When people die before their time it hits you hard.
But when is “their time”? When is anyone’s time?
Justin Warfield’s time was on Sunday. His death was mourned and his life was celebrated in his Catholic church, over a thousand people on a Wednesday afternoon standing testament to the worth of his life. More than that, they were witnesses to what we all hope for: That in our short lives we’ll have made people better by having known us.
And Justin’s life was short. Diagnosed with a ragingly malignant tumor in November of 2014 at the age of 39, he was gone a mere year and a half later.Those who knew him well were stunned. Those who knew him in passing, like me, were likewise shocked. How could someone who lived such a good, clean, healthy life have been stricken down in the blink of an eye?
I don’t know, you don’t know. No one knows.
But what I do know is that during his life he made a difference, the kind of difference that brings people from across the continent on a moment’s notice to pay homage to a friend, the kind of difference that you hear in the stories people tell and the look on their faces, looks that can’t be feigned.
When the monsignor asked everyone in the filled church to stand who had had a personal connection to Justin, every single person stood. We all got chills and we all felt grateful. We often talk about touching a lot of lives, but rarely see it, not like that.
My connection with him was the slim connection of two narrow bicycle tires. A tutor in Manhattan Beach, he was teaching the son of Jeff Konsmo, one of our most dedicated riders. One question led to another, and the obviously eager and competitive Justin ended up being invited by Jeff to a Friday coffee ride. Justin was dropped and therefore immediately hooked; you know the rest. Over a few short years cycling brought him the relief from life’s stresses and the balance he’d needed to finally allow him to begin stopping to smell the roses.
This Friday morning a small group of friends gathered at the Center of the Known Universe, where Justin’s cycling odyssey had begun. We pedaled out to the overlook where PV Drive hits Paseo del Mar, dismounted, and shared stories. Jeff opened it up with a voicemail he’d kept from Justin, that clear, happy, funny, strong voice slicing through the cool morning air, floating, it seemed, all the way across the Pacific Ocean that lay stretched out in front of us.
Dave shared the story of how Justin had gotten his nickname “Pigpen.” On the day of his first flat, King Harold had changed it for him. The bike was so filthy that Harry was covered hand-to-elbow in muck from simply handling the frame and wheel. “What the hell are you?” someone said. “Pigpen?”
From that day on he was Pigpen, and from the very next ride his bike sparkled. If a fleck of dirt ever attached to it again, no one ever saw it; Justin became the poster child for the Immaculate Ride. Chris and Dan shared stories about Justin’s dedication, his strength on the bike, and his goodness as a person.
He had died after suffering through unspeakable pain with never a complaint. The time he had left to live he used with amazing power, cementing old friendships, building new ones, wringing the nectar out of his life even as it evaporated in front of him. When he died, he was ready.
But we who didn’t have to live with his pain and suffering and the reboot of infinite courage he needed every single day just to live? We weren’t ready. We’re not ready yet. Nor will we be, perhaps ever.