I’ve been dreaming about running.
My dreams lately, for the most part, have been extremely vivid and realistic until I wake up. I don’t remember them, I’m just left with a swirl of color and emotion as the dream drains away, paintbrushes washed after the project is complete. Sometimes the anxiety stays, sharpening the edges of the day; sometimes it shines only in washed out shades, the colors leached out before the sun even rose.
But the running dreams are different.
My dad had been running since before it was cool. In the late 1960s, my father was a student teacher at American University in Beirut, Lebanon, where my mom and her brother were working on their undergrad degrees. My uncle returned from class one day, telling my mother about a man running in circles around the track, alone, in the scorching heat. Crazy, they agreed.
A few months later, my mom was set up on a couple of blind dates. She double-booked; having known her, I don’t think she was hedging her bets, but just a bit forgetful. The first man showed up driving a Jaguar and was, I quote, “slick.” She was about to get into the car with him when my dad pulled up in a beater of a VW. My dad was a lot of things; smart, quiet, resourceful. Slick wasn’t one of them. Rather than winning my mother over on charm, my father challenged his rival to a test of strength: whoever could do the most handstand pushups could take my mother out. I smile when I think of her, curly hair straightened, eyes sparkling as she fluttered, trying to play it cool. She would have had a lit cigarette between her fingers as she envisioned telling the story to her girlfriends later.
The man who would become my dad kicked Jaguar Slick’s ass. I imagine this handsome, polished Lebanese man struggling to get hit feet up on the wall without scratching his loafers, trying to figure out exactly how to impress my mother while upside down, soft hands pressing into the gritty sidewalk. He could not complete one vertical pushup. My dad found the position easily and effortlessly rose and lowered until he had completed 7. My mother got into the VW, and they were married by the end of the year.
My dad ran until his legs stopped working. When I was practicing martial arts and training for my black belt, I would run with him. One of the physical fitness goals I had to reach was running 5 miles within 50 minutes, so when I was twelve, I started accompanying him, plodding along the bumpy sidewalks of our town. He took it seriously, as he did most things. He had me get fit for running shoes, taught me how to care for shin splints, and dragged me out to run in all weather according to the training schedule. I didn’t love it, to say the least.
Running did not come easily to me. I wasn’t lithe like my father; I was sort of stocky, with the legs of someone who should have been much better at playing catcher in softball. I was solid; I was unaccustomed to seeing family resemblance between my parents and I, and here was no exception. My feet hit flat, jarring straight through my shoulders, and there was none of the easy grace I saw in my father’s stride. I wanted so badly to make my black belt, so as boring and difficult as I found it, I ran.
One early summer day, we were out in a soft rain. It was gentle enough to feel cool when I lifted my face. The sidewalk was narrow, pocked and bumped up by the long-reaching roots of pines planted decades before the pavement was laid. We were crossing by a cemetery that dated back to the 1790s. Some of the stones had a slight list, slow-motion jostled by those same roots. My father and I had visited the small cemetery before to make rubbings with crayon and chalk. I imagine those are still packed away within the boxes of my sister and I’s art projects, paintings, and early poems. I caught my breath as we passed, starting to follow the old superstition of holding back breath when passing a cemetery, before I remembered I needed to breathe in order to run. As I let it out, I felt my body hitch like a bicycle when it clicks into gear, and for the first time, I was running comfortably.
Step-breath in one, left foot. Step breath in two, right foot. Step-breath out, left. Four out, right.
Cushioned soles slapping the pavement in steady cadence.
Air filled my lungs, opening, welcome.
Weight slipped from my shoulders, and the rush of my blood gave one last roar before falling away to calm waves.
I grinned at my dad. He grinned back. Wordlessly, in perfect rhythm, we turned to cross the empty stretch of town road and take the slope down the first side street. I had found my stride.
That was twenty years ago now. My father is gone; my mother too. I’ve been married, divorced, and married again, much happier. I’ve bought and lost a house; I’ve failed classes and earned degrees. I’ve been hired, fired, and lied to. I’ve known sorrow that I wish on no one else, and joy to rival it in my children.
My body has changed, morphed into someone I have trouble recognizing. It is difficult to find me when I look in the mirror. The face is the same, sure; the ponytail, the skin tone. My belly carries with it a new softness, twice remodeled. My arms show where I carried my babies and my grief. I have lost my hard-won confidence in bikinis, and I forget my strength easier than ever.
My legs are starting to remember. I can feel them awaken. The long cells tremble as they stretch and moan, awakening from their torpor. The muscles in my thighs trade lightning fire with my brain, a bright volley back and forth. Remember, they jolt. Feel the stride.
They lengthen and stretch.
In, one, two.
They brace for impact.
Out, one, two.
My hands and wrists feel light.
In, one, two.
My dad’s legs work again.
Out, one, two.
My father severed his Achilles when he was in his twenties, and he talked about it often; how much he missed running, how determined he was to get it back. The scar tissue grew thick over the tendon, and stretching became one of his favorite lectures. Thirty years after that injury, thousands of miles in between, he missed qualifying for the Senior Olympics when he was 55 by 2 seconds; he ran the 800 meter in 2:32. To put that in context for those who are not obsessed with track and field events, that’s the pace of a 5-minute mile. At age 55. Already having symptoms of ALS.
One of the things I’ve had to reconcile with my relationship with running is the feeling that I’ve let him down. I have not kept as physically active as he insisted upon in my early teenage years. When he was diagnosed, I vowed to never take my body or its abilities for granted. I have not kept up with that promise. I have tried to get back into running; I have used Couch to 5k, I’ve looked up race schedules. We have had, I think, two or three treadmills and ellipticals – they came in free or low-cost off Craigslist and went out the same way after their stint as a rehab machine for Hawthorne after back surgery, or a blanket rack.
But this feels different now. I dream of running in the summer; warm mornings with the sunlight shining through the verdant cathedral of the forest, soft rains that bring me to within a mile of home. I dream of the burn I know will welcome my body back alive, and the peace I find when it all aligns. Everything in my life feels jumbled together; I am constantly running between family and work, driving and driving along curvy mountain roads, my mind ten paces ahead of me. I make lists for home at work, and adjust workplans in my head at home. I am exhausted.
It’s mud season now, but that won’t last forever. The dreams won’t either. The snow is melting, the northern hemisphere shedding her icy layers. We are both preparing; my dreams are crocuses, stubborn, willful, pushing up through the crystalline snow, demanding their space, demanding to be seen. Winter is going. It’s time to find my feet again.