The sun is setting outside my train window. The little neon strips above my head have just been turned on, illuminating the inside of the carriage with a comforting, yellow glow and foretelling the hours of travel ahead into the dark night of Northern Europe.
am on my way home to Amsterdam from Picardie, in France, and am traveling with a heart and a head and a soul so heavy with love and memories and sadness and exhaustion that I’m surprised the seat beneath me isn’t buckling.
I have just been on a pilgrimage, of sorts, to say goodbye to one of my dearest friends and to hold and love and feel the wonderful physicality of his now-widowed wife and little boy.
My friend, Richard, stopped living suddenly, shockingly, two weeks ago, and I’ve barely been able to tell up from down, memories from plans, shock from ever since. It is the cruellest of ironies that someone with a heart so big, a heart that sheltered all kinds of strays, poets, dreamers and doers, should find that his could simply no longer do its biological job.
I will not fill this space, today, with all the ways in which he was brilliant. I’m still, pathetically, trying to feel around the mental footholds to grasp onto even a fraction of them.
What I will share, however, is the lack of lessons we have to learn from death. Because, when someone dies suddenly, platitudes abound.
We’re told to “hold our loved ones closer” or to remember that “life is short”. There’s a school of thought in which someone else’s brutal passing can be reshaped as an opportunity to “put things into perspective”, as though we will somehow be spared grief as long as we hold on tightly enough.
But what if you’re someone who tries to hold love close anyway?
What if you consciously live with an appreciation of the brevity of life and yet you’re still punched in the gut by the shock of death when it comes?
Punched and kicked and slapped and knocked off your feet, over and over for days on end? Knowing the fragility of life and the importance of living in the moment did nothing to protect me. No beechwood hanging signs or shared Instagram posts reminding us to ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ can shore any of us against the utter futility and agony of a life taken early.
So, what is the lesson now? Richard had been teaching me so much with his life already: how to live more bravely; how to aim for brilliance without being paralysed by perfection; how to keep a curious mind and open heart.
He’s the reason I podcast and the reason I write, which I could and would have told you while he was alive. But here’s the kicker: it is only by laying the pieces of the jigsaw on the floor, which you can only do when there are no more pieces to be made, that you see the picture for what it is.
In sharing grief and love and anecdotes over the past two weeks with other dear friends, and friends of friends, I have come to realise that all the awards my friend won for his writing and podcasting, and all the projects he continued to forge ahead with , were only ever secondary to the most important aspect of his life: compassion.
He cared, pure and simple. About people, about the world and about how to make things better for both.
In all his 48 years through such unforgiving worlds as elite sport and journalism, he never allowed the cynicism to take over, he never stopped having fun and he never stopped connecting and bolstering brilliant people, his belief in them making them ever more brilliant in return .
As the train gently rocks and speeds its way through the Dutch night, I will sleep and end my pilgrimage by once again dreaming of my friend and of all the ways he kept those dreams alive when he was awake.
No, I will not learn from his death, but I hope to never stop learning from his life.
Follow Orla on social media @SportsOrla