Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pondering the Unthinkable

We lost a friend on Tuesday. His name was Craig Charron, and Craig and I have both known him for about 10 years. We both worked for the team during his second playing stint with the Amerks, and once he retired in 2002, he became our co-worker. I worked with him closely because he was part of the sponsorship department--meaning I helped manage his clients--and Craig worked with him quite a bit on the production end, particularly when he'd help out with TV broadcasts doing analysis. In addition, Craig fondly recalls running three press conferences for him--when he came back to play in Rochester, when he retired, and when he announced that he had cancer (ugh). Anyway, he worked for about three seasons in the front office before moving on to other things--things that allowed him to make more time for his family and community involvement, both of which were near and dear to his heart. Because the hockey world is a pretty small one, we crossed paths with him a few times in the years that followed. But this summer presented an entirely unexpected scenario.

In May, we found out that "Sharky" had a serious-most likely terminal--case of stomach cancer. Considering the guy was only 42 years old, it was shocking. Even more, as a former pro athlete who still kept himself in tip-top condition, it was even more insane. It just didn't seem possible. On top of that, he was married with a beautiful wife and four kids. The oldest is 14, and the youngest was born last September. Absolutely heartbreaking. And it couldn't happen to a nicer of course, the second it got out, everyone wanted to help. He was hesitant to go public with it, but after much convincing, he relented. I assume he did it for the good of his family--knowing that going public would enable him to secure his family's future once he was no longer able to. And so began the summer of fundraisers. There was a celebrity bartending event, a softball game, and a hockey game. A couple weeks ago there was a spaghetti dinner put on by the Amerks' booster club, and this past Monday we went to an event at a local bar--basically raffles and a buffet dinner. All of the events had a very positive vibe despite the grim prognosis he had from the beginning, but it was hard not to be optimistic. Sharky had the best attitude I've ever seen. He was sure that the depressing stats associated with this type of cancer were based primarily on older, more feeble patients, rather than a strong, healthy 40-something like himself. In between rounds of treatment he felt good, and at one point, one tumor had disappeared and another had stopped growing. And even as of a week ago, they were still looking into new treatments and thinking his most recent hospital stay would be short lived.

But it wasn't meant to be. He died early Tuesday morning, mere hours after this most recent fundraiser. We knew at the fundraiser that things weren't going well. At least one good friend skipped the fundraiser to stay at the hospital, and the whole group of "in-the-know" folks that we sat with seemed a little more reserved than usual. While I think we all figured it would be soon, I don't know if anyone was prepared for it to happen that night. Seeing one of the alumni guys post the news on Facebook first thing in the morning was a tough pill to swallow. It just didn't seem possible. I mean, we knew it was coming, albeit perhaps not that soon, but when the person in question is one of the more enthusiastic, friendly people you know, the mere thought of them ceasing to exist is just...odd.

I've spent the better part of three days trying to wrap my brain around it all. There are so many elements to this particular passing that have left me at a loss. I guess I'm blessed that losing a friend isn't something I've dealt with much in the past. I've lost a few family members, a teacher, and a few classmates (only one that I was fairly close to--a college friend), but for the most part I've been spared the worst. And anyway, when older family members pass, it's something that you almost expect, at least on some level. You may not expect to lose them when you do, or may not think into it this deeply, but on some subconscious level, you know that most likely the older generation is going to go before you do. But friends? Co-workers? It doesn't really cross your mind. They'll be around for at least as long as your lives will intersect. Or so we think.

Even though I knew for a while that this one was coming, for some reason the actual event has caught me off guard. Maybe it's the family he left behind--Two sons, 14 and 12, and two daughters, nine and one. He was supposed to coach his oldest son in high school hockey this year. I remember when his boys were little and his oldest daughter was a newborn. I think back to my near-shock last fall when the picture of their newest addition popped up on his Facebook page, and the brief conversation we had about her at an Amerks' game early last season. No doubt he was already feeling the effects of the cancer but was chalking it up to newborn parent sleep deprivation. The new baby made the diagnosis seem that much more overwhelming at the time, because I couldn't even fathom becoming a single mother of four, particularly with a baby involved...nor could I fathom the grief he had to have felt as the one leaving them behind. It's hard to get stuff like that out of your head, particularly once you become a parent. I just don't know how you function...and how you make sure your kids function. I hope I never have to find out.

It's been amazing to see everyone in the hockey community reminiscing over the past few days. Lots of Facebook statuses, newspaper articles, and blogs have mourned the loss. There are just hockey players he coached, their parents, former clients and teammates--the list goes on. And I think that's part of what makes this death so unique. Not only was Sharky a friend, but he was a former co-worker--and in sports, co-workers are like family. It may be a dysfunctional family, but when you spend obscene amounts of time at work, you can't help but have a connection with the people you're there with. And finally, as a hockey fan, I mourn the passing of a great player. And while I know this is bound to happen when someone dies, everyone who speaks of him remarks what a truly nice guy he was. He always had a warm smile and plenty of enthusiasm. And in his voice you could hear a bit of that unmistakable Boston accent.

I wrote two articles about Sharky when I worked for the Amerks. I wrote one during his last season as a player, and another during his first season in the front office. The first primarily discussed how he played in Rochester in the mid-90s and won a Calder Cup, then tried his luck with a couple other teams before happily coming back to his adopted home in Rochester. The second one looked back on his career and discussed the transition into his new job. An overriding theme of both articles was his dedication to his family. He talked about how much he loved it here in Rochester and wanted to raise his family here, and how the decisions he had made were based on them. And, like I mentioned earlier, when he left the Amerks he was doing so to make more time for the other things in his life that were more important--namely his family and his community. His dedication to both never wavered. In fact, my only complaint about the guy as a co-worker was that there were times when a few extra tasks fell on those of us in the trenches if he wasn't available to help with a sponsor event. But usually he had other priorities--and while it didn't make me feel much better at the time, now that I'm a parent, I get it. It's why I said I'd never be able to work there as a parent. Obviously he came to understand that, too. In the end, it's not fair to anyone.

I'm still not entirely sure this blog post belongs on this blog, but I felt like I had to put it down somewhere. I do think that this whole experience has been impacted by being a parent myself--imagining what the family has gone through for these past 10 months since the diagnosis, and wondering how they'll ever get through now that the worst has come to pass. I can't even imagine going through that and can only pray that God will give them a sense of peace as they continue on in life, despite the gaping hole in their new existence. I'm sure we've both squeezed Jacob a little tighter this week. It all definitely makes you think about your own mortality and the mortality of those you love. I think sometimes we need the sobering reminder of how nothing is guaranteed and how you have to live every day to the fullest. I think those are particularly important reminders as a parent, when the constant busyness and frustrating moments tend to drown out the joy of the amazing blessings we have in our lives each day. It's not the way I wanted to get a reminder like that, but I will gladly take it and try to honor his memory by keeping that thought in mind, even in the most trying times of parenthood and life in general.

We'll be saying our official good-byes on Sunday at a private celebration of his life. I feel very fortunate to have made the invite list. It'll probably be one of the happier memorial-type events I'll ever attend, despite the tragic loss associated with it, simply because that's how he wanted it to be--a celebration of the great life he lived. Farewell, Sharky...thanks for everything.

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