You never know what’s going to come out of a man’s mouth when it’s so early it’s still dark and he’s already done more than 100 burpees. In this case, that man was my friend Rob, and the words were “Let’s Make America Burpee Again.”
The handful of us who had done the burpees with Rob fell in love immediately with MABA that day in November. Make America Burpee Again sounded beautiful to us. How could we make it horrible? We decided MABA meant we would do 3,100 burpees apiece in January. We would do it to learn discipline, to suffer together, to practice resilience.
As word spread about MABA, our numbers swelled from six to 20 to 100. Next thing I knew 372 (and counting) members of F3—our free nationwide men’s workout group—said MABA sounded like a profoundly bad idea and wanted in, too.
There are many burpee variations. For MABA purposes, I’m defining a burpee like this: Squat down, put your hands on the ground. Kick your legs behind you so you’re face down in a plank position. Kick your legs back forward. Jump up, clap your hands over your head.
We all fell down in 2020. We all got back up. That’s essentially what a burpee is—falling down and getting back up. How much resilience could we build by falling down and getting back up 100 times a day?
More important than the burpees is how we planned to do them: together in fellowship. Research shows people who are in tight-knit communities fare better when disasters like the pandemic hit.
As a solopreneur, I ache with isolation. I need my F3/MABA brothers, now more than ever. The second F in F3 stands for fellowship. It fills my need for deep, important friendships. I hope my fellow solopreneurs who want to make 2021 better than 2020 realize that whatever they do—whether it’s MABA or something not, you know, idiotic—they should do it in community.
Throughout December, MABA’s membership ranks swelled. As the holidays approached, I imagined MABA would be a fun and edifying distraction, a way to thumb my nose at 2020.
But MABA turned into much more than that, because 2020 wasn’t done knocking me down.
The symptoms started with leg pain. Next came tiredness and body aches. I took a test Christmas Eve and I got the results Christmas morning: I had COVID-19. I never had a fever or cough. The symptoms were mild until Christmas night, when the tiredness morphed into full-body, can’t-get-out-of-bed, forget-3,100-burpees-I can’t-even-do-one exhaustion.
That continued for three or four days until I slowly started to feel better. I had fallen down again. But I had also gotten up again, even if I was still wobbly.
I woke up New Year’s Eve feeling normal. As I made coffee, I had a sad premonitory thought: Now that I’m healthy, I wonder if today will be the day I get the call, the one I had been dreading for six months. Thirty minutes later, my brother called: Our mom, Kay Crossman, had died. She was one week past her 79th birthday.
I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry: In the last week of 2020, I got sick with the illness behind a worldwide pandemic that has killed nearly 2 million people AND my mom died.
For months, her death had been looming, soon, inevitable. Her cancer returned when the shutdown started. Doctors gave her six months to a year. She made it nine months. My dad chokes up when he describes how she fought. On top of the cancer, she had shingles, gallstones, bad prescriptions, bad falls. She got knocked down, but she got back up, over and over and over until, finally, mercifully, she couldn’t.
I want to say this carefully. I’m glad she died on the last day of 2020. It was a final, horrible, painful, two-by-four-with-a-nail-in-it to the face. I’m wearing the grief over her loss, and I will miss her every day of my life, but at least her pain ended in 2020. I feel mercy, too. At least I can take her pain, and every other horrible thing that happened in 2020, stuff it in a metaphorical trunk, light that damn thing on fire and cry as it burns.
I have never been knocked down like this. But I never considered dropping out of MABA. If nothing else, I need the distraction. Carrying a heavy heart, I started MABA on Jan. 1. I was still under quarantine, so I did 152 burpees alone in my front yard. Every time I fell down, I thought of her. Every time I got up, I thought of her.
It is tempting to declare I am doing these burpees in her honor. But she would think doing 3,100 burpees in 31 days was… how to put it… dumb. Really, really dumb. I’m 80 percent sure she would ask, with love and laughter in her voice, “What the hell is the matter with you?” I’m 100 percent sure she’d be thinking it.
My mom loved me unconditionally, and I never, ever doubted that for even a single solitary second of my entire life, but she also thought I was a little nuts. When I told her I was taking a 267-mile bike ride, or going on an overnight hike, or trying to become an average high school athlete at 48, she called me, and I quote, crazy.
