54. Running Home

54. Running Home

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Running Home

There’s nothing half so pleasant as coming home again.
~Margaret Elizabeth Sangster

I slowly tied the laces of my running shoes, imagining that he was doing the same. It was eleven hours ahead where he was stationed — although the distance felt much farther. The weather outside was overcast, a typical Western Washington morning. The clouds filling the sky and steady threat of precipitation were a stark contrast to the hot and dusty terrain he would navigate through. Our iPods played the same music, having been downloaded from the same computer several months earlier. We would breathe in the same broken pattern, running at the same speed, yet we’d be a world apart.

I stepped onto the sidewalk, pushing the jogging stroller that carried our toddler through the tree-lined street, passing homes filled with electronics, toys, and plentiful food. I wondered what he was looking at as he prepared for his workout. The pictures he’d sent home contained images of dust storms and dirt roads strewn with gravel. The homes were simple, the villages housed inside brick walls, with no decorative waterfalls or greenery. Children came out to greet the soldiers, begging in Arabic for candy, pens, and pencils. He was able to decipher what they asked, handing over all of the pens he carried in his uniform pocket.

I ran at a steady pace, breathing in the cool air, waiting for the endorphin rush which always accompanied my run. The only fear that lay ahead of me was the anticipation of the hills I’d embark upon during my exercise, while pushing a stroller. Neighbors waved as I ran past, nodding their heads while tending to their flower beds or gathering their morning newspaper. My older children had already departed on the school bus, where they were guaranteed a day of learning, fun, and safety. I calmly switched to a song with a more upbeat tempo, to push me through my morning run, as the tiredness and worry which consumed each day threatened to halt my workout.

I imagined him setting out on his run, along the dusty streets of the military base, in Western Iraq, during what was his second overseas deployment. He’d jog in the secure enclosure of a fenced-off installation, guarded by soldiers. There were no neighbors doing yard work or carefree kids leaving for school. The grade school children in the neighboring village walked along the gravel roads, if they were able to attend school at all. He ran in the secure enclosure to avoid the threat of hidden explosive devices and the stray bullets of insurgents, eager to hurt him if the opportunity arose. He ran outside cautiously, only if the dust sat close to the ground and the burn pits were not ablaze, to spare his lungs.

My heartbeat strengthened as I pushed the jogging stroller that carried our youngest daughter, to the rhythm of my movement. I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye to my husband as he left for another twelve-month deployment. I’d found few things as heartwrenching as the looks of fear and confusion on the faces of our children in the months he’d been gone. I’d like to think I possessed a mountain of inner strength in the midst of fear that soldiers would arrive at my front door to deliver the news that my husband of twelve years had been killed in the line of duty. That, however, would be untrue — the fear was always there, in the back of my mind, from the moment I woke in the morning, through the nightmares in my sleep.

I pushed myself further, knowing that although my life was filled with unpredictable, chaotic, and overwhelming moments, running was something I still controlled. I wasn’t the fastest runner, or the one with the most endurance, but I ran because I enjoyed it, because it gave me energy, and filled me with power. When I ran, I didn’t feel the fear or loneliness — I rather felt strength, as though I was capable of handling the pressures of being his military wife, their single mother, and the person I wanted to be when I looked in the mirror at night.

I visualized my husband, winded as he continued his nightly run, wearing his standard physical training uniform, black shorts with a gray T-shirt. As his heart pulsed a steady beat, I recognized he was running for his life, to survive the rigors and dangers of war. He exercised to fend off the boredom that crept into his daily routine, to stave off the loneliness in the quiet hours of his night, and to forget the regret he carried with him over being so far away from his children when they cried for him. Although he was in Iraq — not running with me — he was running toward us, in an effort to come home. Amid the stifling hot weather, the soldiers in uniform, and care packages lovingly sent by priority mail, he was trying to cross the finish line of one of the longest races of his life.

As I rounded the corner onto our street, I felt his strength beside me, picturing the beads of sweat lining his forehead as his stride lengthened. Even half a world away, his presence was felt in our everyday lives, as though he were sitting with us at the dinner table or reading bedtime stories with the kids. I heard the sound of his laughter as we raced toward the house, challenging one another to finish first. My heart knew that while I ran alone, he was always with me in every step I took.

I looked at the flower beds in front of our house, where the tulips poked through the early spring ground, a reminder that he would return home in just a few months. Eventually, we would cross this finish line together — having survived another deployment. It was a race we’d always remember and look back on with both happy and painful memories, forever thankful for the life we’ve built together. We will continue to run beside one another, knowing that no matter the course, each race is worth the challenge.

~Melissa Blanco

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