Boston Re-visited

The picture stopped me cold like a sudden New England wind.

I couldn’t watch the Boston Marathon this year, but I listened to it from an online stream of a local radio station. I could hear the crowds and could feel the thrill in the announcers’ voices. Afterward, I visited a running website and watched videos and read articles to capture the spirit of the day. I felt the joy and the fun, until one picture popped up in a review of social media from the day, and I hit the wall.

For runners, even those of us not marathoners, Boston is magical, like some fairytale of tradition, sweat, pain and persistence. Of course, since tragedy struck in 2013, Boston is even more hallowed and more honored.

For me, the 2013 race is two tragedies. For it was that year that my brother, Hunter, was running his last marathon. When he was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer in the fall of 2012, he began a blog called, “It’s Not A Sprint” in which he documented his journey with candor and humor just like he did everything else, using running as a metaphor because it was part of who he was, as much of his identity as his walk or his name.

It was something we shared, along with dark eyes and dark hair. We both found pounding feet and sweating bodies to be cleansing, and both liked setting goals and pushing ourselves, just to see what we could do. He moved from  5K races in high school to marathons and half marathons while I struggled with injuries that stopped my running for a long while.

He had been training for a half marathon when the pain in his leg appeared, except it wasn’t an injury but instead a sarcoma that would eventually mean he would lose his leg from the knee down. By January, he was working to adapt himself to a prosthetic, even while going through intense chemotherapy. Seeing him out of bed and standing felt hopeful.

That spring I ran my first 5K in 20 years and held Hunter in my heart the whole way, especially while slogging up some nasty hills. Later I told him I was running for him and he told me that during those years I couldn’t run, he sometimes felt he was running for me. That took my breath away.

And then came April and Boston and bombs.

One of us called the other one fairly soon that day though we couldn’t really say much. We talked about what we would have done if we had been on Bolyston Street when the blasts came, and we both sheepishly admitted we probably would have kept running since the finish line was so close. He hurt for those who had lost limbs, and we both mourned the lost innocence of our sport now marred by violence.

When June came and talk of hospice care was in the air, Hunter began looking for ways to donate his prosthetic as he realized he would not be needing it. He especially was hoping he could help one of the Boston victims. From his bed, he researched and planned. He looked for ways to finish his Ph. D and searched for someone who needed his prosthetic. In those quiet times between visits with family and friends, we talked about running and we talked about Boston.

He crossed his final finish line in August, pushing himself as hard as he could those last miles. I ran and ran in those days before and after the funeral, trying to ease the pain with searing lungs and aching legs, but found no amount of running hurt takes away the real hurt.

And now Boston has more meaning to me as a runner and a sister.

So, I listened and watched and read last week to soak it all in. And then, the picture appeared. It was part of a tweet from well known running figure, Bart Yasso, showing a man running with an American flag. The flag obscures his face and upper body, and all you can see are his leg and his prosthetic blade. My first thought was ‘that could be Hunter.’

Hunter comes to those of us in this changed family in a myriad of ways that suits each of us best. My sister in law hears him in certain songs on the radio. My daughter feels him during chemistry tests, and my mother and I see him in hawks, swooping low or calling raucously. More than once I have heard a hawk during a run or a race, and I feel he is extorting me to dig a little deeper and not give in.

I think he came to me on this special Monday in Spring. He came to me on a day where the joy and fun of running is mirrored with memories of his laugh and positive spirit and kind eyes. He came because we share this day and now I do it here on Earth alone.

These are the lessons of Death – that Life continues. Sisters and mothers and wives and sons continue to grow and live. Runners keep running. Amputees learn to race. Families remember and watch for those moments when their loved one comes to visit. And we lean into those visits with a unique mix of joy and grief that is much like crossing a finish line after your body stopped working some miles back and you kept going anyway with sheer grit and grace.

For this runner, for this day,  I am grateful. I am grateful for the race and for the picture and most of all, for the visit.

