Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Not long after my youngest sister Nancy was born, my mom crocheted an afghan blanket that ended up being kept on the back of the couch in the den. It was half decoration, half functional item, and it was part of the landscape of the various houses in which we lived over the course of the next twenty years or so. The colors of the yarn in the blanket were those of popular décor back in the 1970’s, mostly different shades of browns. Looking at the blanket, though, it was easy to spot the one color in the mix that really stood out, not because it took up the most space in the pattern but because it was the brightest, a brilliant shade of orange, like the tip of a flame in a campfire that has been burning for awhile.
During this time, Dad was typically running in excess of 100 miles per week, often in training for a marathon or some other big race in which he was set to compete. Sometimes we cheered him on from the sidelines as spectators, and sometimes we joined him in his running efforts, whether training for an event or running in a race, always with him running along with persistence and triumph etched into the expression his face and a can-do attitude that, in victory and in defeat, through challenges and transitions, eventually also became one of the strands of the fabric of our lives as a family.
The orange in that blanket is like the sport of running has been in my family over the years, something that stood out amongst whatever else was happening at the time, a mainstay or maybe even a theme sorts. Not everybody in my family is a runner, but everyone in the family knows about running and appreciates the talent and the dedication behind it, because of what we assimilated through my dad’s enthusiasm for it.
My dad started running when he was in elementary school; he said that he liked to race the bus to his house after school. In high school, he was a competitive middle-distance runner on his school’s track team, and he was awarded an athletic scholarship to Troy State (now Troy University) in Troy, Alabama, after graduation from high school. He continued to excel as a runner through his tour in Vietnam, which started a year later, and then again as a college student on the GI Bill at Auburn University.
After he graduated from college, my dad got a job with Cook Industries, a company for which he worked for the next ten years, a time during which the company required my dad and my family to move many times. Through it all and in the decades that followed, my dad ran, for sport, for social reasons, and for health and fitness. I heard him say many times that he loved to run because it made it feel better, because he got to meet all kinds of people and see all kinds of things through doing it, and because he liked to have a goal. “Plus,” he almost always added with a smile, “That way I can drink a few beers without worrying about putting on weight!”
Dad called on me to join him as a runner when I was in the fourth grade. I’d run laps around the track here and there while I was waiting for him to finish his workout a few times in the past as a young child, but it wasn’t until I was in late elementary school that he thought I was ready for an actual training program. With the two of us in training, there were always smelly running clothes and shoes and endless bottles of Gatorade around the house. As a family, our weekends began to center around road races in the area in which we ran; occasionally my sisters joined in the effort too with Mom backing us up as Head Cheerleader/Nurse/Logistics Manager. This continued throughout my middle school and high school years, and then, when I became more of a recreational runner during my college years, it extended to the running days of my sister Nancy, who was also competitive in cross-country and track during her time in high school.
Sunday, March 2, 2014
Isn’t it odd the way that, without a crisis, foreshadowing is just another event that occurs, leading to nothing, with no hidden agenda or meaning. I guess that’s how life works, though: we go along about our business, day after day, and then one day something big happens and things change. Things are changed, sometimes forever. And when the sting of it all eases up even the slightest bit, we wonder if we could have somehow altered the outcome or even if we could have seen whatever happened coming.
One thing I’ve learned over the course of the last few years is that even hindsight isn’t always 20/20. Later, when I thought back to the day when my family and I climbed the rope course at the Adirondack Extreme Adventure Course, it did seem like foreshadowing, because it was the first time I’d ever felt like I needed to protect my dad. It was also, as it turned out, the last time I ever saw him when he wasn’t sick.
For many years, it had been the tradition of my parents, my siblings, and I and our families to get together for a family vacation during the month of July. The exact dates and the location and even the activities we did on each trip varied each year, but we always made sure our time together included time for hanging out and catching up, one of ways we stayed connected despite the geography in between where each of us lived. Our gathering place in the summer of 2010 was Lake George in upstate New York.
One of the activities we did during that time was to go to the Adirondack Extreme Adventure Course, an intense rope course composed of stunts involving zip-lines, Tarzan swings, hanging nets, wobbly bridges, and suspended logs. Through an Internet search of things to do in the area, I had found information about the park and had encouraged others in the family to sign up. Unfortunately, I didn't pay much attention to the term "extreme" in the title beforehand. I also didn't realize just how high in the trees the majority of the course would be situated or how long the course was (we later found out it usually takes 3-4 hours to complete the course).
When we got to the park, we were given instructions and a quick safety lesson, and then we lined up and started climbing. I knew Dad was afraid of heights, but, as I said, I didn't think the course was going to be roughly twenty feet off the ground. I was pretty nervous while we were on the course, both for my own sake and because of a few other people in the family whom I knew were struggling for various reasons, including Dad. In the many athletic pursuits in which I had participated over the years with my dad, I had never felt such a sense of protectiveness towards him; he was the one who was typically having to assist me. Dad was completely capable of managing the physical demands of the course - he was already in training for the Ironman triathlon at that point - but he was anxious about the distance to the ground. He wasn't about to quit or even to admit that he was scared, though; that was for sure. As always, Dad stuck with it and finished, laughing and cutting up along the way.
No one could have possibly predicted what would be going in the months ahead – Dad’s diagnosis, his struggles with the many challenges that his illness brought, or his death. While Dad was sick, I often thought back to the time when I was watching him on the Adirondack course that day. I could clearly remember feeling like I needed to safeguard him, to shield him or "spot him" on the bridges and ropes, maybe not as much from what was required of him along the course but more from his apprehensiveness; I didn't want him to be scared. It was a weird kind of foreshadowing for the way we would have to guard and encourage him though the fear and instability during his fight with cancer.
At the end of that trip to upstate New York, my immediate family ended up being stuck at the airport in Albany because of a delayed flight due to thunderstorms across the country; my parents made it out on their flight on time. After they had gotten home, Dad texted me to check on us and commiserated with me about the inconvenience of the lateness of our adjusted schedule. "I hope you make it home ok," he texted when I told him that our plane had finally been cleared for take off, the second-to-last time he would text me, ever. And, only five months later, I said goodbye to my dad for the very last time, and, in the early hours of the morning later that night, I laid my head down on the pillow to try to sleep and found myself crying so hard that tears threatened to fill my ears. I tried to stop but couldn't, and then I squeezed my eyes shut and felt that same message flash from me to my dad: "I hope you make it home ok," I thought between sobs, and then I added, "I miss you, I can't believe this whole thing happened, and I don't think I can make it without you" - thoughts that would run through my head at least a thousand times in the days and months to come.