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Years ago, shortly after graduating high school, I worked at a community center where I did basic custodial work. The night shift was typically pretty quiet with only a handful of employees. Everyone kept to themselves for the most part and maintained their own area. If you know me, you know I love to workout. The community center had a fitness area so I would spend my lunch getting a late night workout in. Having a gym to yourself has always been one of my favorite things so the fact that I was able to spend each night with it to myself was like paradise. However, the fitness center wasn’t my area. It belonged to a guy named Jay and pretty much the only thing people knew about Jay, was that you don’t talk to Jay. He had this demeanor about him that pretty much told you to “get lost and stay out of my way,” so that’s what we all did and I never questioned it. Going into his area each night for lunch almost felt like you were risking your life each time but he said it was okay (reluctantly I’m sure). I enjoy music when I workout, it helps create that environment and lets me just focus on the task at hand. It’s safe to say that there was no music played during these workouts. I went in with my head down, put the weights on as quiet as possible, did my workout, and sped off back to my area after I finished. This went on for over a year. Although Jay and I saw each other pretty much every day during that time, our conversations during the year were simply “hi” (mainly a head nod) and sometimes even a “bye” if I was feeling risky. 

After a year, some things had changed though. My routine started requiring me to be in the fitness center more often and not just on lunch. Jay and I had to communicate a little more so that I wouldn’t be interrupting his routine by doing the extra work I had assigned. It was a few weeks into the new routine when I realized there were some little things I could do during my time in there that would help Jay out, like pull some garbage, quickly sweep up some areas, and other miscellaneous tasks. I kept quiet about doing these things but Jay quickly noticed, He stopped me one day to tell me thanks and that I didn’t have to do those things if I didn’t want to. I let him know it was no big deal and it just made more sense for me to do them seeing as I was already there. This conversation was what really opened the door for us. Over the next couple of weeks we would interact more, have some short conversations, ask how each others day were and other small talk. It didn’t take long before we started having our lunches together, telling each other about our families and some of our past. I found out that Jay had a wife and kid who was in middle school at the time. He would tell me stories of how his kid would be up all night during the summer playing video games and I would have to reassure him that it’s fine and not to worry.

Jay and I became very close friends over the next couple of years. Our work schedule was changed to be on the same shift so he started working out with me during our lunch. We would go grab pizza down the street from our work, talk about life and what we wanted out of it, and how we could do anything that we set our minds to. By this time, we knew each other’s families very well. His son would come in and we would play basketball or workout, and there wasn’t much we held back from each other. 

Jay’s proudest achievement was his son. He would never put himself first, he didn’t care what others thought of him. The only thing that mattered to him was that he was giving his son the best life that he could. When I asked him how his day went, the first thing out of his mouth was something that his son did. He would tell me a story of how he had his room full of friends and although it sometimes drove him crazy with the amount of pop, chips and other crap they would go through (his words, not mine), he loved that they felt comfortable enough at their house where he could keep an eye on them. Time and time again, he would rave about his son and how he hoped he was doing a good enough job as a dad. I’m telling you, there is nothing he wouldn’t do if it meant watching his son succeed. 

Jay wished similar things for me as well. He told me often that I needed to chase bigger dreams and that I needed to believe in myself even during the times where it seemed like I’d be taking a risk. He truly believed that I had unlimited potential and was adamant about never settling in life. 

In 2014, I had started planning a move to Las Vegas, Nevada. I remember telling Jay and how excited he was for me to follow what I was being called to do. I also recall seeing the hurt which was the same hurt I felt too. There were a few things going on that not many people knew. The first, Jay helped me more than anyone knows. When we first started talking and really opening up to each other, I was going through a hard time in my life. I was involved in a lot of parties and I didn’t feel like I had a lot of direction in my life. I struggled with self worth, there was a lot of pain from betrayal and broken relationships, and Jay was the one who was there to walk with me through those struggles. The second thing, Jay was starting to get sick. Each day he would come in a little weaker than the day before. He never complained because that’s not who he was, he would just tell it how it is and say he needed to take a few more breaks to get through the night. 

I remember the day before I left for Vegas, Jay and his family gave me a very nice card with some Monster energy drinks to get me through the 24 hour drive to Vegas. Over the next four years, Jay and I would talk periodically but I could tell things were not getting better. The calls were becoming more distant. The times we would talk, we’d reminisce about the good times we had and we would be optimistic about the good times to come. We made plans to meet up back when my wife and I were in town. He was so excited to meet the woman who was crazy enough to marry me. I was equally excited about introducing her to such a good friend who she had heard so much about. 

Last December, I received a message from his son asking me to call. I was terrified to call. I was afraid of what I was going to hear. Earlier in the month, I sent him a text after not being able to get a hold of him after a few calls but I never received a reply. I told him that I couldn’t wait to meet up when we got back to Minnesota and that he was still here for a purpose, that he had impacted many lives. 

I called his son and he gave me the news that his dad had passed away. I still remember the sinking pit in my stomach. Even when you know something bad is about to happen, you can never truly prepare for it. 

Life has been a rollercoaster since receiving the news. Later on that month, I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree. A month after that our beautiful daughter was born. It’s been hard to celebrate some of these things at times because I often find myself wishing I could give Jay a call to tell him the good news and how I can’t wait for him to meet our daughter. But I know he sees her and he sees us as well. He sees the sadness in my eyes and heart as I write this but he rejoices in the fact that I’m living the life that he told me to go chase after. I only hope that he knows how good of a friend he was to me and just how much I cherish his friendship. 

In life you need people who are willing to encourage you, challenge you, and celebrate your victories with you. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll find someone who will do all three.

Jay, thank you for everything that you taught me over the years. I know you’re looking down on me and I hope to continue making you proud. 

Donovan Armstrong

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