#bostonstrong

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Photo By Bart Yasso, used with permission

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Reflections Of An Appalachian Trail Moment

Big Wilson Stream, 100-Mile Wilderness Maine, Oct. 4, 1989

“My stomach churned as fast as the icy water at my feet. The sky yawned, spitting snow picked up by the swirling winds. I took one step then another, gasping at the coldness. The water, browned by tannic acid, obscured the slick rocks under my shoes. Its gurgling laughter and angry growl taunted my fear. The snow slapped my face. Panic rose and was fought down. My left foot searched for a stable place, as the panic came again. A calming breath, then the slow journey began once more. The shore seemed miles away. Slippery inch by slippery inch, I moved. Fighting the current, fighting my fear, fighting self -pity, I crossed Big Wilson. Yet on the far bank was not exultation or triumph; only misery and frustration. How much more can I take? How much further can I reach down?”

As I See It ATJourneys Summer 2015I wrote those words in a battered notebook 26 years ago as I was completing my 1100 mile A.T. adventure.  Two weeks after I graduated from college, I had taken a train to Harpers Ferry, strapped on an unbalanced pack, tied my clunky leather boots tightly and began my hike to Katahdin.

This was to be my big adventure before entering the “real world.” I had been camping a mere three times before, yet after months of research, felt I knew all I needed for a long distance hike on the Appalachian Trail. Of course, when I emerged at the far end, I had learned the greatest lesson the A.T. teaches: be ready to unlearn what you thought you knew and make the changes that will be best for your hike. I ended with a different pack, different boots, different sleeping bag and different definitions for “weight” and “necessity.”

Like my fellow hikers then and those currently on that hallowed trail, I had joyous, fist-pumping moments along with dark, desperate moments like the one detailed above. I came back to the real world with small lessons about strength, creativity and resolve that I tucked away like scraps of paper, and began a new journey into marriage, motherhood, career and divorce.

Now, when I re-read what my youthful hiker self was feeling on the edge of Big Wilson Stream, I see that I have since had many Big Wilson moments. I have had to cross all kinds of rhetorical streams where I couldn’t see my feet and the snow was slapping my face. I have had to fight fear and self-pity. I have wondered how much further I can reach down.

And yet, I also remember that I reached the peak of Mount Katahdin. I did that thing that was hard and crazy, and I celebrated with joy and pride. I see how my life has mirrored my Appalachian Trail time. I have learned lessons. I walked through rain and mud. I have reached peaks and found joy in unexpected Trail Magic. Re-reading that moment at Big Wilson was a gift because I can now remember that I did moved on from that moment of despair and found triumph, just as I have on my subsequent journey, 26 years later.  And I am thankful for those first lessons on the Appalachian Trail.

** This essay appeared in the A.T. Journeys Summer 2015 edition. The photo is a shot of how the page looked in the magazine. Photo credit to A.T. Journeys. 

Pain, Patience and Presence

Apparently, I have a patience problem.

(Pause to let the laughter from friends and family die down.)

I don’t think I have a problem per say; I just think I know the best time for certain events to happen and I might get slightly frustrated when they don’t. I keep giving God these beautiful, color-coded calendars with sweet, little check boxes by the accompanying to-do list. He just keeps handing it back and finding more ways for me learn patience.

My newest learning arena is the physical therapy room. A broken wrist led to a stiff, swollen hand and tight, painful shoulder. The nerves in my arm freaked out over the initial injury and now, new agonies run up and down my tattered limb. My physical therapist says exercise is the best medicine for this disorder. Basically to heal, I have to go through the hurt. (Wait, isn’t this what my mental therapist says too?)

My instinct is to run from pain, ignore it or brush it away with a glib “I’m fine.” And yet, with this very real physical pain, to do that would make it worse and long-lasting. I don’t want to live with this malady; I don’t want waves of hurt and heartache to slow me down, minimize me and keep me from lifting both arms over my head in fierce triumph.

10993436_10205887835865660_5864985380374860494_nAnd so, I do the work. I pull the strong, elastic bands back and forth until the shrieking in my arm softens to a murmur. I twist the tiny dowels with clumsy fingers and marvel at just how exhausting it is to push around textured pebbles with swollen digits. At times, it seems that I am the only one in the room gasping and sweating while everyone else is getting massages and relaxing, hot pad treatments. God’s little sense of humor.

And yet, there is also gratefulness; gratefulness in coming to this room armed with hard-won knowledge about pain and facing it. Generally, by the time we reach these middle years, we all have gathered familiarity with hurt. People hurt us. People leave. People die. We fall down, scraping our knees, breaking our wrists and losing our sense of balance.

