Grief Among the Cherry Blossoms

2 Apr

With racing, it is all or nothing.  It is all nerves and chaos and rushing (the race before the race) when you wake up bleary-eyed from barely sleeping and dress and prepare and head to the race and rush to the bathroom line and the bag check and back to the bathroom line.  Then it is nothing as you stand in the corral and think about how cold you are and how warm that bed was and how pleasant a hot shower and a warm breakfast would be.  And then it is all racing.

I was in the nothing stage, the calm before the storm, huddled in my corral in 3/4 length pants and a thin race shirt and barely there arm warmers. I began to have the conversation I’d had with myself at 2 AM.  And again at 3 AM.  And 3:34 AM.  The one that begins with “you don’t have to do this.  No one is putting you up to it.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s not worth setting your injury recovery back.”  And then transitions into “but you did make it into the lottery, and you paid for it, and for the plane ticket and it is the 100th anniversary of the cherry blossoms and the 40th of the race.  And 2 races in DC in 2 weekends has a nice ring to it.”

It was in the nothing stage that I heard the voices.

The first one came from inside me but in his distinct voice.  “You know” he said, “We were going to run this together some day.  Either on its own or combined with our own ultra run.  I think you’ve been avoiding thinking about that.  Why?  Do you not like thinking about me?”  And I thought “No, it’s because I miss you.  I know it’s silly, 14 months later, to be angry at someone who isn’t alive but I’m angry with you. This isn’t what I wanted.” I felt a wave of happiness (I remembered his voice, he felt so near) followed by a breaker of grief.

And that’s when I heard the second voice. “Are you going to run the whole way?” he said.  He was 10 years old, Adidas track pants and a long sleeve t-shirt. It was a question that seemed fitting because it was a question that I’ve been pondering for the last few weeks.  “I don’t know” I said honestly.  “I have an injured leg so I haven’t trained more than 3 miles at a time and only for the past week. Other than that, I haven’t run since December.  And I have a strained back because I accidentally lifted twice as much weight as I meant to. So I can’t breathe on my left side and breathing is kinda important when running…But I’m going to do my best and run as much as I can and then I am going to walk the rest. The only thing I know for sure, is that I am going to finish.”

“Do you think it’s okay to be happy and sad at the same time?” he asked next. So I told him that it was perfectly normal. I told him about my dead friend – the boy who ran and laughed and ate more food than I’ve ever seen a guy eat – and sometimes all three things at the same time!

“You understand” he said.  “I lost my Dad last year, he was in the military. And he promised me that we’d run this race together some day so I am running the 10K today (my Mom is waiting at the sign) and next year I am running the 10 miler. I’m happy that I’m running but I’m so angry that he’s not here.”

So I told him that I kinda understand. But I also don’t.  Because losing a Dad is much harder than losing a friend. Especially if the Dad is a good Dad. I told him that his Dad would be so proud of him.  He asked if it got “better” as you got older.  “Actually,” I said, “I had this conversation on Thursday with a friend and he lost his Dad when he was a kid, too. So he knows what he’s talking about.  And what he said to me is that grief will always be a part of us and it will change us. And some days we will be grateful for that and some days we will be angry. Our past does come with us into the future but it doesn’t have to define who we are.  It doesn’t get “better” and it doesn’t get “easier” but it does become part of us instead of an external force that tosses us around.  We learn to handle that part of us that gets sad and angry and is triggered by all kinds of memories and emotions.  Even happy ones.  And we are stronger and more complex and more mature because of it.”

And then I offered the only thing I had –  that we could run together for as long or as short as he wanted.  Or, I would think about him and his Dad at the 10K mark. He counter-offered.  We could run together as long as I said something at every water stop and mile marker – something that I thought his Dad would have said at that point.

So me and my shadow picked up our burdens of grief and carried them together for 6 miles. And we pointed at memorials and talked about their historical significance. And we each shared one good memory of our lost ones for each mile marker.  Well, his stories were good ones.  Mine were annoying ones.  Like the day he dangled PB&Js in front of me for miles but I couldn’t catch his pace and so I watched him eat them, one by one, as I grew hungrier and more tired and each sandwich made him run faster.  Or the day I finally beat him swimming in the pool and was just about to do a victory dance of some sort when he threw up in a trash can and I realized he had the flu.

And I said things that I thought his Dad would have said. About pacing yourself and running a good race and negative splits and how proud he was of his son, that setting a goal is important, knowing when to back off or quit is important, that failure and success teach different lessons but both are useful.  And that lemon lime Gatorade is gross. But necessary.

We sprinted to the 10K mark and he grinned as he crossed our imaginary finish line.  And I hugged him.  And then I had to keep going.  “Finishing doesn’t change anything, does it?” he asked a little soberly. “It shows that you’re going to survive” I said.

But oh, those last 4 miles, when not texting my parents updates and handling the waves of leg and back pain, all I could think about was last February.  The three of us running and running, away from our demons, trying to make sense of this death before the funeral.  And then stopping.  And me, throwing rocks into the Delaware River and yelling “You made me run 18 miles and he is still dead!” (There may have been a swear in there.)

He is still dead. I ran 10 miles yesterday and he is still dead.  I ran 10 miles yesterday and I am still injured. There is no magic cure for either. But I ran 6.2 miles alongside the future and it was promising. For 6.2 miles I got to be where someone else belonged – someone who died serving his country. For 6.2 miles.

Finishing didn’t change anything. Except my attitude.

Here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
    (part of a poem by ee cummings)
I was honored to meet a boy who is carrying his Dad’s heart along with him as he begins to run the routes and the races that his Dad once ran.  Just as I continue to run the routes and the races that my friend once ran. And the deepest secret that everybody knows but nobody speaks enough about is that love matters. Love of a parent or a child or a friend. It’s significant.  More so than any finish line I will ever cross.

One Response to “Grief Among the Cherry Blossoms”

  1. EMM April 5, 2012 at 10:00 pm #

    thanks for this, it meant a lot to me.

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