Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Four years ago today, I was presenting - for the first time in my career - at a national conference. I had spent the first part of the week with my family at my sister’s family’s house in California and had flown from there to Minneapolis to go to the conference. My husband and my daughters had taken a flight from L.A. back home where I planned to meet them in a few days after the conference had ended.
Things were humming along. I actually remember walking out the door of my house to leave on the trip to go to L.A.; I wouldn’t normally remember something like that from years ago, but there were two things that have made that memory stick in my head. I remember feeling a little more jittery than I typically do when I leave to go out of town, because this time I was traveling in a triangular pattern, first for pleasure and then for business, and I was nervous that I was forgetting something that I would need on the trip. The second reason that I still remember leaving my house that day four years ago is that I got a concerning text message from my dad just as I was getting into the car to go to the airport. As it turned out, that was the last text that I ever got from him - but that's not why I thought the text was important at the time I received my dad's message.
When I heard the ding on my phone indicating that I’d gotten a text, I grabbed my cell phone out of my purse so I could read the message as my husband drove to the airport. “Met with grandmom’s dr to sign hospice papers. Hope the girls take news ok,” Dad had typed in his typical shorthand form of texting. As usual, I was able to read between the lines to understand what he meant despite the somewhat cryptic qualities of his message: At the age of 90, my grandmother (his mother) had been very ill for over two years. My parents had just met with her doctor to discuss her plan of care because of health problems she had been experiencing. She had been moved into a nursing home a couple of years before due to significant cognitive decline, and at that point she had severe swallowing problems and progressing overall physical weakness. In the meeting, I found out later, my parents had been told that her condition was continuing to worsen and that she likely only had a few weeks left to live. My dad, acting as her representative for medical power of attorney, agreed that adding hospice services to supplement the care she was getting in the skilled nursing facility was in her best interest. As his message conveyed, he was concerned about how my daughters and the other grandchildren would take the news of Grandmom's worsening condition.
Although I could tell what he meant by what he had written, what I realized I didn’t know as I processed the news was how he felt. Like his mother, my dad was never very touchy-feely; there were many occasions in my life that I witnessed him keeping a stiff upper lip so as not to show his emotions and several other times when it seemed like he was just more of the mindset of “Let’s get this over with” than “Let’s think it over and share how we feel about it.” As he liked to say: “It is what it is … because what else would it be?” But on this day, as my husband drove down the interstate, I felt like I needed to somehow acknowledge the emotions I thought it was safe to guess that he was experiencing, and so I texted back, “You are a good son. Your mom knows that you love her, and you are doing all the right things to care for her.” I don’t know why I chose those words or even why I decided to say something that sentimental to him at that time; it isn’t usually how we communicated, and that’s why that moment sticks in my head. Well, that, and the fact that, as I realized later, in what seemed like such an ordinary instant when I walked out of my house and closed the door behind me that day, I was stepping into a life so different from the way I had known it to be.
When I was about ten years old, my dad entered me into one of the first road races I had entered as a runner, and, for reasons that escape me now, it was one of the few times in my running career that I ran in a road race in which he didn’t also run.
Like many of the races I participated in during my childhood, this one took place in a small town in Mississippi. In my mind, the scene at the starting line that day blurs into the hundreds of other scenes like it, but what happened over the next hour stands out as a memory all of its own. In this race, to my surprise, I found myself in a small group of runners that had broken away from the rest of the field about at the first mile marker. Or, I should say, about at the point where I thought the first mile marker should have been. For the first seven or eight minutes of the race, there was silence amongst the four other runners and me except for the sound of our breathing as we ran. Gradually, each of us realized that we had probably covered a distance of more than a mile, and one of the other runners asked if the rest of us were sure that we were going the right way. None of us were; we had counted on being able to follow signs or directions given by volunteers along the way so that we would know when we had passed each of the mile marks and where to turn on the course. As we found out later, though, we'd passed by the first turn faster than the race director had expected, and so there was nothing/no one there to tell us to make the turn and we had continued to run straight down the street. By the time we realized that we were probably off the course, we were well over a mile past that place where we should have changed direction. We kept running and eventually saw an old man watering his front lawn, at which point we slowed to a jog and one of the other runners shouted to him, “How do we get back to the community center?” which is where the race finished. The man looked at us like we were crazy and then pointed back over his shoulder in almost the opposite direction from the way we were running. For some reason, the five of us still didn’t stop running; without speaking, we all hung a right at the next street corner to head in the direction the man had indicated, and eventually we found our way to the finish line.
Since October 23, 2010, the day when the cancer in my dad’s brain was discovered, in many ways I have felt like I did out there on the course in that race so many years ago: lost, confused, exhausted, and in a state of disbelief as to how the whole thing even happened. But, also like my experience in that race, I am comforted by the fact that I am not having to cover the distance by myself, and somehow that gives me the strength I need to continue along the course.