Written with the blessing of his mother.
Three years ago, as a family, we decided to have a dedicated gym night. “As a family” may be a stretch, because getting the kids there was akin to putting a onesie on an octopus. But we did it – a regular 5:30pm session with a real live medicine-ball-buster trainer for an entire year. We started calling it ‘Sacred Monday’ and ‘Fit Family’ and though we all complained we kept digging – suffering, aching, and praying that no one else was looking our way. It mostly worked, except for this goofy kid that started hanging out after his own session to watch us transition into ours. The goofy kid was enamored with this uncoordinated crew attempting Swiss Ball passes and Bear Crawls and the occasional vacancy left by the one of our four sprinting to the bathroom in a green shade of “I may have overdone it.” Going into year two, it was clear that this kid would always have the session before us, would always cause a lag in our start time, would always have a story to tell and oh, fine, who the heck are you and why are you always so happy to see us?!!
We learned his name, he learned ours and the greetings went from the nods of prior months to high fives to a boost in all of our spirits at our now weekly reunion. Honestly, it was a delightful. While one hand was dragging our teens in the door behind us, the other hand was reaching for a welcome from our new friend. Oh Max. We’ve always been collectors of misfits – it’s who we are, it’s what we do – you fit into our group like a puzzle piece we didn’t even know was missing.
As we moved through year two of Fit Family, Rich started traveling more. And more. And more. He did his absolute best to honor Sacred Monday but, time and again, work got in the way. It annoyed me. I’d paid for an even amount of people, the trainer preparing workouts for pairs – now we were having to divide by three once a week. I just wanted to do squats, not higher math. When it became apparent that we’d often be a quarter short, our trainer began starting each week with a *ping* three or four tonight? I’d respond back – and soon, whenever the answer was three, I’d get *ping* okay if Max joins you? Reluctantly…the first time…I said yes. I mean, he was clearly a great kid – but we were still trying to avoid all eye contact at the gym – how were we supposed to workout with a complete stranger? It’ll make it easier to keep the numbers clean. Sure, why not? He’s a talker. No biggie, me too. And thus Max joined us – box jumping straight past the ‘stranger’ space and into the can-we-keep-him? space.
We showed up that first night and there Max was – at the ready – wondering where Rich was and when he would be back and announcing that he could be Rich’s substitute whenever we needed him to be. Oh gosh, did he like to talk. Within three minutes we knew so much (!), discovered his elfish grin, love of laughter and became pretty much attached. We listened to story after story and assured him that this wasn’t a try out, joking that he could be Faux Rich or Gym Dad. I went back and forth between being enthralled at his energy and trying to remember my rep count. Max’s sentences either started with ‘Oh, I have to tell you….’ or ‘What exercise are we doing?’ Whatever it was, we invited him back for the next week. And the next. And anytime we were Rich-less. That first hour with Max flew by – because of his stories, because he needed a little wrangling, but, mostly, because he just made you forget there was anything at all wrong in your world.
We continued bouncing Max in and out of Fit Family until, awkwardly, I explained to Rich that we’d be keeping Max in the group whether or not he was in town – back to the higher math of having an odd number. I’m sure this announcement came somewhere on Studley Road on the way to the gym – no turning back now! Rich is not always a people person (okay, well, never), so it was a crap shoot on how he’d take adding a fifth person to Sacred Mondays. It was fine. Of course it was fine. He fit the mold – dark brown hair with a touch of craze, a bit ‘off’ from the standard path of most people, a touch of anxiety with a plethora of kindness. Easily mistakable for another McGillicutty. It took no time at all to consider him part of the family – the older child we’d see on occasion because we were sharing him with another family. And we knew that – we just weren’t sure who that family was.
