As my father’s death anniversary passes, I wanted to share this piece I wrote – A story written for a contest my critique circle was hosting…a ‘Feel Good Story’ contest, during last year’s holiday season. A bit morbid according to some, however, it makes me smile and Feel Good. It’s my wishful thinking of how life will be for me forty years from now. – Andi-
Being a runner means you are now ‘free’ to win
and lose and live life to it’s fullest.
“Hey, what took you so long? That spritely forty eight year old body of yours should have caught me a few miles back.” I say, quickening my strides.
My father looks at me, his gentle eyes and soft smile speak volumes. He says nothing, improving the silence, and slows his pace, adopting my loping, almost shuffle-like steps. The same shuffle I’d pointed out and made fun of in my heyday twenties. We’d sprint past the aging gray hairs, distant cousins of the spirit, toning down the banter, but never the pace, to not appear we were show boating. Steady, unphased, and determined, they were icons of the sport of running. And, now, at eighty five years old, I’ve adopted the same form. Time has had it’s way with me.
When I was a little girl, my father and I had a running ritual. On Sundays, when he leavened the solitude of his sport with a social run with me, he’d pick up the pace towards the end, looking over his shoulder as he passed, slipping towards goofiness with his challenging taunts, goading me to pursue. It took me a split second to elicit the sprint that propelled me abreast, then ahead. He sat back, the pacing already figured out in his head as he steadily sped up, gauging the exact distance and time when he needed to turn it on. I knew it was coming, my pony tail flailing, my flushed freckled face boiling, my gangly arms and legs pumping, all working in unison. I was focused on not looking back. Dad taught me to never look back. It was a waste of energy and a sign to my opponent of my weakening speed and, more importantly, my will. I’d watch for his profile out of the corner of my eye, feeling his presence from behind, holding my breath, waiting for the moment when my father passed. I never heard his breathing, his stealth-like body and mahogany hard legs moving ahead of me a split second before the mailbox finish line. He’d turn to me, his face unfurling into a big smile as he nudged his coke bottle glasses in place, putting his arm around me, eliciting a squeeze, and saying, “Maybe next time.” With so few words, he still had me believing that anything was possible. I was certain I’d be the one passing him soon. Just give me time.
These memories flood me as I approach the 20th mile of my 25th consecutive appearance at the New York City Marathon. My eighty five year-old body is a well-oiled, phenomenal machine that has served me well. Running has always instilled in me some sense of control over my life, one of the rare times that my will controls my body, keeping me safe from the other pestering addictions, almost long forgotten. For me, my obsession with running took the spotlight and was the route to my survival. I’ve even gained a bit of notoriety with all of this marathoning in my later years, being hailed as the oldest female contestant in this marathon for the past five years, just squeaking past the other four female octogenarians in my age group. And now, for the past fifteen years, after the death of my husband, Jack, my ever-faithful travel companion and biggest fan, my family has once again accompanied me to New York City for my annual marathon endeavor. My family, ever increasing in numbers through the years, including the arrival of my first great grandchild this year, have made my journey through life a gift. Our annual pre-Thanksgiving holiday has turned into a celebration of the ages.
My father has been ‘appearing’ and running with me my last few marathons, showing up when most people expect to hit the dreaded ‘wall’, usually at around mile twenty, when things transition from hard, to really, really, hard, both physically and mentally. It’s simultaneously a mythical Bermuda triangle, yet very real space. These days, it doesn’t phase my body like it once did, beating me down, with the concrete-based venom poured into my legs, teetering on the threat of earthquake crumbling collapse, my muscles shorting out, the synapses failing to fire. Nowadays, it’s my mind that’s affected.
The first time Dad joined me running after his death, I asked him, “Did you know you were going to die?”
“No. I believed I was invincible. Hell, I’d just started this marathoning thing at 46. I had a few more good ones up my sleeve, didn’t think I only had two years left. I thought I lived my life right.”
I smiled, recalling his finishes in the two marathons that he had run the year before he died. His sub-three hour time was an awe-inspiring feat from a very green, former master’s short distance running specialist.
“Did we do the right thing?” I asked.
His laughter shocked me. “Of course. Why would you ask me that? I was a vegetable, do you really think I wanted to live that way?”
“Yeah, I know.” I’d run with him a few more miles, and, when he knew I was at my strongest, he’d leave me, either dropping behind or running ahead.
For the past five years, Dad’s appearance in my marathons has become a normal, highly anticipated time warp escape together. We had a way of transferring pain back and forth without the banality of words. And, now, here he was again, in my final running of the New York City Marathon.
“I’m proud of you. You’ve raised a beautiful family, inspired them to stay healthy, and have given them stories for generations,” he says.
“Thanks, Dad. I’ve had an incredible life. And, I want you to know, that this will be my last marathon. I’m ready to die. My body is weak, yet strong enough to finish this last one. My memory, now dependent on a faulty camera, is fading. I want to go on my terms, with my family close, full of love, watching me die.”
“Yes, I see.”
“You weren’t ready. We weren’t ready. Bad timing.”
Silent for the next mile, I focus on our pace. We slowly pick it up. This was happy, joyous pacing, not the nervous, bracing for bad news pacing that use to haunt me since that dark night when my father died.
Now, in this condition, with wonderful memories, my head is clear, I feel invincible. This will be forever etched in my mind, just the way it will be in my family’s memories.
I ration my breaths, each one a tiny shout out to Father Time. I start my kick. Each streaking peak on the L.C.D. by my father’s hospital bed flashes in my mind as time and distance took him a little farther away from me. The organ recovery team, just outside his room, waits anxiously in a place where we only say goodbye.
I regain my focus again and shuffle towards the finish, conjuring the same sprint as when I was thirteen. The deafening crowd roars louder. They know me, as my name is announced over the loudspeaker. And, I do look back, only after crossing the finish line, hoping to see him finish.
My V.I.P. status in this marathon has served my large spectating family well. We all know the drill. My arrival is anticipated and officials escort me from the finish line into a very large covered tent, where my family has taken up one corner, congregating there, based on the time I have given them pre-race. I’m surrounded by love. My children, grandchildren, and now, my youngest, my great-granddaughter swarm to me. I take her and swaddle her in my foil wrap lifting her from her mother’s arms like a victory trophy over my head. My body so atuned and adapted to such physical stress, helping me stay extremely strong for my age. I have won life.
My son, a family practitioner, takes my pulse for safe measure. He tells me it’s strong. I knew it would be. My five grandchildren greet me, all adults now, except for the ten year old surprise, who came along when my daughter was 40. I immediately hand my finisher’s medal to her. Her face lights up, as she does her infamous goofy victory dance. Another memory etched into forever. Everyone waits patiently for their turn to hug me as the celebratory melee dies down. Each congratulation becomes my goodbye. This is love watching someone die. Little do they know, they’re watching me now. Life has been a gift, full of joy, and now it’s time to pass my running shoes on.
I died peacefully in my sleep that night, my family close, my father waiting.