If we are lucky we also have gather around us sages who give us a hand up, but tell us the truth. They support us, but gently push us forward, pointing us down the path through the pain with directions about breathing, naming what hurts, and turning with courage to face all the agonies. I am so grateful for these sages and these lessons they have taught and how I can remember them as I am wrestling once again with unexpected wounds.

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Somehow, even though I am sure they were taught, the lessons of patience have not stuck so well. I find I am not fighting to find the courage to face my hurts, but instead the patience to accept the time to heal. Without me realizing it, I have yet again created another internal color-coded calendar and my body is not following it. My progress is in centimeters not kilometers, and sometimes all I can see are the limitations rather than the accomplishments.

So my prayer today (said with a sigh) is that I not only breathe into the pain, but also the process. That I remember to celebrate progress, even if it is tiny, and to truly let Time be in charge; that I wait with willingness rather than willfulness and that I embrace patience as a kindred spirit rather than a distant stranger.

Lynchings, Beheadings and Defining the Other

I try not to look at the pictures, wanting to avoid having the horror revisit me in my dreams. But once glance of the news post on my Facebook feed and the images become imbedded in my psyche. I see the line of men in orange jumpsuits, each paired with another man, hooded, wearing black, holding a knife and like most of us, I know what is happening. These brutal murdP1000919ers leave me nauseated and tingling with horror, barely able to comprehend such abomination between humans. The fact that they are carried out in the name of a fundamentalist arm of a religion different than mine and by people who live in a different country and speak a different language than me only adds to the disconnect.

How can “they” do such horrible things? How can “they” act so barbarically?

And then I read a speech given by a judge in Mississippi as he is sentencing a group of teenagers for the murder of a 48-year-old man. They were found guilty of randomly choosing James Anderson because he was black, beating him, then running over him with a truck. In his lengthy statement, Judge Carlton Reeves remembers the “public ritual” of lynching and murder in our country not so long ago. I am struck by the number in this shameful history–4,742 blacks killed by lynch mobs between 1882 and 1968. But the crime the judge is presiding over happened in 2011, which isn’t history, but today. These criminals are more familiar: white, Christian, and called “a good person” in some of the letters written to the judge on their behalf.

How can they do such horrible things? How can they act so barbarically?

These events are same: heinous and inhuman. White teenage boys with Christian backgrounds, young Arab men claiming fundamentalist Muslim beliefs — they are the same — terrorists and murderers dishonoring the tenets of their supposed faiths.

As we as a country watch the events across the ocean, put our hands over our mouths with silent disgust and announce, blog, comment that “they” must be stopped, we should also acknowledge our own brand of terror that has spilled blood on our soil. We have a history of it and we have it among us today. Lives have been lost, voices silenced from fear and tentacles of ugliness allowed to flourish. We cannot judge a sin happening across the ocean without acknowledging our own sin.

As a white person and a Christian, I am not responsible for what these young men did to James Anderson, just as the Muslim mother fixing breakfast for her children in Iraq is not responsible for what those hooded men with knives did. But, we do have a responsibility, she and I. We have a responsibility to stand up and to say, “This is not okay. Murder and death and terror are not okay. Claiming murder and death in the name of my faith is not okay.”P1000906

We also have a responsibility to try to stem the curse of defining the Other, of that insidious need to characterize “the Other” by the things that are different about us. Defining the Other allows us to dehumanize the ones we describe which is the first tiny step towards hatred, distrust and fear, all rich soil for violence and murder.

I don’t know how to eliminate racism from my country. I don’t know how to stop fundamentalist terrorism from other countries. I am simply left with questions to honestly ask myself: How do I define the Other? How do I allow that sin to swirl in the air in my world, in my society, in my neighborhood? How does my silence or behavior contribute to the soil that births the inhuman in humans?

Journeying From Advent to Epiphany

Love HealsDecember was a broken month for me. In a one week, I broke my wrist, ended a relationship and watched my finances disintegrate. My wrist put me on the couch for weeks on end, where sadness and worry settled like the cat perched on my chest. It wasn’t like in the 5th grade when I broke my wrist one afternoon and was playing two days later with a white plaster cast. This time, my heavily wrapped arm was to be elevated and kept motionless.

