72. Running for My Life

72. Running for My Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

Running for My Life

If you want to live, you must walk. If you want to live long, you must run.

~Jinabhai Navik

I am sweeping my maple kitchen floor, my triathlon finisher’s medal swinging back and forth in rhythm with the broom. Abbey, my five-year-old daughter, runs past me on her way to the back yard, her shoulder-length blond curly hair bouncing behind her. She stops and turns to me. “You still have your medal on. Did you know that?”

I laugh. “I am planning to wear it all day long.” She giggles at her silly mom. “Tell me again, did you win?” I try to explain to her that I did not even come close to winning. She glances at my medal again, shakes her head and exits the patio door.

Did I win? I ponder the question. In my mind, I won the moment my face lowered into the lake water, cold enough to warrant a wet suit. Now I stand here having showered off the dried salty layer of sweat from my 750-meter lake swim, my 20K bike ride and my 5K run. What I have not showered off is the three-digit number marked vertically along my left arm or the sense of achievement. I keep glancing at the black numbers marked on my skin. I did it. I completed my first sprint triathlon. I feel strong and fit. I have demolished another mental barrier about my limits.

The phone rings and it is my sister-in-law calling to congratulate me and ask about the details. I put the broom in the closet and take the portable phone onto the deck and into the warm, sunny June afternoon. I hold the phone against my left ear, my left elbow and my right forearm rest along the railing of the wooden deck. I watch my dark-haired three-year-old son, Alexander, playing in the sandbox, sitting on the corner seat so he doesn’t get too dirty. Abbey sits smack in the middle of the handmade, blue, wooden sandbox, running fingers and toys through the sand. My husband putters in the yard, staying close to Alexander, who can sprint to the road faster than any of the athletes that crossed the finish line ahead of me.

My sister-in-law is congratulatory and supportive. After I have broken down the three events and expressed my wonder at being able to do this, she asks, “Why do you do this? Why do you push your body this way?” She is curious and concerned, but not judgmental. We are the same age and she is a fit mom who likes to run but not race, so this level of commitment has her bemused. My tone is joking, but my words are dead serious. “I am running for my life.”

How else can I explain it? Most simply, the endorphins bring me joy. But more than that, I need to complete something. I need something I can check off my list. I need something with a tangible reminder, like my medal. Motherhood does not offer many of these things. For all moms, motherhood is complicated, all consuming and never ending. For me, it has also meant one overwhelming medical challenge after another. My motherhood triathlon includes: Abbey’s cancer diagnosis at eleven months, a life-threatening allergy for Alexander, and now, likely an autism diagnosis for him. I know my sister-in-law is worried that this athleticism is pushing my tired, middle-aged body too hard. Some days I wonder the same thing.

I struggle to explain how pushing my body is positive. Painful and tiring at times, yes, but positive. It is unlike the year I pushed my body while caring for Abbey when she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia that required a year of intense, tortuous treatment. It is unlike living in that hospital room with no windows for almost six months. It is unlike how my body managed to carry a pregnancy to term while living in that hospital. It is unlike when my infant son, my twenty-month-old daughter and I all slept in a single hospital bed for days on end while my husband returned to work to support us. It is unlike breastfeeding a new baby whose small, dark head lay cradled in my left elbow while my right hand caught vomit with a cardboard fish and chips container as my daughter on chemotherapy retched in bed beside us.

Running, biking, swimming—this pushing is good and necessary.

The exertion is rebuilding my body and my spirit, drained from that year of chemotherapy and the times my daughter almost died. My training flushes away the fear of a relapse, at least for the minutes that I am running, swimming or biking. What I do not say to anyone, even my husband, and what is only a whisper in my soul is that this exercise will make me strong in case I need to guide her through treatment again. If she relapses, I know I will need every ounce of strength I can mine from these muscle fibers.

The first time through cancer treatment I was naïve. I did not know the script. I did not know that my New Balance runners would sit ignored in the closet of her hospital room. I did not know that living in a windowless hospital room and dealing with daily, sometimes hourly, medical crises while growing a baby inside me would drain all my energy. I did not know there would be no time or stamina left for a rejuvenating run.

Now I know what childhood cancer looks like. That knowledge is terrifying. I know chemotherapy can erase my baby’s lips, replacing them with yellow blisters. I know what it is like to change my baby’s diaper with gloves because her waste is toxic. I know that some kids who leave the oncology ward do so with physical or mental handicaps. I know that about half the children admitted to that ward will die, no matter what the statistics say. I know that my only hope of surviving in that world again is to build my physical body into an endurance vessel.

So I swim twice a week — on Tuesday night when my husband can watch the kids and on Saturday morning at seven when I can be home before the family is out of their pajamas. My runs are squeezed in between my son’s appointments with a speech therapist, Early Intervention and my daughter’s kindergarten. My bike sits on a training device in my basement so I can ride when kids are in bed. In the pool, I don the mask of just another mom in the blue Speedo swimsuit, a woman in training, training for fun and fitness.

During treatment, another chemo mom assured me that I would carry the cancer experience with me as a medal of strength. “If you can do this you can do anything,” she said. So I keep training to make sure that remains true.

~Sue LeBreton

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