Brave

This post could have been dubbed “MIA,” but that’s already been done. I have indeed been MIA from blogging, but not from writing. Below is a personal essay I submitted to the final round of the Yeah Write Super Challenge, which, to my astonishment, earned first place. And I say astonishment after reading a few of the other contenders. Well done, all.

 

“Peas patha napins,” my husband said, the back of his hand covering his mouth.

“What?” I asked.

He swallowed hard. A lump of bacon cheeseburger trailed down his throat like a snake swallowing a mouse. “The napkins,” he said. “Could you please pass them?”

We sat in a booth at a restaurant renowned for onion rings the size of platters and outrageous cheeseburgers—peanut butter, jelly, and bacon, for one. Twenty-four hours ago I also would have ordered something that required extra napkins, but not tonight. Tonight I ate a salad of sliced pears and an extra order of grilled chicken, hold the dressing, because tonight, as we’d waited for a table, I’d made a decision. Perhaps it was the lingering headiness of a successful 5K three months previous, or perhaps it was low blood sugar, but I’d decided to run a marathon.

1968

Marathons were more commonplace than ever thanks to running’s surge in popularity. But I wasn’t a runner. That 5K was the farthest I’d run in my entire life. Still, how far could a marathon be? Probably not more than a few 5Ks strung together. More or less.

We got home from the restaurant that night, me hungry but virtuous, and after Googling “marathons,” I clicked on the first site that popped up. Then I clicked on the second site. Twenty-six-plus miles? Were they serious? Is that what I’d committed to, running a length greater than the distance I typically drive in a week? And I had committed to it. Maybe not to anyone else, but to myself.

I researched training plans the way a pregnant woman researches pediatricians, and learned that it conservatively takes five months to train properly. Now I needed to find a race. What about the Long Beach Marathon next October, nine months from now? That was the race the 5K had been affiliated with, so why not run something a year to the day of my first 5K? Plus, the marathon was hosted by the nonprofit our daughter did volunteer work for. It was serendipity. In four months, I’d start training.

Those four months sailed by and soon I was headlong into prescribed running: X miles on X day at X pace. I came to crave the predictability of my runs, the comfort of having at least one stable aspect of my day. Because for the past ten years, my days had been anything but stable.

Our oldest daughter, the one who volunteered for the nonprofit organization hosting the Long Beach Marathon, contracted viral encephalitis when she was 14 years old. She survived despite dismal odds, but after a life of perfect health she is now nonverbal and wheelchair bound. She cannot dress herself, feed herself, or roll over in bed. She cannot scratch an itch. But she is able to think, and she is able to tap on her Mac’s keyboard with a single weak finger, and she has tapped out speeches read on her behalf to benefit that nonprofit, one that provides low-cost wheelchairs at no cost to the disabled in developing countries. Serendipity.

The miles piled up impressively, eleven one week, thirteen the next, and soon I was logging upward of twenty-five miles per week. Training for a marathon isn’t a sprint but, well, a marathon, and the gradual five-month progression allows important physiologic adaptations to occur safely. And since I followed my program explicitly, I ignored the toothache-like soreness in my right thigh until it progressed from vague discomfort to pronounced pain.

“Why don’t you see a doctor?” my husband asked. I wanted to say, “Because I don’t want to know what’s wrong.” But what I said was, “Okay.”

A week later, after a detour through Radiology, I sat in an orthopedic surgeon’s office.

“I don’t see anything wrong,” he said, squinting at my x-ray. “No reason to stop running. Come back if the pain doesn’t go away.”

The pain didn’t go away, so I went back. This time he ordered an MRI. This time I was scared.

Meanwhile our friends had invited us to go camping with them at the beach. Running along a sandy path instead of asphalt, salt air replacing exhaust fumes? I couldn’t wait. My running shoes sat at the bottom of the suitcase because they were the first things I’d packed. The day before we were scheduled to leave, the doctor called with the results of the MRI.

“It’s a femoral stress fracture,” he said.

I imagine there was a bemused expression on my face because I was certain he was kidding. Or looking at the wrong MRI. Or something. But judging from his silence, he was neither kidding nor mistaken. “Oh,” I finally replied. “Wow. What caused that?” But I knew.

“Running,” he said. “So no running for eight weeks.”

Eight weeks? We were leaving for the beach tomorrow. I hung up, walked into the bedroom, and stared at the splayed suitcase on the bed. A hint of purple peaked from beneath T-shirts and shorts. My running shoes. Should I pretend the doctor’s phone call came after our trip? No one would know differently. I’d already run with pain for two months—how much worse could it be in three days?

And then I thought of our daughter. I thought of sometimes not getting what we want, and of living through it gracefully and authentically, if not always contentedly, and of how she had shown nothing but support as she bravely watched me run when she herself could no longer walk. And I returned my running shoes to the closet.

I completed the Long Beach Marathon injury free 30 days after my eight-week hiatus, and from the finish line ran straight into the arms of my biggest supporter. And that peanut butter, jelly, and bacon cheeseburger, the one served at the restaurant where I made the decision to run a marathon? That’s my biggest supporter’s favorite. Maybe next time we’re at that restaurant I’ll share one with her.

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M.I.A.

1109This blog is more of a reflection of me than I realized, or that you knew. Grab a Starbucks or a Big Gulp or whatever they serve wherever you’re reading this, and I’ll explain.

Let’s start with the easy visible part. The blog’s overall look is one of simplicity. Or at least as much simplicity as can be mustered when you’re sorting through all the sidebar options the good folks at WordPress make available. I chose that particular photo of myself because of the grey T-shirt, which lends to the grittiness of city life as seen through the—what are those, anyway? binoculars?—in the header’s image. And the image denotes taking a closer look at the human landscape, and it ties to my blog’s subtitle about observations.

Now for the invisible part.

On the “About Yours Truly” page I’ve listed random facts about myself. Absent from the list is that my 32-year-old daughter is disabled. She is unable to speak and has only gross motor movements as a result of an illness she suffered at age 14. Prior to that she was a straight-A high school freshman in perfect health.

That’s a really big deal, and a really big part of who I am, yet I intentionally omitted that fact. And here’s why:

Human beings are only, well, human, and when we’re at the movies or shopping at Anthropologie (did I mention she’s cognitively intact and has great taste?), I imagine people see The Girl in the Wheelchair and The Mom Pushing the Wheelchair. And therein lies the problem.

We are both, yet we are neither.

That seconds-long encounter fails to tell about us, about me training to qualify for the Boston Marathon or about Erin’s love of all things quirky and retro. That seconds-long encounter invites pity, not conversation.

A few years ago my husband urged me to write a memoir centered around Erin’s illness and the stone-in-a-pond ripples it has had on not just our family, but on people we’ve never met. Currently I’m writing—fingers crossed—the last draft and although in June my editor said he’d like this draft to be completed in three months, I’m about halfway done.

To chronicle something so personal yet so universally relevant is a huge task. And thus my absenteeism from this blog.

Recently, though, an essay of mine was published online at BioStories, so that was cool. It provides a glimpse into the memoir, if you’d like to read it.

This blog, like me—like all of us, probably—has a shiny side it shows the world and a personal side it grants entry to on a selective basis.

Welcome in, friend.