On Friday my cousin Joe passed away in New York. Age 62.
We shared a grandfather who we were both named after. We shared a love of sports, especially baseball. We had the same “coach” growing up, my Father. His Uncle Pat. The same man who would shovel snow off of the Pennsylvania driveway to hit us “infield” with snow on the ground. We both learned how to throw what today is known as a cut-fastball and a circle change before we were 12.
We were similar in a lot of ways, outgoing, gregarious, fun-loving.
We also were very different, Joe standing over 6′ 5″, batting and throwing left-handed.
Me, just 5′ 8″, 138 pounds now, barely breaking 120 in High School.
He fought in Viet Nam, a decorated soldier who rose to the rank of Sergeant, married twice, raising a family on Long Island, then living in the Bronx.
He was offered a minor league contract with the Phillies, a basketball scholarship to Fordham, but ended up chasing neither dream. Either of which would have had me over the moon. He was a legendary athlete in the City public schools as a school-boy phenom, clashing with a young Lew Alcindar. Later known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
Here is what I remember about my cousin Joe. It was Thanksgiving and it was freezing cold out. He heard my Dad talking about the points I put up in a recent middle school basketball game and Joe looked at me and said, “Joey, get your ball.”
We went across the street into the park I grew up playing ball in and we shot baskets for about an hour. He grabbed rebounds for me, showed me a few moves and ball handling drills and mostly talked to me about my Dad. How he was a huge influence in his life, how great an athlete my Dad was in his own right and how he was responsible for his love of all things sports.
How lucky I was. How I should listen to what he says, not only “even when it doesn’t make sense, but in fact, ESPECIALLY when it doesn’t make sense.” – I’ve never forgotten that conversation, although I wish I took his advice a little more often growing up as a kid.
On Sunday night I flew to Philadelphia, spent the night at my Sister and Brother-in-Law’s home with my two nephews. My sister and I drove to the Bronx the next morning for the viewing and funeral, then to Long Island for his military burial at the National Cemetery, then a brief reception at one of his son’s homes, then back to Philly.
It was a sad day from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed more than 19 hours later. But it was a day I won’t forget, just like that Thanksgiving long ago.
As I stood in the church next to my Sister on my left, Joe’s sister Toni on her left, his other sister Anna Marie across the aisle on the right, I was surrounded by family but felt very alone. Cousin Joe was gone. It felt impossible.
As I listened to the sermon all kinds of memories went through my head, then like a switch was flipped I started to look ahead. My future, my family’s, my wife. My daughter.
What do I want people to think about me when it comes my time? What stories will they tell. How will I be remembered? It’s not how long you live that marks a life as special. It is how well you live – the same lesson I learned from Dom a little more than two years ago.
The priest spoke of making the most of your opportunities and not being afraid to try new things, new experiences, seizing moments and of making memories.
Without warning, without even the slightest of signals a small voice seemingly from nowhere whispered a word in my ear that I had honestly never taken very seriously in the past.
I pressed it back down, and a moment later it was back. I again shook it off, focused on the sermon but it came back a third time, and my gaze settled on the steel blue casket 20 feet away from me.
I’ve said before to myself and others that I didn’t want Ironman. Didn’t see the sense in the sacrifice of training for the race. The time commitment. Then I thought about the difference between starting a Saturday bike ride at 4 a.m. to get home by 9:30 a.m. for my 100 mile training rides that would be necessary or the 6:00 a.m. wake up call to get back by 9:30 a.m. for a 56 mile training ride for Half-Ironman I did last summer multiple times.
You know what the difference is? 8 hours of sleep on those 4 weekends.
Small price to pay to put myself out there to conquer what to me is essentially the most amazing test of will that an endurance athlete can take on.
2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, then run a full marathon.
If I nail my training, have everything come together for me, race to my maximum potential I would be looking at an 11 hour day of swimming, biking, running, eating and hydrating. That’s a tough day. A big day.
But coming across that finish line and hearing, “Joe Marruchella – you are an Ironman” is something up until Monday seemed absurd.
Kind of like some guy at age 39 years old who starts jogging 1/2 mile at lunchtime to lose some weight that ends up less than 24 months later standing on Main Street in Hopkinton MA at the start of the Boston Marathon 41 lbs. lighter.
A ridiculous notion.
So what makes that same guy think that he can go from not being able to swim a single length of a 25 meter pool on April 15 of 2011 to an Ironman Triathlete?
Perhaps, but I know one thing for certain, Cousin Joe would have encouraged me with his good-natured ability to make everyone around him feel like they could do anything. Cousin Joe made you feel significant, exceptional, valued, special. You felt like if a guy like Joe takes the time to tell you how amazing you are – you truly were.
After 11 hours of racing I have no doubt that I will cross that line and be called Ironman.
Cousin Joe would have called me something much better, much more special at that same moment though.
He would have called me his “Cousin Joe”. And I would have been damn proud.