Mom passed away in 2012. She had led an active social life creating and managing a food pantry. She did not exercise, though. She managed to give up smoking, but she struggled with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema by her early sixties. She had strong faith. But when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, her lifestyle choices made recovery from surgery and chemotherapy difficult.
I provided support in every way I could. Cooking meals. Visiting, sending texts, praying constantly. Mom’s death was awful, the worst thing I have ever experienced. And it was a shock that reverberated in my own life—especially when I found out that my good friend Julie, a beloved dance teacher and studio owner, also had cancer. Her strength and positivity in the midst of treatments made me want to live the best life I could. For my children. For the kids I taught in the enrichment preschool music program I ran. For the memory of my mother.
So when my sister Molly suggested to our family that we do a 5K race to support ovarian cancer research, I found myself saying yes. Normally I would have had a very different answer. I hated running. I was never an athlete. I was the dorkiest kid on the softball field in grade school, someone who chased far more pitches than I caught behind the plate. I used to say the only reason I would run was if someone bad were chasing me. My own two children could outrun me by the time they turned five. I didn’t care. I was a mom, wife, daughter, music teacher, singer. I walked and did yoga. I wasn’t a jock. But you don’t have to be a jock to take care of yourself.
I found a fitness program called Couch-to-5K—“couch” being a perfect description of where I was. It laid out a regimen of interval training, walking and running to build up stamina, and it seemed achievable: For the first workout, I would walk for one minute, jog two minutes, repeat. I dug out an old pair of tennis shoes and headed outside. Started jogging. Sweat poured down my forehead. My heart slammed inside my chest. I glanced at my phone. How long had I been running? Only 28 seconds! I felt humiliated. Had anyone seen me?
I started running on the indoor track at my alma mater, Bridgewater State University. It felt more private. It was on the second floor, wrapped around the basketball court. Blank white walls on one side. Red railing on the other. I could hear sneakers squeaking and basketballs bouncing on the floor below. I put in my earbuds. Pressed play on Sigh No More, a Mumford & Sons album. I got this!
Three weeks into my training, though, I was ready to quit. Five minutes. I had to run for five minutes. Then two minutes walking, then five more minutes running and so on. It felt like five hours. I stole a glance at the countdown clock on my cell phone. Three more minutes to go. I swiped a hand across my brow. My lungs burned. I can’t do this.
I limped on, my feet stutter-stepping forward. I was coming up on the curve of the track when something pulled my attention to the corner. There was no audible sound, but I could feel her presence. Mom. My mother was so proud of her children and grandchildren, and she had a very particular way of clapping for us at our games and concerts—loud and fast. I sped up. Pushed myself to go even faster. She was clapping. Cheering me on. As if she were pulling me around the track. Tears streamed down my cheeks. My worn tennis shoes pounded the track. I felt my body physically working through the grief of my mother’s passing. The sound of clapping mingled with the music in my ears.
Maybe running didn’t have to be miserable. Maybe it could be spiritual. I went to the track three times a week—even after I completed the 5K with my sister. I ran. I grieved for my mother. God, I would pray, thank you for letting me feel my mom’s presence.
I prayed for Julie. Julie was the one who had helped me get my preschool music program off the ground. I couldn’t have done it without her. Lord, bring comfort to my friend.
One day I clicked on a Mumford & Sons album and painted the lyrics on the blank white walls of the gym. “Serve God, love me and mend. / This is not the end.” “There will be a time, you’ll see, with no more tears. / And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.”
I was doing my usual loop, painting lyrics and praying as I ran, when my phone buzzed. A text with news I’d been dreading. The words hovered on the small screen. Julie was gone. Like Mom. Gone.
“No!” I shouted out to the empty gym. No, please, no.
I was so angry. But something pulled me back to the track. A few weeks after my friend’s memorial service, I was rounding the corner when a vision appeared before me in my mind’s eye. It was Julie. She was dancing. Beautiful, healthy and exuberant. My mother was there too, smiling and clapping her signature clap. I ran past them. Then looked up and noticed two lights above a metal exit door. I somehow took them to symbolize these two important women in my life. They lit my path, motivated me onward.
I understood the track in a new way. The overhead fans reminded me of the Spirit. The windows welcomed the heavenly light. Even the trash receptacles made me think of all the garbage I needed to let go of. Worries, fear, anxiety. I imagined dumping them into those bins.
A few months after Julie passed, I arrived at the track very early in the morning. It was completely dark. I was the first person to use the gym that day. I stepped forward into the shadows. The motion-activated lights turned on as I ran beneath them, flooding the path in front of me with light. Like God making his presence known.
Of course, I thought. You’re here too.
I know what I will see when my time comes. A metal exit door of an indoor track at a university in eastern Massachusetts. There will be two lights above it for two women I love dearly, two women who helped shape me: my mom and my dear friend Julie. With them on my mind, I will burst through that door, running toward whatever is coming next.
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