At this time of year I always think about my lifelong friend and coach, George Gluppe, who passed away on April 21, 2012. This year I am feeling the loss of him from my life more keenly than ever before: maybe because after three years the irrevocability of it has sunk in; maybe because the “good old days” of Phoenix Running Club track workouts and George’s videos of our 5K Chase Runs seem very far away now.
George was truly a lifelong friend to me, from the time I was a beginning runner at age 16 to the day of his death, when I was 52. I find myself reflecting on the kind of friendship I had with him, and how rare this kind of friend is, at least for me. I don’t make close friends easily.
What kind of friend was George to me?
I’m talking about the kind of friend who accepts you totally. You know that person always loves you, is always on your side. Even when you do something wrong, that person is biased in your favour. In private your friend might strictly (but sympathetically) tell you what they think of your behaviour, but they won’t lose faith in you, they will still love you, and will defend you to the world.
This kind of friend gives you a deep security because you know they accept you totally the way you are. You don’t have to hide anything.
(Some of us are fortunate to get this kind of unconditional love and understanding from family members, too. There is much truth to “blood is thicker than water.” My parents encouraged excellence, but always accepted the pursuits I chose for myself. My two brothers are unfailingly supportive and understand my passions, doubts, and foibles better than anyone.)
In my whole life there have been only two men who’ve loved me in a way that was constant and required no words—George Gluppe and Keith Dunn, my partner of five years. They gave me the gift of unquestionable security.
George was the first. He was my coach and running mentor, and by discovering my greatest talent and inflaming my ambition, he set the course of my life. Running changed my self-identity in many positive ways and brought me friendships, travel, and intense physical and mental trials that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.
After I became a mother, George gave me another kind of support. He was a second father for my son Abebe (or perhaps more like a grandfather, because he spoiled Abebe a bit). George was always the same kind of unconditional friend for Abebe that he was for me, and nothing could make a mother more grateful.
Keith is the second person in my life who has given me unwavering acceptance and support. Keith got to know George pretty well, but only after George was already severely disabled by his hip arthritis and heart problems. I know the two of them had a lot of chuckles together about my quirks. They shared the same sense of humour.
I can’t imagine how I would have gotten through the tough final year of George’s life without Keith’s practical and emotional support. Keith also helped me adapt and grow as a person. I didn’t meet him until after I had injured my knee severely by tearing my ACL. Throughout my long period of withdrawing from running—which included cartilage tears, two knee surgeries, and my surgeon’s pronouncement that I would never run again—Keith never let me feel sorry for myself.
Both of Keith’s knees are in much worse shape than my bad one. He would love to be able to trail run like he used to, but it’s impossible. During the times I was depressed about my knee, and the slow, restricted running I was able to do (but yes, I can still run!), Keith would jolt me into a more positive perspective by saying cheerfully, “It sucks to be you!”
Keith challenged me to try mountain biking on tougher trails than I’d ever tried before (though I refuse to do the real “technical” steep trails on the North Shore). He also introduced me to more relaxing pursuits, like photography and the appreciation of good wine—and even beer!
It wouldn’t be true to say that these two loyal friends, George and Keith, never hurt me, disappointed me, or made me angry. We are all human, and I know I disappointed them, exasperated them, and made them angry too. But these were only “blips” that could not hurt the underlying, indestructible bonds of friendship. We accepted each other’s flaws and moments of weakness. Friends can even see each other’s flaws as humorous and part of what makes them loveable.
I’ve had many other close friends or loves during my life, including my husband of over twenty years, Paul. But none of them have known me and accepted me to the extent that George and Keith did.
It’s hard to maintain lifelong friendships. Some friends are close for a while, but then geography or other circumstances force separation.
People change. Some lovers betrayed me, hurt me, or got bored of me.
Sometimes in a friendship, one person wants to be “more than friends” and the other does not.
Both close friendships and more intimate relationships have to be nurtured if they are to endure. Perhaps I haven’t had many lasting friendships during my life because I didn’t prioritize and value my friendships enough. I’ve struggled with balancing my need for solitude with my desire to be close to others.
My last time with George
On April 20, 2012, George was moved from Eagle Ridge Hospital (where he had been for eight days) to Royal Columbia Hospital, where he was going to have an operation that would (hopefully) repair his faulty heart valve.
Keith took me to visit George there that morning. George’s younger brother Milt was also at the hospital, and we both spent some private time with George.
George was in fairly good spirits. I don’t remember what we talked about. Neither of us knew that this was our last time seeing each other. Maybe we were both in denial. I distinctly remember hearing Milt say, in his warm reassuring way, “Love ya Georgie” as he left.
But I don’t regret that I didn’t say that to George, or that I didn’t say goodbye as if it was the final goodbye. There was nothing left unsaid between George and me.
When I got a call from the hospital that evening, the nurse told me that the operation hadn’t been successful, and George was already unconscious. She warned me that he might not last the night. I chose not to go and see him one more time; I didn’t want to see his struggling body with his spirit no longer aware.
I spent an almost sleepless night, always thinking of George. Early in the morning I got up and went with Keith to Mundy Park. It was a perfect sunny morning, just like today. I did a wonderful 5K run in the fresh spring forest. Soon after we got back to my apartment, the hospital called to tell me George had just passed away. He would have been happy to know I had been able to run.
George, I miss you, and I’m grateful for your constant presence in my life for 36 years.
My last birthday celebration with George
P.S. You can find my other articles about George in the “Coaching” category of this blog. My bio of George is here.