She’s not wrong. But what she didn’t understand (or what I didn’t explain) was that the reason I do those things is because of the community I have formed and entered through them. She would have been all over that.
Her life was evidence of the rich value of relationships. Making friends was her singular character trait; she had more of them than anybody I know. As news of her death spread, I was deluged with phone calls, texts, emails, Facebook messages, etc. Her smile, her laugh, her bright blue eyes, her exuberance—I heard about it all.
One story I heard nearly wrecked me. My mom was initially diagnosed with cancer almost five years ago. Doctors said it was terminal and that she had six months. Somehow that was wrong, and she considered it a great blessing that she got all this extra time. She came to visit us in St. Louis a few years after that diagnosis. It was the first time she saw my mother-in-law in years. My mom said to her, “Did they tell you about my miracle?”
It was one thing for her to tell me her extra time was a miracle from God (which she did, a lot). But for her to tell other people that—to know that’s the narrative she walked around with in her heart… I just. Man. She got back up and stood proud.
The visit to St. Louis in which she talked about her miracle coincided with my daughter’s appearance in Seussical the Musical. My mom showed up wearing a Cat in the Hat t-shirt and a Cat in the Hat hat, which she wore everywhere, including to the performance. I have no idea where she found it/bought it. I do know that wearing it was perfectly emblematic of her Nana-ness.
She never stopped talking to people. If you went to the grocery store with her, you would have to allot time for her to chit-chat with the cashier, the butcher, the guy pulling in carts, etc. Lord help you if she saw you in a Detroit Tigers hat. I bet half the waiters and waitresses in the country are reading this and thinking, The bright blue-eyed lady! I know her—she talked my ear off. She was a riot.
She was all of my friends’ favorite mom. People loved being around her, none more so than my two girls. When my wife and I called her to tell her we were going to have our first daughter, all I said was, “We took a test.” I didn’t say what the test was or what the results were, or even that we knew the results, hell, for all she knew it could have been a math test, yet she started crying right away. She had tried to keep from me how badly she wanted grandkids; apparently the word “test” broke the dam of her resolve.
When she met that first grandchild, she burst into our house with her arms in front of her like Frankenstein. She walked right past me without saying hello and grabbed her granddaughter. I might as well have not existed.
Before visits from their beloved Nana, my daughters sat by the front door, noses pressed to the glass, desperate to hear the sound of my dad’s diesel pickup that heralded her arrival. Watching my mom play with my daughters was like watching a hurricane dance with a tornado. She made up a game in which she told stories about a grandmother who did whatever she pleased. Those silly tales entertained my girls for hours. No, days. After a few days of that, my mom would be exhausted. The solution—to tell fewer stories less—was unthinkable.
When our hurricane-tornado visits ended, two things were inevitable. One was that my parents would sleep for days. The other is that my mom would call and say the silence without her granddaughters made her sad.
I’m proud to say I’m just like her. Part of my job is to talk to strangers. I can do that because I grew up watching her (and my dad) do that. It’s because of her that I have the type of personality that enables me to invite people I don’t know to do 3,100 burpees in a month. She might have (lovingly) thought MABA was dumb (really, really dumb), but it only exists because of her.
On Jan. 3, my quarantine was over. I led an hourlong workout in which eight F3/MABA men did 150 burpees apiece, and 16 of our kids did… well, not 150, but a whole bunch. Later, one of the moms told me that I could get 16 kids to do burpees in the freezing cold and have fun doing it only because I had my mom’s personality.
That might be the nicest thing anybody has ever said to me.
As her death settled over me anew on Monday, I wanted to hide in my office. Sadness kept knocking me down. I realized pretty quickly the antidote to sadness was to mimic her—to surround myself with friends. I got up at 4:30 the next day to join a workout with my MABA community.
My grief is unique to me. My need for community is not. I’m using my F3/MABA brothers to deal with my mom’s death. Whatever you’re dealing with as this new year starts, find that community to support you. Surround yourself with people who love you. Lean on them. Let them lean on you. Pick them up. Let them pick you up.
I am not doing the burpees in my mom’s honor, but I am deepening my F3/MABA friendships, and making new ones, in her name. All of us in MABA will fall down, together. We will get back up, together. We’ll be stronger for it.
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