Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Phases - A Celebration of Life

I tell people that life is a series of phases. When you're growing up, you have a group of friends from school who are your age, so you share a lot of events around the same time. It starts with graduating from high school, followed by college and maybe graduate school. There's the first job phase, the wedding phase, the first kid phase, then the first kids school fundraiser phase. Later on, some of the harder phases come. Divorces, parent's illnesses, kids going off to college (ok, some people would consider that a good thing). Then there are deaths. Grandparents, parents, and sometimes friends from your generation.

2013 was a hard year for our Team in Training group. Working with an organization that dedicates its time to finding a cure for cancer has its stark reality. While you get to meet amazing people who are fighting the diseases, there are some that don't make it. In the last 18 months, Susan Conrad, Remo, Kevin, Justin and DeMaris have passed away.

I had the honor to say a few words at Justin's memorial service last week. I've given a lot of kick-off speeches and motivational pre-race speeches, but never a eulogy. There was a lot to say. I'd known Justin for close to six years. But I struggled with how I was going to boil down what he meant to me and those around him to a five minute speech. What follows is what I had written. I needed thnotes because I knew I wouldn't be able to get through it without breaking down.

Like many of us in this room, I met Justin through Team in Training. My name is Ron Carino. My wife Susan and I coach the walkers on the marathon team. I joined Team without a connection to the cause. In my first season, I met a lot of alumni who wore the names of their honored teammates. Some written on ribbons attached to their hats. Some were written on their shirts. I didn't have the experience of losing someone I knew to cancer like so many of us did so the significance didn't hit me me at the time.

I met Justin in 2009. He was one of our Honored Teammates. His sister Jessica was off to complete her second Nike Half marathon. What struck me about Justin was that he seemed to have come to grips with living with his disease. I never saw any anger in him.  He greeted everyone with a firm handshake and a big hug. He was always willing to talk about his condition and the treatments he was undergoing. It was his matter of fact acceptance that made me realize how brave he was. 

That following year, he came to Nike after a recent treatment wearing a filter mask to prevent infections. The mask was purple and there was a rhinestone "Go Team" ironed onto the filter cover that Jessica had made for him. Like everything he wore, he rocked the look. Justin had a great sense of humor. The only time I ever remember NOT seeing him smile was when he was wearing that mask. Justin never raced with us, but as some of our teammates would tell you, he seemed to show up just when they needed him. There's a point at the top of the hill near the soccer field at Nike, just when the half marathoners are at start running out of steam. I was with Carol Spicer and Kate Allen as they were struggling. And there was Justin. His presence lit them up like nothing else could and he took them the rest of the way. Seeing him on a course or during training was just as much a boost as any cheerleader or TNT coach ever could be. 

Justin was genuinely selfless. I have a picture of him wearing Honoree badges from East Bay Run, Diablo Run and East Bay Walk one season. He made time to visit us all. During the picnics, when he was asked to speak, he'd always turn the term "Honored Patient" around. Saying "you're the ones who inspire ME!" That year he came to Lake Chabot for the honoree picnic after a chemo session and clean shaven head wearing a shirt saying "Does This Shirt Make Me Look Bald?". It was one of my favorite pictures of him.

Sometimes he came to trainings after working into the wee hours that morning.  I loved listening to him talk about the bands that he saw in concert as he was working at Shoreline. There was so much life in his eyes. And while his time here was short, I think he touched more people that than he possibly would have known. 

I was reading through Justin's Facebook page last night looking for pictures of the two of us and ran across a note that I tagged him in three years ago. It was about a day that I found out that another close friend had died of cancer, just minutes before a race. She, like Justin, was taken from this world too soon. I raced that day with anger. With grief. But in the last miles, when I thought I couldn't wring any more emotion out of my body, I felt my mind go quiet. My feet felt light. It was almost like someone was carrying me the last few miles. I finished the note with a dedication to honored teammates like Justin who continue to fight. Justin said 'thank you, that's all I could type through the tears'. And seeing that comment and the pictures we took together, it brought me to tears as well. With him gone, that and a handful of pictures is all I have to remember him by. Justin joins an army of angels who watch over us on our races and in our lives, ready to carry us when we feel like we can't go on.

Jessica called me the week before Justin died. We planned to visit him as soon as we were back in town, but Justin passed away hours before we planned to see him. One of the greatest feelings as a coach is to see your participant finish his race, but the reality is that it's not always possible. You only hope that they crossed the finish line in good shape. Their pain is over and they are on to the next part of their training which is to celebrate completing their event. Part of me will always regret not being able to see him. But I'm glad that the last memories I have of him is his smile and him cheering on his sister near the finish line. I imagine he'll be doing next fall from wherever he is now.

Your race is over Justin. And while some people gauge their journey on how long they've raced, I choose to look at the quality of the time and many lives you've touched during the miles you've travelled. You're not just a name on a ribbon, or a name on our shirts, but a name written indelibly on our hearts. When our race is over, I hope to see you at the finish line and greet you with a firm handshake. Or better yet, a great big hug.

Godspeed, my friend.

It was meant to be a celebration of life. Justin never seemed to fear the disease, so I did my best to honor his courage and his resolve to move forward. His goal was to complete an IronMan triathlon in 2015 once his treatments were done. While he won't be able to do that now, I suspect that where ever he is, he's starting to train for a whole new race of his own.

Justin was born in 1981 and attended Woodside Elementary, Oak Grove Middle School and Ygnacio Valley High School. He was active in the Boy Scouts of America as a member of Troop 380 where he fell in love with the outdoors, hiking and camping and was inducted into the Order of the Arrow. He graduated from UC Davis with a Bachelors degree in Technical Theater in 2006. 

He was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2008 and began his association with Team in Training. Justin was a fighter. He decided that he would do whatever it took, chemos, radiations, drug trials. And that's what he did. He continued to speak out with Team in Training and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to encourage others to help fund the search for a cure. ~ from the memorial program, Justin Daniel Estrada

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