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Byrnes Remembered for Impact on Others
Steve Byrnes meant much to many.
It's evident and tangible in all the kind wishes and tributes sent his way this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway during "his" race -- as we joked -- and then again in the overwhelming reaction to the devastating news Tuesday that he passed away. One week into his 56th year.
Richard Petty and Mario Andretti, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and NASCAR Chairman Brian France -- even President Obama -- offered public condolences Tuesday. So did Steve's co-workers who knew him best and so did fans, most of whom never even met Steve, but appreciated his work as a broadcast reporter and admired his spirit fighting cancer.
Steve had a lot of connections. Or more accurately, a lot of people felt connected to Steve. It was one of the best things about him.
Although I was friendly with him from our work covering NASCAR over the last 20 years, our connection deepened this past summer when I was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer. He reached out immediately and became an absolute rock of support ever since.
At the time his head-and-neck cancer was in remission only to show up again in the fall. Suddenly we were in it together. For us, often that meant exchanging photos of time in the chemotherapy chairs, multiple bags of IV treatment hanging next to us. We managed to joke about one in particular: the drug's name began with the letters "FU" and we thought that was so appropriate.
We communicated regularly, and if he was having a bad day, I made a point to better it. If I was struggling, he picked me up. And he had a similar relationship with driver Martin Truex Jr.'s girlfriend Sherry Pollex, who is undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer.
Steve and I exchanged texts Monday night. I asked him if he was still enjoying Sunday's extended day of tributes and love emanating from the "Food City 500 In Support of Steve Byrnes and Stand Up to Cancer."
His response, "Still smilin."
So I wasn't expecting Tuesday's news nor prepared for it -- even as a cancer patient myself and all too aware of the reality.
I feel extreme sorrow for Steve's wife, Karen, an amazing woman. Steve and Karen have been married 22 years and loved each other so much. She was there to care for him, to support him, to laugh and cry with him. She was there to hear the good news and to stomach the bad. To comfort.
I used to kid Steve, "I wish I had a Karen, too."
It's equally as hard to think about the sadness his 12-year-old son, Bryson, must feel and it hits too close to home, as I have a 12-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son. I see the pain a child experiences feeling helpless and anxious while watching a parent soldier through this awful disease.
Steve made absolutely sure Bryson knew how much love and pride and hope he felt for his precious son, who in turn has been a source of strength and inspiration to Steve.
He and I frequently discussed the need to summon courage and live fully.
You don't want to upset those you love the most, so you mask the pain and suppress the hurt even on the toughest days. You feel great responsibility to be the strong one even when you are physically weakest.
You don't take days for granted. Procrastination is no longer an option. And there's no such thing as too long a hug or too many "I love yous."
Of course Steve was the ultimate example in this -- reminding us how to live in the now and, in the end, showing us true grace.
A week ago, Steve called me for an interview. I was writing a column to celebrate his birthday and the naming of Sunday's Bristol race after him.
We spoke for a good 20 minutes that day. After getting the heart-wrenching news of his passing Tuesday afternoon, I went back and listened again to the recording I had made for my story.
Steve sounded so strong. He was reflective, philosophical and modest.
He was so moved talking about the way fans have reached out to him on social media. And he sounded almost surprised telling me about the well wishes he received from the drivers he covered.
He was so joyful -- laughing often -- as he recounted Bryson's reaction to finding out the Bristol race would be named after him.
Mostly, despite all he has been through, Steve was so immensely grateful.
"It just reminds you how connected we can be with each other if we want to," he said.
It's important to share his story, to show the impact of an unexpected connection. Steve had so many connections.
He was my friend and helped me through an unimaginably difficult time -- showing how one person can make a difference. He inspired with his message of living in the present and helped rein in the temptation to dwell on the unknown or assume the future.
"I look at it this way, I celebrate every day as a birthday," Byrnes said last week.
It's a legacy of spirit we can all learn from.
After picking my kids up from middle school Tuesday, they could tell I had been upset and crying. They are well aware -- and grateful -- of my special bond with Steve and eventually guessed the news. It hits close to home for them as well.
My 12-year old daughter pulled me down to her shoulders and hugged me. Then after a couple minutes as I started to pull away, she instead hugged tighter and whispered, "I bet your friend Steve would want me to do that.'