19. To Celebrate

19. To Celebrate

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

To Celebrate

There is no satisfaction without a struggle first.
 ~Marty Liquori

“We need to talk,” my husband Michael stated as he woke me up.

Even though I was in a hazy state, the tone of his voice and words indicated something serious. Normally, he would sneak into our bed after his restaurant shift, letting his presence be known by the combined smells of cigarettes and alcohol. That night he didn’t and it terrified me.

Our marriage was not the best during that time. We were like two ships passing. Our work schedules conflicted — my shift days and his nights. The phone became our sole connection as we called to check in with each other. He was working as the assistant manager of a restaurant, making a great salary with some perks, namely alcohol. The restaurant closed but the staff would stay and drink — and head out to other bars. To him, home meant sleeping it off and arguing with me about his habits. No, it was not the marriage we envisioned, but it was what we had — a faint connection to each other.

So there we sat on a tiny concrete balcony. He lit a cigarette and began to speak. He was being transferred. The promised general manager’s position he coveted was given to the boss’s relative. He knew his drinking was heavy and he was tired of fighting.

“It may be time to quit my job. What should I do?” he asked.

An immediate sense of relief washed over me; we were okay. I gave him the only answer I had. “What ever you feel is right.” He tendered his resignation the next day. He cleared the house of alcohol that night. He quit smoking the next week.

Things got worse before they got better. He worked a handful of jobs, each a disappointment. It was hard on him, every interview leading to quizzical looks when they noted his management experience. They could not comprehend why someone would leave a high-paying career to work elsewhere. Eventually, he was hired at a lawn company. He left early each morning to pick up his list of houses. He was too good at it. The harder he worked the more houses they assigned. To make matters worse, the company equipment and truck were always malfunctioning. Every shift became a battle. Whenever I suggested that he quit, his pride prevailed: “I will do whatever it takes to support this family.”

I finally received the dreaded call. He had broken down emotionally and couldn’t do it anymore. He was found at the side of the road crying and heaving. The lawn company was called to pick up their vehicle; he would not be driving it again. The next week was spent in a haze of antidepressants and worry. I vividly remember taking a long walk together and doing most of the talking. He held my hand but remained silent and stared off into the distance. I was terrified that he was lost, racked with guilt that I had not seen this coming. Was it us? Was it me? “You are the only thing keeping me going,” he reassured me.

Truthfully, I do not know how it happened; I just remember standing at the store financing the treadmill. He decided to run. He was taken aback at first; it was harder than he thought. Every day he would struggle against those taunting red lights on the machine. Outwardly, I smirked at his sweaty face as he huffed and puffed, but deep down I was thankful. The fire of ambition was back in his eyes. His running gradually improved, and the treadmill became a friend not a foe. He started running outside, stepping into his new running gear to head out the door. Soon, “I have to run first” became a familiar phrase to our friends and family. It was a euphoria I was not privy to, no matter how he would try to explain it. It was freedom. The doctor agreed, and saw no need to continue his antidepressants.

On the work front we received the news that Michael had been one of the few applicants selected for a government-sponsored apprenticeship program. It allowed him to be paid weekly while going to school for retraining. In celebration, he signed up for his first 5K race; it became a new addiction. He wanted to run a marathon. It was a lofty goal, as the 5K run was painful and slow, but his mind was set. We became regular faces on the running circuit as he built his endurance on smaller runs. A small collection of finisher medals and bib numbers were hanging in our home. Our conversations were peppered with technical running terms and training regimes. I didn’t mind any of it. His smile was back.

The day of his first marathon arrived. If I could only explain to you the electricity you feel when you stand among competing runners on race day. It hums in the air as you watch people engaging in their pre-race rituals. Michael was shaking his legs with nervous energy, constantly checking his watch while we waited for my in-laws and his sisters to show up. We walked around holding hands; we were happier now than ever. Over the course of the year we managed to move into a new home and get pregnant. I was seven months along.

The family clan arrived and we all stood at the starting gate and saw him off. We sat on the bleachers and waited, taking turns getting coffee, cheering on the runners. At the three-hour mark, we left the bleachers and weaved among the crowd to the finish line. Poised with our cameras, we fidgeted. Like a mirage, I finally spotted him in the distance running at a slow clip, his face in anguish. He had a slight limp. Relief flooded me as we cheered him on. He spotted us as he stumbled through the finishing gate. Corralled by race volunteers he was given water and ushered forward into the runner’s pen.

It seemed like eternity, while I fought through the masses of people to see him on the other side. He had done it. I was so proud. He found us and waved. I ran forward as he opened his arms, and reached for me over the half fence. Tears streamed down his face and mine, and he began sobbing. “I love you. I could never have done this without you,” he whispered in my ear through the tears.

Three weeks later we had a baby girl. To celebrate he decided to start training for his first triathlon.

~Carla O’Brien

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