My husband, calm as he is, manages death better than I ever could. Sometimes, he tells me stories when he comes home as we sit together at our kitchen table. Sometimes he falls silent instead. Sometimes the stories are one sentence long—sometimes that’s all it takes to convey a loss. Not very often, but more than I like, he tells me someone I cared about very much has passed away. This happened two nights ago when he told me Pete had died.
Pete was my first tennis teacher. Which makes it sound like he taught me when I was 10. In fact, I took up tennis just a few years ago, well into adulthood and the years of the aching back and persnickety feet. Two people had tried to teach me in the way distant past, but only briefly because I wasn’t exactly easy to teach. Still, I wanted to try the sport again.
“Take lessons from Pete,” my husband said, as if Pete were a magician, able to transform anything into its opposite. So I did.
Pete was easygoing, warm, and positive. I’m not good with sharp, demanding, strict, and Pete was none of those things, which meant I looked forward to lessons. He made me, if not unafraid, then less afraid—not of the ball, but that I might never be able to manage this sport at all. My goal was to someday be able to play doubles tennis, but I had no idea how many years that would take, seeing as I could barely hit the ball over the net.
He shrugged off any outrageous concerns I voiced—like that I would never be able to learn—as any good parent might do. But that’s the thing: I wasn’t a child, and still Pete was having to encourage me as if I were one. I can’t imagine that was fun, but he always did it with a smile. He was always, always, always patient and kind.
It’s hard to lose people you know, but I think it’s especially hard to face the loss of a person who was not only still young (he was in his 60s) but also so filled with kindness. The world needs more of his kind of kindness.
One day, about a year after I had picked up tennis, Pete called me up and said it was time for me to play doubles. I panicked. I told him I didn’t even know the rules or where to stand.
I’ll tell you, he said.
I don’t know how to keep score, I said.
I’ll teach you, he said.
I don’t know how to serve, he said.
I’ll show you, he said.
People give you things in life, and sometimes it isn’t until later that you understand how big the gift was, that it was greater than how it appeared on the day it was given.
Pete taught me how to do something that I still do today—and it has brought me friends and more fun than I could have imagined. Pete made it seem like my ability to play doubles was no big deal, just a shrug, as if I could do it all just fine. And while I think playing doubles is not some great feat, sometimes life is filled with these small feats that test you, that together add up to a feeling that—when you are faced with something truly large and difficult—you just might be able to handle it after all.
That is its own kind of magic. And it takes a special person to help you get there.
I don’t think that being married to an undertaker has made me understand any better the reasons for what happens in life. I hope I am learning to accept. But some days, it’s hard. Some days, I just want more magic in the world, more kindness, more patience, and anything less just doesn’t seem good enough.