Posted in Uncategorized

I Know How to Love Me

It amazes me, the way our brains can handle two lines of thought separately, and seem to deliberately keep them that way. I’ve been very cognizant that it’s my birthday; and also, wondering why this week has felt difficult and I’ve had so much trouble focusing. 

I’ve had a hard time celebrating my birthday since Oscar was born, and after losing Hawthorne, I just don’t see the point. This year is an improvement over the past few; I’m able to say it without crying, and I haven’t spent the week leading up to it in absolute despair. This year, it’s a little closer to just another day on the calendar, and a little further from being a reminder of the ones I love most who don’t get them anymore. 

Hawthorne was the birthday celebrator. They’d wheedle me into taking time off from work to celebrate, to go do something fun, have a fancy dinner or dessert. They grew up in a family where birthdays were important and special. 

In my family, things were much more muted. We would go to a nice dinner, something would arrive with a candle, and that was pretty much it. The effort went into the kids parties: what to do, how many guests, how many conversations to watch my sugar or chocolate intake. As a parent now, I’m already exhausted by the thought of Lucy’s school-age birthday parties. I don’t blame my parents for keeping our own celebrations more subdued.

For Hawthorne’s 36th birthday, we went all the way up to Burlington with a friend to see the movie Midsommer. I felt utterly traumatized; I could hardly acknowledge the aesthetic beauty of the film, and certainly had no interest in analyzing it. I just wanted to get as far away from it as possible. I’m sure now that this is because I was 5 months pregnant at the time, and far more sensitive than usual to certain types of horror. I cried the whole way home, my fingernails digging into my arms as I tried to hold back the outright sobs. I may have been distraught but I did not want to ruin it for Hawthorne. As it turns out, it was the last year of “normal” birthdays. 

It is now my 36th year, and I find myself thinking about the film more and more. I don’t know if I’m ready to watch it again; yet scenes play over and over in my mind. In the movie, 36 is considered the midpoint of one’s life. While I don’t feel as if I’m in the throes of a mid-life crisis, there has definitely been a shift. Coming out of the season of depression I was recently so deep in, I have made a lot of changes. I’ve started to transition my diet (at home) to more plant-based and pescatarian. I’ve started running again, and as difficult as that has been, the joy of feeling the wind on my face as I plod along could not be more incentive to keep at it. I have missed running. 

I am being more proactive about my health. With hypertension that began in my twenties, and two rounds of gestational diabetes under my belt, I understand that the risk of developing heart disease and type II diabetes are very real for me. And while I believe that people can be healthy at any size, I don’t feel like am at my optimal size or health. 

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t questioning myself to death over this. Both my parents died at 63. My father did everything “right:” he exercised, he ate extremely healthy, had something like 7% body fat. I mean, the man was 2 seconds off the time to qualify for the Senior Olympics in the 800 meter race. He was fit as a fiddle. And he got ALS. 

My mother wasn’t quite so well-behaved. She smoked as a teenager and young adult, as nearly everyone did then. She enjoyed her wine and her chocolate with less reserve than my dad wanted, and I remember his occasional admonishment, which she would wave off. And really, to be fair, her usual dessert was trail mix – which is just more evidence to the hard-ass my dad was about sweets. Trail mix had chocolate chips in it, and was automatically unhealthy to him. 

She had some health problems, but were seemingly well managed; then one day she had a hypertensive event, was diagnosed with a 10-day old heart attack and stage 3 cancer, and was gone just days later. 

It definitely feels like a sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. I lost my son to an umbilical cord accident, before he could even draw breath. I’ve lost family members in their eighties or nineties. And I lost my wife, my forever person, at age 37 on a normal, sunny Saturday. 

I am not afraid of death in the abstract; we have been friends for too long. I am afraid, however, of dying young. I have so much to say, and I am terrified that my time will be up before I have a chance to do that. Or, like my father, that some disease far outside my realm of possibility will steal my ability to do that. This is a fear that Oscar left me with; I need to tell my stories, and there is no telling when something will happen and abruptly end my chance. I ache for the time and space and bandwidth and energy. All of these are in short supply with a full-time job and a two-year old, and on the days I don’t quite get around to writing, the nagging fear is there to remind me that I’m going to leave things unsaid. 

The fear that Hawthorne left me with is quite different, and is currently, finally, stretched out face-down while the changing colors of the nightlight illuminate her curls. Now that spring has arrived, the days growing longer and the weather enticing us outside more, the TV is not on nearly as much, and I’m enjoying the company of my kiddo again. To watch her learn is just incredible. You can practically see the synapses dance as they find where to put each new piece of information. I don’t want to miss a moment. 

I have started the process of spelling out my end-of-life plans and wishes – my mom never had a chance to update the basic template she used, which made things difficult for my sister and I (and the wonderful people who helped us navigate that after her death); and though Hawthorne had spoken about death and what should happen “if and when,” there was no guidebook. Of course, now that Hawthorne is gone, there is Lucy to be even more worried about should something happen to me. I don’t want to see that light dimmed by anything.

And so, plans are in motion, some already in place. Bloodwork has been collected; medications and monitoring scheduled, and daily intentional movement and stillness have both increased to try to achieve some state of balance in what feels like a very busted-up body, mind, and soul. Two knees and one ankle scream at me after every installment of Couch to 5k; my abdomen is strengthening, though I feel like I have looked pregnant going on four years now. I forget how to breathe while I’m focused on breathing; as soon as I turn my attention to my form, it generally evens out.

There is nothing pretty or exciting about this; no “most improved!” award I’m aiming for. I am consciously not following the footsteps of my father, with his strive for perfection; or my mother, who would put off getting something checked out until she had time. I’m not doing this to get skinny, or look better for other people to enjoy. I don’t give a single fuck if someone at the beach on a hot day thinks I should wear something less revealing. As Janelle Monae clapped back at one tweeting moron, “Sit down. I am not for your consumption.”

I’m doing this for me, and for my daughter. I want to feel better – body, mind, and soul. I want to do things I love – eat, write, and run. I want to be around a long time; I have a lot to teach her, and a whole hell of a lot more to say. 

Posted in Uncategorized

Maybe It’s Time

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.