The night before my mother died, I was in a Pilates class lying on my back when a sharp pain shot through my chest.
Breathing shallow, lying still, waiting for the pain to pass, I thought curiously about what could have brought this own. After all, I am a healthy 35-year old woman, an athlete who runs miles weekly. Eventually the pain passed and I finished the class and went home. The next day when my sister called to tell me that my mother was gone, the pain returned and settled into a caul like presence over my chest. I could feel it for weeks, as I prepared for her memorial service, greeted family members, sorted through her documents, and traveled between Philly and New York attempting to handle my own affairs as I made sense of her final days.
Two weeks would pass and the pressure on my chest evolved into intermittent bouts of shortened breath, and random pains that I was certain were more than muscle aches. I feared something just as final as the kidney disease that turned my mother’s life upside down 25 years ago. It seemed quite probable given that my mother became ill at 39 and her mother died at 45. Maybe there was just something in our genetic make-up that made us prone to chronic illness. Maybe I would be the third generation of women in our family to spend middle age and beyond chronically ill. A few weeks later, I went into my doctor’s appointment ready to face a near fatal diagnosis. As the nurse took my blood pressure she administered a random health screening and asked, “have you experienced depression in the last six months?” I felt an immediate jolt up through my spine into my throat and laughed sarcastically. “Yes, actually! My mom just died.” She immediately apologized and looking aggrieved, turned back to the monitor and saw that my blood pressure was above normal, which wasn’t normal for me but did confirm my fears.
My doctor dismissed the blood pressure reading immediately as soon as she learned about my mother’s death. Still, a little unsure I told her about the other symptoms. The sharp pains in the general area of my kidneys, the heavy weight on my chest, the shortness of breath. She listened and then said; “Nothing will feel normal for a while.” Grief takes its toll on the body. After a full battery of test, I was finally assured that I was not sick. My body was adjusting to loss.
So I put back on my running shoes.
My mother was a runner and like her I run long distances. This year in particular, I’ve competed in more races than I have since high school. I set a goal at the start of 2015 to complete the New York Road Runners “9 + 1”. By running nine races and volunteering for one I could secure entry into the NYC Marathon in 2016. Three weeks after my mother passed, I was standing at the starting line in Central Park for the ‘Boomer Cystic Fibrosis 4 mile Run to Breathe’. How fitting that the race was called “Run to Breathe”. The heavy caul over my chest hadn’t quite passed but at least I now understood what it was and knowing makes all the difference. I dedicated the race to my mom, thinking of her as I rounded the first mile, and noticeably the weight drifted away. With a fuller breath to fuel my muscles, I picked up my pace.
I often tell people I was born running because my mother competed in half marathon races well into her third trimester of pregnancy. After maternity leave when it was time to get back on the track she would bring me with her in my wind-up swing and run her miles while I rocked. By three years old I was ready to join her on the granite track and ran my first mile. I never stopped.
Three weeks after she passed, as I hit mile three in Central Park, the sky opened up and began to pour. Laughter from the runners around me brought a smile to my face. We cheered each other on as we raced through the rainfall toward the finish line. I couldn’t help but feel like she was there with me.
When I was 10 years old I joined my first track team, a track club called the Mallery Challengers. I loved wearing my gold and blue uniform. I ran relay races, 100m, 200m, but very quickly it became clear that I had the combination of endurance and speed that made for a great 800-meter runner. In running I discovered my passion. I discovered that thing that would teach me self-discipline, determination, the will to push through physical limitations, to get better and better every time I got on to the track. I discovered what it meant to do something that you loved. In discovering this I began to understand my mom a little more. Nothing is ever simple when it comes to understanding my mother but running made me feel a little closer to her.
Just as I was discovering my passion, my mother would begin one of her greatest battles. Her life would forever be changed when she was diagnosed with kidney disease at 39. One kidney and then the other failed quickly due to her hypertension, a disease that ran in our family. She looked healthy, vibrant, was always busy at work, or entertaining friends and family. She had long given up running but she never really understood how to manage stress. She just kept working non-stop, day after day. In her job as a caseworker with some of the most vulnerable people in the community – mentally ill, drug addicted, and homeless adults, she supported them through a revolving cycle of crisis. She didn’t take care of herself. She took care of my sister, my dad, and me. She took care of her clients, on call for them 24-hours a day. She took in extended family in need, she made sure her large number of nieces and nephews knew that they could depend on her. She did not stop to figure how to take care of her health.
Yet, here I was at 35, still running, learning to care for myself, to avoid a third generation of women sick and dying before reaching retirement. So with a quarter of a mile left, the sun broke through those dark clouds, and I breathed deep, pumped my arms hard, gaining momentum into an all out sprint in the last 100 meters, feeling strong as I raced toward the finish line.Read more →