-scarred alley cat that was Tony's death spit and snarled and demanded equal time. And I saw it happen all over again.

Tony and a bunch of friends had gone to the swimming hole on the river. And why not, it was a hot summer day. And it was a good time, cooling off, laughing and splashing and fooling around. Until it happened. Until Tony's powerful legs cramped and his lean body was pulled under by the force of the current, his body banged against rocks and ledge and gravel. Until he died...

The funeral was hard. Really hard. Tony had been well known and well liked and most of the small town showed up to say goodbye. Like the other pall bearers, I was grieving, and just couldn't find the words to say as we tried to console his family and each other. The night of the funeral some of the gang got together for one last farewell but the music depressed us, our thoughts made us cry, and most of us went home early, feeling lost and alone without Tony.

A few nights after the funeral, the nightmares began. Night after night, I dreamt I was walking along the river when a familiar voice called my name. I ran to the river’s edge and with perfect and impossible clarify, I saw Tony at the river's bottom. Helpless to move, I couldn't look away as he slowly drifted out of sight. I always woke up at this point drenched in sweat, breathing hard and crying.

My thoughts faded as I rounded the corner by the cornfield which marked the third mile of my run. I was just about to turn back when I saw another runner a few hundred yards ahead. Something about the bow-legged stride and the way his arms moved looked so familiar that captivated, I picked up my pace to close the gap. When I got within fifty yards or so, the familiarity struck me squarely in the face. He didn't remind me of someone I knew, he was someone I knew. Or at least had known. But that was crazy. He was gone, drown last summer. And while I wasn't there when he died, I had helped carry his casket to his grave, had cried over it as he was lowered into the ground. But unless I had lost my mind, he was running as smoothly as he ever had less than forty yards away.

I had to satisfy my reeling mind or lose my sanity. I picked up the pace. So did he. I ran faster, he kept pace. I sprinted as hard as I could, as hard as I ever had, and yet he kept the distance equal. And just as I pulled up from sheer exhaustion, bent over and chest heaving, he looked back at me. Tony looked me square in the eyes and smiled. With a little nod, he turned away, rounded the final corner of the field and was gone.

I don't know how long I laid there after I crumpled to the ground, gasping for breath, head spinning, ears ringing. I know now that I was in shock, but in those long minutes as I tried to recover enough to stand, my mind was doing backflips as I tried to deny what I had just seen. Rationalizing didn't help. I know what I had seen, and I simply couldn't believe my eyes were playing tricks on me. Just my imagination? I could accept that perhaps thinking about Tony's death had somehow conjured up his image in my mind. But did I really think I had just chased an image for over a mile while I was not only wide awake, but running hard to prove to myself it wasn't there? No, not for a minute. This was real. I had no answer for it, no explanation. All I knew for sure was that I had just chased one of the best friends I have ever had, a friend who had been dead for months, through the woods and fields of the U Maine campus.

The next few days (weeks) were black voids in time. I didn't go to class, didn't eat, didn't tell anyone what I had seen. And I surely didn't go running again. I sat in my room, curtains drawn, lights out and relived the run time after time. I had run lots of miles with Tony. I knew his gait as well as I knew my own and was completely convinced it was him. Besides, I had seen his face, and his smile. No, that was Tony. The more I thought about it, the more confused I got. And the more confused I got, the more I felt compelled to try and figure it out.

Constantly reliving the run wasn't helping. My depression grew deeper, my life grew darker and I was losing touch. Just as Tony had died in the current of an unforgiving river, I was drowning in a torrent of shock, denial and self-pity. But though I hadn't been there to help Tony, he obviously held no grudge because just as I was going down for maybe the last time, he pulled me to safety.

I fell asleep one night, again thinking about what I had seen, and the nightmare started again. I was walking along the river when a familiar voice called my name. I ran to the river’s edge, filled with anxiety. Even in my dream, I knew what horror I would have to see. To my surprise and relief, this time Tony wasn't on the bottom of the river. He was walking toward me with a grin on his face. He stopped in front of me and put his hands on my shoulders. He looked me square in the eyes and said “I'm sorry Dan, I didn't mean to scare you. I just wanted to run with you one last time." He leaned closer and kissed my cheek.

I woke up in that instant, feeling clear headed for the first time since it happened. I knew it was over then. I was finally at peace with myself after the months of anguish I felt about Tony's death. But I was also a little sad, because I knew Tony and I had shared our last run together. Since that last dream, I haven't seen Tony again. I haven't dreamt of him or chased him on the running trails. But I think if him often, and I miss him, and I love him. And because of what he did for me, I know he loves me too.

Dan Crocker

University of Maine

October, 1984

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