The funeral director called wanting to know how they should trim Jason’s facial hair. I had spent the evening before compiling over 50 photos of Jason spanning the 31 years he had spent on this planet, and of course his style had changed throughout the years. In some pictures he had a goatee. A few featured a 5 o’clock shadow. But in most of his photos he was squeaky clean. Between 2008 and 2014 his personal grooming routine had shifted back and forth from exceptionally well-tamed to intentionally rugged with slightly messy hair and a whiskery chin. I think he was trying for that “not trying” look.
The funeral director’s question had caught me off guard that morning. I was aware that hair continued to grow even after breath ceased to be, but I had never collided with this scientific fact head on.
I suppose my pause before answering the question lasted long enough to warrant input from the mortician, who explained that it would be much easier if they could shave his face since they would need to fill in the large gash on his chin and apply makeup. “What gash on his chin?” I asked. Apparently Jason had made no attempt to stop or brace himself as he fell forward at the crest of Boylan Avenue; mile 11. His chin had taken the brunt of the impact, splitting open upon contact with the pavement. I was told some of his teeth had also been broken. He was born with a perfect smile, worthy of starring in a Crest commercial.
This injury was a detail I had failed to notice at the hospital. A bulky plastic brace encircled his neck and a large blue tube, secured by surgical tape, fed into his mouth to keep him artificially breathing. They were planning to “harvest” his lungs, and whatever else they could pick and carve from him like pitiless scavengers. They had wiped away all of the blood from his face. Although his death had been sudden, there was most certainly an element of violence in those final seconds.
I was unsettled by this new knowledge. My mind went back to that morning.
The police escort drove me from mile 9 to the hospital where I was greeted by a social worker. I, still in my sweaty running clothes, was handed a box of cheap tissues and quickly tucked away in a windowless room while I awaited my (his, our) fate. My heart already knew but my head needed to hear a doctor say it. Out loud.
I could hear the family of the other newly deceased runner screaming between hysteric sobs in the room next to me. “What are the chances?” I thought. The chances of dying during a marathon are thought to be 1 in 259,000. I sat completely still and silent, wondering what I was supposed to do next.
The memory of the nurse pulling back the curtain and guiding me to where Jason was waiting to say goodbye is branded into every corner of my mind. A sensation of weakness filled my body as the undeniable truth now lay before me. I had seen him roughly 5 hours earlier at 6am, hurdling towards the front of the pack to await the sound of the horn signaling the start of the marathon. He was in the first group: elite runners. I was in the last group: average walkers.
I leaned over him as I studied his face hoping in vain that my mere presence might coax him back into this world. His eyes were closed but there was a slight gap beneath his handsomely long lashes. I studied this space too, as if looking at a closed door to a room where someone had forgotten to turn off the light. I was searching for a warm glow around the edges but I only saw a small sliver of white, absent of illumination. I realized at that moment that I would never look into his eyes again. Had I known this the morning of the race, then perhaps I would have stared straight into him absorbing every last drop of his essence knowing time was about to run out. But we were running so late that morning. I hurriedly wished him luck with a casual pat on the butt and said “see you at the finish line.” The finish line. Such an ominous and foreboding farewell in hindsight.
I approached the bed slowly and with caution, afraid to touch him. The 6’1” man in the bed looked so fragile and delicate. How could this be my athletic and svelte Jason? It took me several minutes to process the fact that I could inflict no further damage…he was already broken. I traced my fingers across his warm sticky forehead. I raked my fingers through his sweaty wet hair. It wasn’t until I finally reached out for his right hand that I realized just how cold he was. He had been dead for at least two hours and yet his chest still moved up and down in harmony with the beeps and sighs of the machines surrounding him. I gave his hand a slight squeeze hoping he’d squeeze back. Nothing.
My eyes moved back up to his face and lingered on the mole above his right eyebrow. This was the mole I affectionately referred to as his “power on” button. I was an early riser and always woke up hungry and impatient. I would shift around in the bed and make noises willing him to wake up for huevos rancheros and a Bloody Mary. Most of the time my subtleties failed and that’s when I would resort to pressing on his mole…provoking the bear. This obnoxious but effective tactic would bring him to life on Saturday mornings. I scanned the room. Nobody was watching me so I thought “fuck it, it’s worth a try!” I gently pressed. But still nothing.
Feeling unsteady and bewildered, I lowered myself into the chair next to his bed. My body slumped forward with exhaustion. A bruised and battered boxer retreating to the corner of the ring, acknowledging my defeat.