As Fit Family continued, Max came armed with questions – always wanting to know just a little bit more about us. One night, he heard Zack call me “Jyl” and Max went on high alert. Why are you calling your mom by her name? he said, You shouldn’t do that! We were mid-rep-of-something-terrible and Zack looked over to me, unsure of what to do. That is one of the catches of a mixed family – when the secret gets out. Not that it’s a secret. But Zack (at that time) was not very confident at offering a long explanation on a relationship that, to him, is really quite simple. There’s a sense of loyalty to me that he hates to endanger (he wouldn’t, I get it) – in his heart, a description of where I sit on paper encroaches on that loyalty. I pulled Max aside and explained that, yes, I’m Zack’s mom – stepmom – that Zack has two moms, one whom he calls ‘Mom’ and me, whom he calls ‘Jyl’ or ‘Bear.’ Well, I tried to explain it – but as soon as he realized where I was going, Max lit up (again…the kid was always lighting up) with a Oh! Yeah! I totally get it! Renee is MY stepmom! I have two moms, too!
Which is when I realized that Max’s mom was the same Renee whom I’d been playing tennis with for years. How did I not know this?!?!?! Sweetly, the conversation continued on – as Max told me that he could tell Zack loved me just as much as he loved his stepmom and that he loved his stepmom just as much as he loved his (bio)mom and that Zack probably loved me just as much as Zack loved his (bio)mom. Where did this kid come from? How could he have known how much I (always) needed to hear that? From experience, clearly – but, that was Max, saying things that others might deem uncomfortable in the name of lifting me up.
It’s funny – I can’t say with any confidence what the regularity of having Max with us was. It seems like he was always there and, if not with us, I’d often run into him other days at the gym. I wouldn’t say he was a gym rat – more of a gym mayor, keeping tabs on most anybody that came through the door and befriending them if possible, sharing his love for his sister, Eden, telling how he was going to get his own apartment someday (he did), how he liked or disliked his job, or how his latest trip to the beach was just what he needed to recharge.
When Covid cancelled our regular workouts, we missed him. We were waiting for Virginia to work through its phases so we could get back to Sacred Mondays and the five-pack. But the phases took longer than we’d thought. And then when personal training became available again, we learned that our trainer had disappeared – off to a better life. We procrastinated, always planning on a return to Fit Family of Five. Always with the assumption that Max would come right back with us.
Except he won’t – because in yet another 2020 jab to the heart, Max left this world recently, after a brief and sudden illness. In typical Max fashion – it didn’t seem like a big deal, until it was. Then it was a very big deal. We went from Renee and I at a poolside chat about prepping for school, readying for fall tennis and, oh yes, Max had a viral infection to learning, two weeks later, that his liver was failing. What? But, surely it would be okay. Right? No. A week of Hail Mary’s, including a liver transplant, came to a close with Max quietly slipping away. What? Was this really how it ended? Just like that? With no long story from Max himself about how he went to the beach, got sick, took a couple bad turns, got more sick, got a transplant and completely recovered? I imagine often how he would tell the tale, using his hands for emphasis while he spoke through a you’ll-never-believe-this smile.
He was able to save others. Max would have loved that. Even his brand new liver moved from its rest stop to another home. I hope someday to hear a story from Renee about how she met the recipients – someone whose chest is bursting with Max’s heart. And Renee, my own heart bursts for her as she sits in perhaps the worst position through the death of a child – that of the stepmom. Tasked with holding up her husband as he grieves his child (in addition to holding up Max’s sister) while surrounded by people who think that her role of a stepmom somehow diminishes the agony. I will tell you – it doesn’t. Stepmoms love. Stepmoms feel. Stepmoms hurt. I think even more so, in this case, because of many of the special characteristics that made Max, Max.
We didn’t know this would be this hard – that you were more than just a workout buddy. We knew we looked forward to our time with you but we didn’t realize how much until there was no more to spend. We didn’t know you snuck away with a bigger piece of our heart when we weren’t paying attention. We didn’t know the jokes about you being our third child weren’t really jokes after all.
We didn’t know this would be this hard.
We didn’t realize we’d fallen for you until life took you away.