In January of 2012 I flew to Houston to watch my friends run the marathon. I was also a runner, a serious one, albeit an amateur. Before cheering them on I would race the 5K, a distance I could cover quickly relative to most 46-year-olds. By the winter of 2011 I’d logged more than ten thousand miles over three years in an attempt to run a fast marathon, but it was a fool’s errand; I wasn’t genetically suited to marathons. This obsession was my version of a midlife crisis, the same one I’d witnessed my father go through decades earlier when he’d hit his forties. Like me he’d missed the boat as a marathoner, started too late. Besides, his legs were all wrong for it. A miler’s legs.
It seemed a little crazy to fly all the way from New York in order to race for 20 minutes. But I’d trained hard for months and I intended to return with a cheap plastic trophy to show for my efforts. Only my runner friends understood this particular variety of madness. I looked forward to discussing our symptoms over a Texas-sized stack of pancakes.
The morning after I arrived in Houston I went shopping for food and beer for my tiny hotel fridge. There had been a moment, in the grocery store parking garage, when something elemental seemed to shift. Placing the bags in the trunk of my rental car, a wave of sadness washed over me. Then I walked into my room, saw the blinking message light. My sister broke the news, the terrible facts tumbling out. What’s wrong, a car accident, where, out on Long Island, when, about a half hour ago. And then the stupid question I asked, the one I regretted even as I heard each word of it leaving my lips, the one I already knew the answer to: “How badly is he injured?”
“Oh, honey,” my sister murmured. “I’m sorry. He’s gone.”
And I remember saying, “Jesus fucking Christ...” before breaking down. What my father would have said. I heard him then in my voice.
I’d sent him a card earlier in the week, a thank you for hosting us at Christmas. That makes us sound formal, which I guess we were. But it was really a card to say “Hey, this past year sucked. The next one will be better!” He got it the day before I left town for race weekend. I know this because his last email to me reads, “Thanks for the card. Good luck in Houston!” I’d meant to reply but with the rush to get packed and on the way I never got around to it. Now, suddenly, I was half a country away from where I needed to be. So I packed up and checked out, headed back to the Houston airport, and started the ordeal of traveling back across country less than 24 hours after I’d arrived.
I hadn’t lost anyone before. With no prior experience of grief, I waited to see how it would play out. But, no. That suggests rational thought and some measure of self possession. The truth is that in the days after he died I was a ragged raft at sea, pitched and turned by the swells. I felt as bad as I’d ever felt in my life. The loss felt like the flu: an all-over ache, a crushing fatigue. A thick mental fog rolled in and settled there. I had two speeds: distraught and neutral. I alternated between periods of inconsolable sobbing that struck me wherever I happened to be – standing in line at the ATM, lying in bed, sitting upright at the dinner table with knife and fork in hand – and a cold competency that allowed me to exchange information and pleasantries with detectives and funeral directors.
His house on Long Island was full of life. We held a three-day meet and greet. People flew in, drove over, dropped by. They brought flowers, food and wine. I met friends of his whom I’d only ever known as names. One shook my hand and stared. “My gosh. You’re the splitting image.”
I didn’t run a step during the days that I was Dealing With Everything, the longest break I’d taken from running in two years. My training log was in an Excel spreadsheet, with each day split into two sections for AM and PM mileage, plus a cell for comments. On Friday, January 13th the mileage cells are empty and the comments field reads, simply, “Dad died.”
Somewhere around the one week mark, back at home in Westchester, the flu state started to lift and I felt the urge to run again, if only to try to release the tension from my shoulders and the endorphins into my brain. But it was pouring rain, so I did my first run back inside on the treadmill, struggling to run 10-minute miles not because I’d lost fitness but because I’d lost my father. The next day the clouds parted and I did seven miles outside, but not before sliding my Road ID, a dog tag for athletes, onto my wrist. The previous winter I’d gone out for a run, slipped on a patch of ice and landed on my head. After reading about another runner getting hit by a car at night I finally relented and ordered the bracelet when the clocks changed in the fall, reminding me again of safety issues. I had room to inscribe two emergency contact numbers on its metal plate. In first position was my partner’s name and our home number. In second was my dad’s name and cell phone number. I never imagined him going anywhere. Now I’d have to get a new one made up. I’d been wearing it all week just walking around, putting it on along with my earrings in the morning, as a kind of tribute.
I plodded through my run on the suburban bike path I’d run thousands of times. But I had to stop every mile or two because I would break down in tears. I’d sit on a bench, or just stand with my back to the path, my face buried in my hands, blowing great wads of snot and trying to be invisible. People ran by me, hesitant to stop, reluctant to go on. I remembered an afternoon, years ago, when I was walking down West 9th Street in Manhattan and passed a woman standing on the sidewalk, sobbing openly. You just didn’t see that. I’d approached her, piercing the New York bubble, and asked if there was anyone I could call. She silently waved me away, shooing me back out of her tiny private sphere of grief, and I had backed off. Today I understood her.
That night I dreamt about my dad, that we were running together. I had never run with him, not once, something I found hard to fathom. He stopped running a few years before I started. I should have asked him more about his running. He’d started when I was a kid. At the time I’d viewed his running as something embarrassing rather than admirable. It was mortifying, this weird thing my dad did, running marathons. This was the early 1970s. He was right on the cusp of the running boom, before the masses ran races of any length let alone the marathon. Runners were a handful of skinny guys, and even fewer skinny women, racing through traffic in their underwear. My dad’s running was an aberration in an otherwise normal middle-aged man’s life. He worked, he smoked, he drank. But he also ran marathons. When I started to do marathons he understood the appeal: the rituals, the planning, the obsession with numbers, the drive to get faster – and he encouraged me. “When’s your next race?”
He’d always said it would be a heart attack that would do him in, like his mother and father both. Yet there he went, flying through milestone birthdays like a runner passing mile markers: 40, 50, 60, 70…
Clear skies again the next morning. I drove south to the Bronx, to Van Cortlandt Park. I needed privacy, space in which to have my breakdowns, my own bubble. But I also needed a landscape to match my mood. Heading straight for the cross-country course, a brutal loop of 1.25 miles of straight ups and downs, I attacked. Sweating in January, thighs burning, feeling every rock and root, I wanted payback. It was the first day I’d felt angry, cheated. Of the three parental figures in my life – my mother, my father and my father’s wife – my father was the one I could least afford to lose.
I’d lost him once before, when I was eight and he left, although I’d see him for a few weeks in the summer every year. He was the one who’d saved my life when I was 14. I was a teenager living alone in a house on the other side of the country with my mother, strangers under the same roof, and could think only of killing myself. He was the one who’d said, “I understand that you’re suffering. I’ll fly into town and we can talk about it. I’ll try to help you.” He couldn’t offer much at the time, but it was enough, to be listened to for an hour over a sandwich. He was the one who’d tried the hardest, the one in whom I’d invested the most, the one most able to change. And he had tried, with effort, had tried to work around his own damage, for me, to meet the challenge I threw down when at 18 I moved across the country to be near him. Not a challenge. A demand: be a father now; be my father now.
The next day I went out, thinking I’d do something short and easy. But then I started running and just kept going, heading north, north, north. No turning around. Turning around meant going home, sitting at home, sitting still and thinking about my dead father; my father running a red light in his Mini Cooper and being T-boned on the driver’s side by a Peterbilt, his little car twirling through an intersection, slowing to a rest on someone’s lawn. I ran 10 miles, starting at 9:15 pace. I ran faster and faster, like I was running from something, until at the end I was tearing along at 6:30 on his legs, pumping his blood, my heart exploding in my chest. Then I turned around.