Essentially the prescription from the doctor was Advent: be still and wait.

Advent has always been my favorite part of the church year. I love the idea of going into that rich darkness and being still, waiting with quiet anticipation. I love the colors of the season, blue and black swirling together in soft contrast to the sparkling secular colors. I sing, badly and loudly, the songs of the season like O Come O Come Emmanuel and Prepare Ye the Way, and feel my soul stirring in needed ways. It is far different from my external persona that is always coming and going, and making lists, and getting things done. In recent years I have made an effort to take on more of an Advent persona with daily meditation and a search for quiet. But until this year, I haven’t really completely understood Advent.

My first instinct in a crisis is to figure out what to do, how to act, how to solve the problem, and then get busy and get it done. This lets me feel like I have some kind of control and helps soothe the child in me that believes your worth comes from what you do.

But with this crisis, this Advent, there I was, hour after hour, just as the doctor prescribed with my arm elevated, being still. However, it really was just my physical body that was unmoving as my mind and spirit raged against the stillness. Internally I frantically slogged through mires of fear, frustration, sadness, self-blame and back to sadness. I wrestled with pain and immediate crisis while on the edges lurked deep financial worry and grief about a broken bond and its questions without answers. The darkness on my couch was like thick flannel, smothering light and sound.PicsArt_1419604910359

I longed to run and stretch and drive to relieve the thorny ache inside but my usual coping methods were lost and all I could hear was ‘be still and wait.’ God always meets us in the stillness, even if we’re not looking, and God met me there in the dark this Advent.

People came. They loved and cared and soothed. Friends brought bags of groceries, needed prescriptions and even piles of clothes that could have their sleeve cut off so I could get them on over the cast. A nurse friend showed up with her blood pressure cuff to monitor unseen threats and another entertained me on my doctors’ visits, making what could be heavy fun and light. It was agape love – all encompassing, unconditional and holy.

And yet, while taking all of this in, I was still looking through a scrim of darkness, with true feeling just out of reach.

Then came the Christmas tree.

One night, two strangers stood on my unlit porch and announced they had a delivery for me. I watched in astonishment as they pulled a tree off their car, put the stand on, brought it in and placed it in the corner our Christmas tree had stood for two decades. It was only as they were leaving that they told me they were my daughter’s friend’s parents and they had heard I had cautioned my girls that we could not handle a Christmas tree, financially or logistically. Once the Christmas angels had left, I shut the door and burst into great, racking sobs.

They were sobs of gratefulness and anguish all tangled together. They were sobs for all the kindness, for all the generosity, for all the agape flowing over me. They were sobs that broke me open, leaving me fragile, vulnerable and naked like a baby born in a manger. Only then, in my brokenness and helplessness could I truly accept the gifts pouring over me and truly feel, hear, smell, absorb and know what agape is and was and will be.

It was a moment, profound and rare. Such moments are important, like cairns on a trail, letting us mark the progress of our journey. But moments are not where we stay and for me, long-lasting lessons come like the cairns: step by step along the trail.

PicsArt_1419605031107Other wondrous things happened this Advent. There were more unexpected gifts and love and problems solved. There were more tears, some scalding, some cleansing. I remained raw and fragile, dipping into darkness, then swinging back toward hope, caught in a tug of war between despair and faith. Gradually, while I wasn’t looking, the moments of faith became bigger than the moments of dark.

Advent changed to Christmas and headed toward Epiphany. My shattered bone slowly healed and my bruised heart gently moved to acceptance. I began to appreciate that this was a journey and that sometimes part of a journey is waiting.  There on the couch I finally reached that place where when I heard ‘Be Still and Wait,’ I could whole heartedly, without gritting my teeth, say, “okay.”

Sports, Kids, Sweat and Joy

My daughter played her last home soccer game last night.

She is graduating and her athletic career is coming to an end. Before you become a parent, there are a lot of things no one tells you. Most of them involve bodily fluids and are gross, but some of them are really great. One of the best things about parenting that no one tells you about is the sheer fun of watching your children play sports.

SCHS soccer.Madison 060With Tory, it began and ended with soccer, though in the beginning we weren’t quite sure she would ever don a pair of cleats again. She started playing at age 5, the age when soccer is nothing but a clump of kids running after the ball like giant amoeba. Occasionally, the ball squirts forward and one kid lands a solid kick. Tory was that kid on her team and I was certain she would be the next Mia Hamm.

