On Death and Living and Running

This story appeared in Like the Wind Magazine #8. The artwork is the original artwork that accompanied the piece when it was published. It is used here with the generous approval of Brittany Molineux. Please visit Brittany’s website: www.brittanymolineux.com, or connect with her on Twitter: @blmolineux. 

Saturday, November 8: Susan’s Grandmother died today. This was a long time coming, so I wasn’t floored by the news. Her health took a nose dive around four months ago – pneumonia, a blood infection – and since then I’ve caught myself a few times feeling surprised to realize she was still living. I don’t think I’m being cold. I thought she was great. A loving, funny, friendly, caring, interesting person – a long time ago. She’s had dementia for a decade, so to me she’s been gone for years.

Susan was more upset. She had a lifetime of memories with her grandmother to reminisce. When we heard that Grandma died, Susan took a few minutes to do what non-Christian meditators do at a time when Christians typically pray – she “sat with it.” I’m not entirely certain what this means, but it’s helpful to Susan, so while she sat with it, I sat with her. And I found myself trying to envision what Grandma was doing at that minute.

There are many pop-culture references about entry into the afterlife, and they’re all about the same. A couple of my favorites are depicted in Albert Brooks’ movie Defending your Life, and Tom Robbins’ book Jitterbug Perfume. Even a picture-book I had as a child depicts a similar scene when a person dies. Check-in! I find it hard to believe the first moments of my death will resemble one of the worst parts of being alive. Standing in line. Waiting to have my name called. Registering with the authority figures. I’m required to do this every four years at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and I procrastinate my visit for weeks. I have to believe that the afterlife has a better system than that.

Yes, while Susan was trying to get oriented with the idea she would never see her grandmother again, I was envisioning a scene that might have been included in a Loony Toons cartoon.

Immediately after our sitting, I went for a run. I suppose this is my version of meditation. It’s when I process my life. A few years ago, I banished music and headphones from my runs, and now a typical Saturday morning run is a two hour thought-fest that often turns into an essay.

Predictably, on this run, I thought about life and death and what happens after life.

I don’t believe in heaven and hell, eternal punishment or reward. I believe in reincarnation. Recycling the soul, fully intact. Memories scrubbed clean for the next life. Another chance to get it right, to do better. I believe in the Bardo. A way-station for souls as they are assessed for the next lifetime. I believe the point of existence is actualization. To become perfect. To gain the ability to respond to all stimuli in a way that makes us proud, that sets an example for others. The function of the Bardo is to determine which lessons remain to be learned. And then to craft a life that reinforces these lessons. Enough lifetimes, enough lessons, and we’ll finally get it right.

I’m an “older” guy, in my fifties. A long way from death, I hope. But I know I’m past the halfway point. On the down slope, over the “hills” as my kids would say. It’s hard to not take mortality seriously, and spend more time thinking about the remainder of my life. Thinking about what is facing me after this life is finished.

Saturday, November 14: This morning was the Twisted Turkey Trail Tussle. A 10 mile trail race in mountainous southern, Pennsylvania. I participated in four trail races this year – a 10K, a half-marathon, a 25K and today’s race, the T4. They were all challenging, but the T4 is by far the hardest. The hills are nightmare steep. The two longest hills have to be walked. They are runnable, I ran them last year, but hiking up those hills is faster – less gravitational impact. And the technical sections are just plain dangerous. Rocks! Jutting from the ground at odd angles. At times there is no ground to run on. Just hopping from one pointy rock to the next as fast as safety will allow. It’s a race to test your mettle. To learn how tough you are.

Today was a pretty day. Cool and windy, sure, but we’re in the Appalachian Mountains in mid-November – it’s expected. In addition to the 10 mile race, there is a 10K and a one-mile fun run. The T4 is a family event. Young kids come out to run the one-mile. And the racers pick their poison. The 10K is brutal, the 10 mile is worse; but only because it’s longer. The finish line is a party, literally. There’s a folk singer, a keg, a grill and prizes. The race ends in a small, sunny dell protected from the wind. Many of the runners know each other. We work together, hang out together, race together. The runners who have finished socialize and cheer on the remaining finishers.

