I’m driving out to Iowa today to share in the visitation and funeral for a longtime friend, Keith Ellingson. He was a freshman year roommate at Luther College where we were also cross country teammates.
After that, we worked together in college admissions, then parted ways as we got married, raised children and engaged in our careers.
He built a legacy as an excellent coach in track and field and cross country. His worked earned him a place in the Simpson College (IA) Hall of Fame. Dozens of his athletes earned All-American status, and one of his decathletes made the United States Olympic trials, no small accomplishment for a Division III collegiate athlete.
His achievements were many, but he was perhaps proudest of his three daughters, Jessica, Bailey and Catie, all of whom I’ve followed in their careers and family life as well.
Back in 2010, Keith lost his wife Kristi to ovarian cancer. Then in 2013, I lost my wife Linda to the same disease. That was a strange convergence for two longtime friends. Our wives met several times at our college reunions where they quietly shared the challenges of chemotherapy, surgeries and survivorship.
As if that weren’t enough of a rough outcome for my friend Keith, he was later beset by Parkinson’s disease, a condition that muted his physical and social affect. Despite that challenge, he never lost his wry sense of humor or his love of storytelling. Sometimes I had to lean in to hear what he was saying, but it was always worth it. Every. Single. Word.
Then he was diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s disease as well. None of this was what I ever expected for him. Throughout his life he was an active athlete and vividly social being. Many times in his presence I was reduced to absolute laughter by his incredibly quick wit. He had a laugh that seemed to say so much as well. It was a welcoming and yet objective sort of laugh. As in, “Can you believe this?”
Over the last year Keith had become more animated, the result perhaps of some medications that worked well. A large group of his friends and former athletes conducted Zoom calls with him, swapping stories… and asking Keith to tell a few of his own. Those calls were akin to the Knights of the Roundtable, sharing old “war stories” of track and field triumphs and failures. We laughed at ourselves some, and Keith laughed along with us.
Along the way his daughters got to know some of us a bit better as well. We exchanged some direct messages, and I was in the process of gathering information to nominate him for Luther College Hall of Fame status when I learned of his passing. He deserves that HOF honor for his work as an athlete, as a coach, and as a longtime supporter of the institution. Even through his struggles with Parkinson’s, he led our class reunions several times, and I did as well. His classmates revered his perseverance, I can assure you.
The time that has passed does indeed make me think about what it means to lose a longtime friend. I think of all those college reunions and can count the years, but it would require more than a few hands these days. Yet I don’t feel old, because having lifelong friends keeps you young in many respects. Those shared experiences are sustaining in the long run. It means something to work together through thick and thin. To offer that call of commiseration when needed. To extend condolences when appropriate.
Then we get back to the business of living.
That’s not always easy. But that’s what it means to lose a longtime friend. It means you can have gratitude for the time shared and even the time apart. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, with longtime friends it is often the case that once you touch base again, it is like you never left.
The physical Keith is gone. That needs to be said. I’ve been with my mother when she passed away, and my father too. I was by the bedside when my wife died in the company of her two children, and not long before that, her father as well. A few years ago, I lost a longtime friend that had been my baseball coach when I was thirteen years old. He was my running coach in high school and a longtime friend thereafter.
These bonds are important to all of us. One of the interesting products of social media is that people who knew each other from “back then” reconnect and find out they’re friends in new ways. That has redefined how some of our social networks exist and flourish. I consider it a blessing to have met some of my longtime friend’s daughters through Facebook. Now we’ll meet in person today.
The loss of a longtime friend is hard. If I know anything about Keith Ellingson, he would like it if his passing led to emotional support for his daughters and their families. I think of my own daughter Emily and my son Evan, and how much they’ve missed their mom since she passed. In so many ways we are all family, and through that hope we might all find healing. That is the right kind of pride.
And that is what it means to lose a longtime friend.