Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Remembering Jaron

This post originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of TriDC Magazine.

When I remember my younger brother Jaron, I remember the fearless novice on the ski slope, always looking for the steepest cliff from which to fling himself. Then, careening wildly down the mountain as he tried to keep upright, before joyously tumbling into an explosion of loose powder and ski poles.

I remember the collegiate football kicker who made an ESPN-worthy one-on-one flying tackle to prevent a return for a touchdown; and the kid against whom I used to play soccer in the yard in six inches of snow. I wear a jersey dedicated to him to remind me, and anyone who asks, of how precious and precarious life can be, and of the importance of living each moment to its utmost.

I returned from the gym in January, 2007, to find four missed calls to my cell phone and a message saying only, “Damon, it’s mom. Call me right away.” With an immediate feeling of dread, I hit speed dial, and she answered, saying “Jaron collapsed and stopped breathing. He is in a coma, and is being airlifted from the local hospital to Temple University, where they have a neurosurgeon waiting. You should drive to Philadelphia right away. He might not make it.” At the time, Jaron, my only sibling, was 28 years old. For someone so young, he had the world at his feet—he had been student council president of our high school and attended Lehigh University on a football scholarship, where he had been a twotime all-conference place kicker, set the school record for most consecutive extra points made, and broken nearly every strength record in the books. More recently, he’d earned an MBA in management, set sales records for his marketing company, and regularly volunteered time to mentor underprivileged children through the Little Brothers program. Most remarkably, just a week before the fateful phone call, he had gotten engaged to his girlfriend on a Philadelphia morning television show, terrific footage of which is still available on YouTube.

I talked to him briefly right after his engagement to congratulate him—it would be the last time we spoke. Later that afternoon, he developed a splitting headache that continued to worsen each day. After days of severe suffering, he went to his doctor, who diagnosed a migraine, prescribed painkillers, and sent him home. The next day, an emergency room doctor did the same. No doctor thought to do a CT scan, and he never made it back a third time; a ventricle in his brain was blocked, and the intracranial pressure had become fatal. We were told by the neurosurgeon that had the problem been diagnosed days or even hours earlier, it would have been treatable.

Jaron was more full of life than anyone I’ve ever known. In nightclubs, he’d have a huge circle of people cheering him as he danced; on ski lifts, he’d become great friends with the person next to him in the space of five minutes. And, although the two of us fought tooth and nail growing up—often literally—we had grown very close in the last few years, developing the sort of happy rivalry that can only be born of mutual respect and admiration. After I completed my first iron-distance triathlon, the ChesapeakeMan, in 2006, Jaron thought, “So, you think you’re in good shape? We’ll see about that!” and registered for the 2007 Marine Corps Marathon with my father and me. He pretended to be training just for fun, but he was sandbagging for sure—I’d heard numerous reports that he was up before dawn every morning running ten miles or more, with the clear purpose of reminding his bookish older brother who the family athlete was when race time came. “Bring it on, kid!” I thought.

It is impossible to describe how difficult it is to lose such an incredible person—and my only sibling—so unexpectedly. But however hard it was for me, it was no doubt even more painful for his fiancĂ©e, who was with him throughout that awful week. In the months thereafter, the unqualified support I got from friends, family, and coworkers was invaluable. But I also consider myself deeply in debt to triathlon for helping me through that time by lending structure to my life, and offering a constructive outlet for the emotional maelstrom I was experiencing. I found that 20-mile runs and 100-mile bike rides allowed me to reach a zen-like state of reflection on my troubles, and no matter how exhausted I became, life always seemed brighter after a few hours in the sunshine. In one of life’s sad ironies, Jaron never got to witness a triathlon, but I have come to think that the sport captures his life philosophy more than anything else I have experienced; the mentality of adventure, self-exploration, living in the moment, and pushing oneself rapturously to the breaking point was his essence.

I ordered a set of custom triathlon jerseys, and I, my family, and several of Jaron’s friends have worn them at every race since.

In September 2007, I competed in Ironman Wisconsin, my second race of that distance and the first since Jaron passed away. The day was simply spectacular, and as I donned my wetsuit and made the slow march across the timing mat with the 2,500 other anxious competitors, I looked across the water and realized that tears were streaming down my face. One friendly guy next to me noticed and, trying to be reassuring, asked if it was my first time.

But it was the opposite of fear or nerves—it was the realization that our sport is such a metaphor for life, and the sudden certainty that Jaron was there with me, grinning and waiting for the moment when the gun would go off and we would charge off together into the sunrise.

People often ask me why anyone would choose to train for 20 hours a week on top of commitments to job, family, friends, and significant others. I think we all have different reasons, whether it is running from something, running toward something, or just loving to run. Personally, Jaron taught me that we can all do amazing things if we recognize the moral obligation to use the talents we are given, and to chase big dreams with fearless abandon. I miss him deeply every day, but once or twice a year, when the alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m. and I head out of my door toward the transition area, I get a quiet smile and think: Come on, buddy. We’re going racing.