Death

After the awards ceremony, the door prizes, the beer and camaraderie, I gathered my gear to head home. The announcer alerted us that the final runner was coming out of the woods. “Dave has never raced this distance before, let’s give him a hand as he crosses the finish line.” I’ve been reading about the “DFL” celebration trend in races. This is making a big deal about the runner who finishes Dead-Freaking-Last. The fifty or sixty of us who were still present lined up on the side of the colorful finish chute to cheer Dave’s DFL finish.

He looked awful. Uncomfortably bent and limping on muscles that were long spent. But he was running hard, finishing strong. As he made his way down the grassy chute that approaches the finish line, we spectators whooped and cheered. Dave veered off course into the street next to the chute and fell face down.

It took a moment to process what I saw. There is no way someone could fall like that without a serious head injury. Everyone sprang into action. 911 was called. Dave was assessed. Handled with care in case he damaged his spine. Knowing my role, I moved away and sat on a hill. After a few minutes a friend and his kids joined me. And we talked quietly while a crowd flurried around Dave. Now they were on to CPR. No movement from Dave at all. An AED, hooked up and used, still no visible response. Back to CPR. Deep in the country, it took twenty-five or thirty minutes for an ambulance to show up.

We spectators received a lesson in life. The medical intervention, the distraught family and friends, the interminable wait for the ambulance. An instantaneous flash from joy and satisfaction to fear and sadness. It was a ghastly scene, and the children in the crowd took in as much as the adults. As the ambulance drove off with Dave, he had a pulse. They were taking him to a fire station where he could be airlifted to a hospital.

Before we left, the spectators gathered into a prayer circle. I stepped back. I didn’t want my lack of faith to disrupt the spiritual energy that was being sent on behalf of Dave. At the end of the prayer, a teenage girl walked up to me: “I don’t believe in God, but I prayed any way.”

I couldn’t think how to respond. After about five seconds, I choked out: “Yeah, me too.”

I climbed into my car to drive home, certain that Susan was worried over my whereabouts. The race was long over, I was late. I felt sick. I contemplated pulling over to throw up a few times. I had nothing to eat since before the race, and my primary re-hydration drink was a beer.

Three days before my race, we traveled to New York to bury Susan’s grandmother. A long, long day, lots of driving, lots of sitting, lots of waiting. A sad day, but expected for months, even years. Closure, completion. A life lived beyond expectations.

It’s now Sunday. Dave survived the night and was being prepped for bypass surgery. I read this on Facebook this morning. The T4 is the ultimate stress-test. Not only measuring our mental toughness, but our physical makeup as well. At times I wonder if I, too, am overdoing it. Pushing too hard. Recklessly risking my health, my life.

For the past week, I’ve spent my free time thinking about life and death and running. This thread will undoubtedly stay with me for a while. My current one-year plan is to increase my mileage into the ultra range – runs of thirty miles or more. A nod to my slowing speed but increasing stamina. Acknowledging my enjoyment of solitude. I’m gearing up – literally buying myself the necessary gear – for long, lonely backwoods runs. Half-day monsters designed to test my endurance, and my ability to navigate by map and compass. All alone, me within nature. Yesterday leaves me wondering if this is such a great idea.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Strawberry Hill connects Adams County children with nature. Every year, they invite over 6,000 children to visit the preserve through school field trips and other youth-oriented programs. Strawberry Hill subsidizes these visits by more than 60%.

The funding that makes this possible comes from fundraisers like the Twisted Turkey and from donations by people just like you.

Donate to Strawberry Hill

Run the 2016 Twisted Turkey Trail Tussle (5K, 10K, 15K)

4 thoughts on “On Death and Living and Running

    • I am Jolene, Dave’s wife. I somehow lost the message you sent me this summer. Ironically it popped up today! You wrote a beautiful story! Thank you. We will be there next week. Doing the 5K. Hoping to meet you. Moved us to tears…Been a year of blessings and ups and downs, hard work and preserverance… Reading this so close to the upcoming race is very meaningful to us. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

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