As many times as I've been to wakes, it never gets easier. On Sunday, I attended the wake for Kirk, a guy I played hockey with for several years. He died last Tuesday after having a heart attack while playing pickup hockey. He was 51 and leaves behind his wife and three young daughters.
I hadn't seen Kirk in probably four years because I started playing hockey closer to home. From '98 until about '06, I skated with a group in Waltham and then Concord, Mass., even though that's about a 40-minute drive each way. It was a great bunch of guys and the only reason I stopped playing with them was the skate moved to Tyngsboro or something and that was just too far to drive. I started skating with a group in Lynn, which is much closer (although it still takes close to 30 minutes because I have to go through friggin' Salem).
But Kirk and I always got along well. He was a big guy, bald with a goatee and always smiling and very gregarious. I often ended up playing against him, forward vs. defense, which was tough because he was a strong skater and delighted in shutting me down out there. And he often did, laughing as he gave me a playful bump or hack, or knocked the puck off my stick. Every so often, I would get by him and score, and I never neglected to let him know about it. He wasn't always there, but when he was, he usually made things more fun on the ice.
So even though it had been several years since I'd seen him, I know that if I saw him tomorrow, he'd be outgoing and friendly. He was just that kind of guy. I didn't know a whole lot about him other than he was married and had kids a little older than mine. I remember he was driving down from Maine for a while before moving back to the area.
There's an interesting camaraderie you develop with guys you play sports with (or even against). It's a mutual respect that only comes from competing with or against someone and then sharing a beer or two afterwards. Over the years, I've played ice hockey, street hockey, softball, soccer (indoor and outdoor), tennis and golf with hundreds of people. Unless the guy was a total dick, I always enjoy running into somebody I played with and catching up. Most of them don't end up becoming close friends, but they sort of fall into a category between acquaintance and friend. Even though the group I skate with now is growing increasingly younger as the older guys stop showing up and a group of hard-drinking guys in their 20s take over, that respect doesn't dissipate.
Kirk's death was also shocking because about three years ago, a fellow skater with the Lynn group had a stroke and then died shortly afterward. He was only 36, and I actually saw him struggling to communicate before someone realized he had a stroke and called 911. It was pretty goddamn horrible. He had some health problems that contributed to the stroke, but you still don't expect something like that to happen to someone so young. Even with Kirk, I was told he had been playing every week and was in good shape. You just never know. I suppose one response would be to stop playing to avoid such an outcome, but that's not living to me. The way I look at it, if it's your time, it's your time.
Still, seeing Kirk's family and friends at the wake was difficult. You know there's nothing you can say to make them feel any better. Seeing his daughters standing near the open casket was more heartbreaking than I could imagine. I just told his wife and girls about how I always remembered Kirk as a fun, friendly guy. Their memories will live on, and hopefully that will help them get through this tough time.