March 2018, Hilton Head, South Carolina
“The idea of suffering is so natural to both writers and runners it seems to be a common bond. And therefore no surprise when one turns out to be both.”
Dr. George Sheehan, Running & Being: The Total Experience
I call Mom on Sunday afternoon, as I always do. She sounds groggy and awful. Maybe she just woke up, even though it is two in the afternoon. Or maybe her condition has begun to affect her ability to speak clearly, I can’t tell. She has inoperable oral cancer with a terminal diagnosis. A few months ago, I got a call from the surgeon at Ohio State. Like most surgeons, he was willing to operate (again), but when I asked if he would do so on his own eighty-seven-year-old mother with dementia, he was clear that he would not. Chemo and radiation are hard enough to withstand without the fact that your memory is also fading rapidly. My sister Susan, who, to her everlasting credit, is my mom’s primary caretaker, explains to me that Mom has just woken up. She probably just needs some food and she will be better.
Fifteen minutes after I hang up the phone, Susan calls back. Mom isn’t any better. She has gone back to bed without eating anything. Not surprisingly for someone in her mental and physical state, Mom is having not just good days and bad days but good moments and bad moments. This is a bad moment, if not a bad day, if not the beginning of the end. Susan sounds scared, which is unusual since—while she is doing a great job of caretaking and is clearly on a mission—she is usually unruffled by Mom’s ups and downs.
I try to ignore the panicked, desperate feeling emanating from somewhere deep in my body. I make an attempt to reassure my sister that things will be okay, but we both know they won’t—an understanding that hangs between us, unspoken, like a thick fog in the air. I decide it is time to try to be compassionate with my sister, who does occasionally drive me crazy. I even have just enough self-awareness, and admittedly it doesn’t take much, to realize that it is much nicer to be hanging out in Hilton Head on a beautiful spring day than taking care of Mom in Columbus.
Sometimes when Susan starts talking she never stops, as in you can put the phone down and pick it up ten minutes later and she won’t have noticed you were gone (trust me on this one). It would be enough for me to pull my hair out, if I had any left. Today my patience lasts a good half hour, even though the desperate feeling about Mom persists the entire time.
I am genuinely worried. But then fifteen minutes after I hang up, my cell phone rings again. It is Mom. She has come back to life, at least for now. She even sounds pretty good. She asks me where I am and how I am doing, and she tells me she loves me. She is as coherent as an eighty-seven-year-old Alzheimer’s patient with terminal cancer can be. I take three or four deep breaths for the first time in an hour. Steve Jobs, before he died, said, “Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there.” He had that Buddhist way of seeing and expressing the brutal truth. It might be equally true that no one wants their elderly mother to live a long time when she is uncomfortable and ready to go, but that doesn’t mean you want her to die today.
But Mom isn’t dead yet.
There’s this thing about death—when you get close enough to it, it makes you think about life. Not life as an abstract concept. Your own life.
I grew up in a family that didn’t think much about what might be going on below the surface or, for that matter, even recognize that there was a “below the surface.” Perceptions, as what other people thought of you, mattered more than reality. We thought of ourselves as “upper-middle class,” meaning we were “above” some others.
I didn’t understand back then that upper-middle class typically means that you have a savings account. Which of course, as I eventually found out, my parents did not have. When we went out to Sunday brunch my sisters Susan and Robin, who were identical twins, were always being shown off, dressed in identical clothes. My mom was a beautiful woman in her day, with looks becoming of the homecoming queen she was. My dad had his own car dealership back in the 1960s when that was a big deal (“what’s good for General Motors is good for America” perhaps summarizes how big of a deal it was). He drove fancy cars and parked them next to the front door of the restaurant whenever they let him. There was a lot of “show,” and even some glitz, at least glitz for the small Ohio town where we lived. Our house had two big yards on both sides, which I happily repurposed into my own mini golf course. It turns out we didn’t actually own those two side yards.
Not to be too dramatic, but I was a bit of an appendage to all of this. It helped when my brother Scott was born eight years after me, especially since he literally came out of the womb with a sense of humor. But for a long time, I was not noticed, not much part of the show.
In a town where athletics was a big deal, I loved sports but wasn’t much of an athlete. Actually, I was a terrible athlete. The highlight of my junior high “athletic career” was being the last guy to make the eighth-grade basketball team, but hey, don’t laugh. I knocked down four points against Fostoria on the road in a hostile environment. The only way I earned my high school letter jacket—which was the only way that I ever got a date (and not many of them at that)—was by playing golf. And back then nobody but the golf team and our coach cared much about it. All everyone ever cared about was football, basketball, and baseball.
I was average-looking at best, and the glasses I’ve worn since I was seven didn’t help. I didn’t look like a jock and I didn’t talk like a jock and I certainly didn’t play like a jock. I just wanted to be one.
I didn’t stand out in any way, shape, or form, in a place and time where standing out seemed overly important. And in a family where standing out was all that mattered. All of which I thought was a curse. And it was—until it turned out to be a blessing. Slowly, I started to search below the surface of life and beneath my parents’ often superficial mindset. I began to realize that there’s this thing called an inner life.
And some years after that, I discovered running. Which changed my life. Which helped me find that inner life. And which, in the end, turned me into—sort of—an actual athlete.
I’m an expert at how not to change. When I go to the same restaurant, which I often do, I order the same thing over and over again. When I figure out how to do something on the computer, I keep doing it that same way, even if everyone tells me there is a better, faster way. This is the story of how I changed, despite the odds and despite how my brain is wired not to change.
It is the story of how I changed the hard way, one marathon at a time.