I'm not graceful at running or grieving. I'm painfully slow at both. And my endurance for each one is freakish. I've run on and off for 25 years and have grieved the loss of my beloved younger brother for nearly three years and it feels like we lost him only minutes ago. I don't seem to move forward all that quickly.
I run like I grieve - mostly alone, sometimes with a close pal or two. I am blessed with an amazing cheering section of family and friends I don't let too close when I'm trudging through a race or grieving hard. I'd like to change that.
Running seems too aggressive a word for what I do. Jogging sounds too bouncy. My feet leave the ground and I move forward. It's tortoise-slow but it counts.
Exercise and grief
Before we lost my brother I regularly ran little 5k races. I liked the feeling of being in the crowd; trotting behind faster runners always pushed me to dig deeper. I liked being part of a community of runners. Then he died and my grief knocked me out of the human race. I could tell because a couple of months after I ran my favorite little 5k in the cozy college town where we lived in Oregon at the time. I was so utterly raw and in such unspeakable despair it was no small miracle I got out there at all. I described the agony of this experience inCan Exercise Heal You?
Mending the broken hearted
I remember picking a place in the middle of the pack to start. People who cared about time in front of me. People walking and just out for some air behind me.
It was in their snippets of chatter, small talk, haven't-seen-you-in-ages ...that it hit me hard, how profoundly alone I was. I could not make small talk. All I wanted to say, needed to say, was:
My brother is gone. I am gone. Don't you see me bleeding all over the street? Don't you see my broken heart? I am broken. Shattered.
Their lives go on. Their world goes on. Mine stopped.
The runners share the details of their lives, of lives actually being lived: The lushness of Saturday's farmer's market, the start of school. I can do none of it. I'm in the middle of humanity, but not in humanity. I was in-humane. The horn shrieks. The scruffling scrum of New Balanced-hooves beats apace. I am shuffled, lost. How can I be among so many and with no one at all? My solitude, my grief, are at once perfectly metaphorical and literal. I cannot stand the human race. I ache with aloneness, in this throng.
What is grief? What is healing?
I remember thinking 'I've left my body somehow.' I remember feeling moved - and yet utterly unmoved - by the mass of humanity taking me with it against what's left of my will. I start to move with my own power, I guess, because I hear my feet thromping through my heart. My heart, I notice, is beating. I literally notice it, and it is a surprise. I still appear to be moving forward. I am aware, as I always am when I run, that I like feeling my feet hitting the ground. Like a person who could be mistaken for someone who is alive.
A new race
That was three years ago and the last race I ran since the Great Ache, the Great Grief set in. Until Sunday, Father's Day, when rather than rage against my nephew's loss of his remarkable father, I ran a little 5k. It's called the Race Against Hate in honor of Ricky Byrdsong, the beloved basketball coach of Northwestern University who in 1999 was shot dead in front of his children by a white supremacist in a nearby town. Coach Byrdsong was an African American and a deeply respected and beloved leader in our community. He was gunned down in front of his children while on a Sunday walk because of the color of his skin. Since then, Evanston, my hometown, has honored the man and his legacy of love, with education, with progressive public policies, passionate dialogue and with this race. Last year about 4,000 people ran, walked or strolled. This year, more than 6,000 participated in the race.
Race against hate
A "Race Against Hate" that supported our community's best impulses felt like exactly the event to both honor my brother's legacy of love, and to see if I might find my way back into the human race.
I planned to run it alone, of course. But my hometown would have none of that. I couldn't go half a block without seeing my 6<sup>th</sup> grade English teacher, old neighbors, colleagues from work, the mother of my high school sweetheart, college buddies, pals from high school, pals from middle school (!), lots of my daughter's school friends, my mother's tennis buddies - basically This Is Your Life on parade.
Hoping to ache alone, I found a spot behind the 'real' runners and ahead of the walkers and kept my head down.
I often cry when I run so I like to go alone. Sunday's race started like all the others: The throng lurches forward and I shift unconsciously into my slow but steady pace. We pass the university from where I graduated a lifetime ago and where I now am blessed to teach; we head east, toward the glorious blue history of Lake Michigan. It's almost unbearable. The jogging and the grieving and the history and all. And suddenly I hear my name being called and look up sharply and you have got to be kidding - it's my ex-husband with his goofy cap and camera waving like a madman.
Best divorce ever!
Ending our marriage let us off the hook and allowed us to rekindle the best thing about 'us' - our deep friendship. So he showed up to cheer me on.
The whole race turned out to be like that: me trying to stay alone and folks just waving or zipping or strolling by who know me and who know my sad sack story, giving me a shout from the sidelines or a quick runner's side-hug or a high five or a gentle pat on the shoulder.
The whole thing was like that: People reminding me I wasn't alone despite my best efforts and then speeding ahead or fading back (mostly speeding ahead). Didn't matter, really. We all just kept moving forward at our own pace.
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