However, at the end of that first season, when asked if she was looking forward to playing again, my daughter said, “I’m not playing again. Those socks are ugly.”

So, we moved on to gymnastics, where the glittery competition outfits were decidedly more attractive and the sport was decidedly more nerve-wracking for Mom. I can’t begin to describe how your insides twist when your tiny 7-year-old DCF 1.0stands in the middle of that big floor waiting for the music to begin, and you know that some horrible, mean, ogre-like judge is going to dock her because her cute toes were not pointed correctly.

It was in gymnastics that Tory really learned the lessons sports have to teach and where I experienced the immeasurable pride in watching your child conquer her own demons. Once, on the balance beam, she fell on a relatively simple move. Not only did it wreck her score, but shook her confidence at the exact moment her hardest skill was about to begin. With a strangled heart, I watched her climb back on to that beam. Her small shoulders went up and down as she took a breath, then she lifted her chin, and did that hard move exactly right. I felt more pride in that routine than in any other nearly perfect one.

In high school, cross-country, then surprisingly soccer came into our lives. It was four years of driving all around North Georgia for meets and games, tramping through grassy fields and shivering in windy stadiums. It was four years of holding my breath and cheering loudly and praying silently. It was four years of fun.

So, I will miss it all. I will miss the waiting at practice and the traveling to games. I will miss the bond with other parents as we cheered on each others’ daughters and suffered through bad calls and lost games. I will miss the sweaty socks and athletic bags strewn on her floor and the grass clippings and water bottles in my car.

I will miss all of it. But if I am being honest with myself and writing my truth, I will admit that missing all of this is actually camouflage.

Because what I will really miss is her.SCHS soccer.Madison 092

Let It Go and Letting Go

WIN_20140325_061632I am a word person. Big shock, I know, given that I am writer and would rather read a book than go to a party, but words have always reverberated around me. Lyrics of songs most always mean more to me than the music, with the notes and melodies acting as conduits for the words to get into my soul and wiggle around until I understand their message for me.

Do you have phrases that you hear or see that hang with you and push you into life lessons?

Recently — I am going to admit it — it is the song Let It Go

(and I do sympathize with those who must listen to that over and over again accompanied by elementary school voices pumped up on red Kool Aid. I went through the same thing with Barney.)…

The whole song speaks to me and most particularly the phrase “I am one with the wind and sky.” I belt it out, rather loudly, urging my heart and soul to follow the words and song and believe it.

But, it was another popular video that made the internet rounds that really gave me a phrase and then, a lesson within the phrase. Brene’ Brown’s TED Talk in 2008 spoke to me as it did millions of others. I particularly heard the part about when you numb the scary, vulnerable feelings you also numb the good, joyful feelings. At the end ofBrene her presentation there is a slide that shows a picture of a woman’s chest with the word “enough” written on it. This word and image stuck with me for a long time and I used the memory of it in my head as a bolster when I was doubting my own enoughness.

But that slide and that lesson wiggled even deeper for me when I watched the video a second time. It was then I noticed that what was actually written was “I am enough.” In my mind’s eye, I had eliminated the “I am.”

I guess I have a little more work to do.

 

 

 

Letting the Backroads Tell the Story

I detest interstate highways. Besides the terrifying big rigs and zig-zagging crazy drivers, I find interstates to be soulless. They are monotony and sameness and separation. It is the backroads of a state where its true self is seen, where all its weirdness and quirkiness and crazy Aunt Nell’s are out in public, flapping in the wind. That is where LIFE happens.

 So, today, when I drove from North Georgia to Florida, I pointed my truck down US-1, grabbed my camera and let my inner story-teller take the wheel. Come join me and meet the Georgia I saw on the backroads.

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Sometimes, just the signage alone is worth the ride.

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Here’s another thing that happens when you leave the interstates …

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… you find yourself in Santa Claus, GA.

Oh the Joy. Santa Claus, GA. Who knew?

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Some of what we saw was sheer beauty.

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And, some was simply not.

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My wise 13-year-old daughter said, “That looks like the Lorax.”

