I didn’t even know his name. Not until the day he died.
He was a coach at my kids’ swim school. Not their coach, but always at the pool at the same times. I’d talked to him a couple of times (or rather, him to me) as he walked up and down the pool and I sat in the stands or waited for my kids at the end of class. But mostly, I just watched him. Admired him, really.
It was so obvious, even to a complete stranger, how much he believed in those kids in his squad and cared about them. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the love of the sport and making them into the best swimmers and people he could.
He even tried to convince me to get back into swimming. Me, who’d always disliked it. He batted back every excuse I came up with and said maybe I’d just never had the right coach. In that moment, faced with his passion, I believed him.
He found spare towels and wrapped them around a couple of shivering kids one day when it was particularly windy. He offered to teach another child for free because her brother was having his turn that term and the family couldn’t afford to pay for both. He rarely yelled anything but encouragement, taking kids aside if they needed help rather than making a big deal of it.
He really, truly cared about those kids. And it showed. Even to a complete stranger.
Our last day of swimming lessons, I thanked my kids’ teacher, waited impatiently for the kids to change, grabbed our bags and left. It was late, I had two tired chlorine-y kids needing showers, dinner to cook and my youngest still to pick up.
But I couldn’t walk out the gate.
My kids had already walked out. I called them back. Told them to wait a second. Walked over to the coach and bumblingly, probably with a bright red embarrassed face, told him how much I admired him. That I thought he was doing an amazing job and how clear it was that he really cared about those kids and how much, as a parent, that meant to me to know coaches like him believed in our kids.
He said thanks, asked me if I even knew his name and when I admitted I didn’t, told me it. My brain was a little too flustered to catch the foreign-sounding name and I was too embarrassed to ask again, instead saying something along the lines of ‘well, I just wanted to encourage you’ and walking out, my face now burning, my kids looking at me weirdly and me thinking through every word I’d said and how much of an idiot he probably now thought I was. But still, glad I’d gone back.
Two weeks later, I found out he’d died. Totally unexpectedly.
I was stunned. Shocked. He was just there. I couldn’t get my head around it. I’d only just talked to him, and now he was gone? It made no sense. Death rarely does.
I barely knew him, and yet my heart broke for his family and all those kids he’d coached who knew him far better than me.
And yet, alongside the utter shock, was the crazy realization that, had I not gone back that day, I would never have had another chance to tell him how much he was appreciated. But I did. And he knew. I wasn’t sitting there, wishing I’d had the courage and dealing with the regret on top of heartbreak. I’d gone back. I’d told him.
I don’t know if my words meant anything to him that day or if I was just a random stranger bumbling my way through an encouragement. Maybe it encouraged him but maybe he walked out after finishing coaching that day and never thought of it again. I’ll never know. What I do know, is that it’s something I’ll never forget. How unexpected death can be. How much I need to remember to take those moments. How even if it meant nothing to him, it meant something to me. How easily I could have kept walking that day, not gone back, and forever lived with that regret. How, instead, I found twenty seconds of courage and thanked a stranger.
Is there a lesson in this? Probably. Is that why I’m sharing it? I honestly don’t know. Maybe it’s for someone else, maybe it’s just for me. A way to process, I suppose. I just know I can’t get it out of my head. Haven’t been able to since the day I opened that email from the swim school to find out he’d died.
This story aside, there have been lots of moments lately when I’ve ignored the screaming fear-filled voice inside me and said yes to things. Go with the ‘say yes now and freak out later’ idea. Some have worked out really well, some were still terrifying but grew me heaps and some… yes… well… let’s just say my first guest podcast recording wasn’t my finest moment (sorry StoryNerds! Maybe one day I’ll be game enough to listen to it…) but I learnt a lot. I know what to do differently next time. And I said yes even though I was scared. And I’m really, really glad I did.
It’s not easy. Believe me, I know. But it’s worth it. Take the moments. Even if your knees shake. Even if you look like a bumbling fool. Not because life comes with no guarantees and you never know if you’ll ever see someone again (although that’s true too) but because you never know what might come of something. You’ll never know at the time what God might be doing in someone else’s life – and yours – through those moments of courage.
Maybe he’s changing someone’s life. Maybe he’s forever changing yours.