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And, then there crazy Aunt Nell scenes … the ones that you love because they are a member of your family, a part of the state you call home, but that when you see them from outsiders’ eyes, they realize how looney they are.

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It took us longer to drive from point A to point B, but  in the end, it was so worth it. Fun, interesting, joyous, funky, weird .. that was our day on US-1.

What stories do you hear when you the backroads do the talking?

 

** These were taken from my Lumix out the window of my truck, with support from my teenage passengers who never complained as over and over again, I swerved off the road, saying, “Just one more picture.”

 

 

 

 

Trying To Embrace the Now

memories 002I remember when I truly began to feel like a mother.
It was my first daughter’s first visit to the pediatrician. I was filling out the ubiquitous forms with my name, her name, address and such. Then I came to the question, “Relationship to Patient.”
And I wrote “mother,” instantly feeling a rush of fear and joy in the responsibility and honor of being this child’s mother.
Last fall we came full circle. I was in another doctor’s office, filling out forms when the receptionist handed me a new one. She explained that both my daughter and I had to sign it since she was turning 18, and she now had to give permission for me to access her medical information. All I could say was, “wow.”

There is a song on the radio called “It won’t be like this for long” and in one verse describes a toddler clinging to her father as he leaves her at daycare. Listening to it the other day, I got teary remembering my own daughters, clinging and crying, wearing seersucker dresses and tiny red shoes. Back then, I would have never believed I would miss that.

We really don’t believe it when people tell us life goes in a blink. In those long dark nights when you are rocking a squalling baby or in those frustrating afternoons when a toddler throws tantrum after tantrum, it feels like this will be life forever. Until one day when you are in a doctor’s office, asking your almost 18-year-old if you can access her medical records.

Of course, for some, that lesson — the one about time going by and life and paying attention, comes in less sweet flavors. Sometimes it comes with news of the death of a friend. Sometimes, that lesson comes in a brother’s phone call when he says, “Robin it’s bad.”

Live your Life. Don’t wait.

That was the phrase that keep bouncing around in my head during my brother’s illness and death. It is a phrase that made me say yes when offered a wild chance to go on a Mediterranean cruise. It is the phrase that made me decide to go into business for myself when a stable job crumpled under my feet. It is a phrase I still hear and try, try, try to listen to. It is a mantra and a Life theme and whatever woo woo thing you can think of.

And it is still hard for people like me that lean on planning and arranging and control. So, today, I am trying again to Live My Life and enjoy the Now. Today, I will shelve my worries and put away my to-do list. Today I will play kickball in purple pants. I will laugh with my daughter and I will listen to my nephew’s story about building a fort with a duck theme. Today I will hug my mother.

Today, I will Live My Life and tomorrow I will try again.

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Goodbye Friend

I lost a friend this week.

A girl I ran track with in high school finally succumb to addiction and darkness, and took her own life. I feel deeply saddened, though we have not been in touch, except through Facebook in 25 years. I grieve for her fiance, whose pain is palpable on that scrolling newsfeed now filling up with memories, and memorials and tagged photos of her in all different phases of her life. I grieve for her daughter and her sister and her nieces who clearly adored her, and I grieve for her friends who I don’t even know but now want to comfort.

Funny, the things we see on Facebook, and the things we don’t.

I see the same sweet spirit that I remember from all those years ago. That bouncy, funny girl with a huge smile is still there in her adult photos and the silliness that keep a track team laughing is apparent in her grown-up life as well. Until now, the darkness that nipped at her heels was not present online. There was no hint of the battle raging within her; only joy and light to be seen for those of us logged in.

What don’t we see.

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In one blurry picture from our time together, she is sitting in some bleachers, next to her grandmother, who was always there and became a grandmother to us all. She is wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, windblown and probably on her way to the sunburn we all got in those early Spring track meets. She was older than me, and I looked up to her. I think I admired how she could be so fast on the track, but not let the weight of competition burden her off the track.

What I didn’t know, what I didn’t see then, was the burden she might have already been carrying. I find myself squinting at the picture, looking for the darkness behind the breezy banter. But, still, I don’t see it.

I am saddened for a life lost. I am sad because addiction won out over happiness and I am sad for the funny girl who couldn’t hold on through those last painful yards of the race.

Be at Peace, Sandy.