10: Run for Your Life

10: Run for Your Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

Run for Your Life

A sister is a gift to the heart, a friend to the spirit, a golden thread to the meaning of life.

~Isadora James

I used to babysit an angel. Her name was Pary and she was my younger sister. She was the youngest and my brother Kraig was sandwiched between us. Being the oldest, I was often called upon to watch over Pary when my parents ventured out, as they frequently did.

Times were different back then, safer. Our household was a free-spirited place and we were always encouraged to wander openly. Boundaries were few, and a skateboard and five-dollar bill could carry you far.

Still, when it came time to babysit, we were not to leave the house. Three rambunctious housebound kids became a recipe for mischief, and poor Pary bore the brunt of our practical jokes, like the time we mixed cayenne pepper in her milk or the time we put a goldfish in her sock. Yet, no matter how cruel our pranks became, she never got upset with us. She never cried, and she never told on us. She seemed to accept our antics as nothing more that boyhood immaturity, which they truthfully were. She would just laugh along with us. “That was a good one, you guys,” she’d say, trespasses forgiven.

Eventually, I lost all desire to play tricks on her. It didn’t seem right. I’d developed a certain respect and admiration for the way Pary responded to our unkindness, and I couldn’t bring myself to inflict pain upon such a compassionate soul. She taught me a valuable lesson in life, one that even as a young boy I could somehow appreciate.

As we grew older, Pary and I developed a close friendship. Even though she was younger, Pary possessed a wisdom and understanding well beyond her years. She was open-minded, amazingly kindhearted, emotionally intelligent yet pleasantly whimsical. She never passed judgment or criticized others, no matter how poorly they behaved or how much their position deviated from her own viewpoint. But she wasn’t a pushover, either, and always stood firmly for her beliefs and values. Above all, Pary remained true to herself no matter the circumstance or the setting.

Sometimes I would confide in her that I didn’t like certain things in my life, like playing in the school band. “If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it,” she would tell me. “Do what you love, Dean,” she said. “You’ll be happier that way.”

We lived in Southern California, where the weather seemed perpetually clear and sunny. I’d taken up running and used to run along the seashore, often stashing my shoes in the bushes and running barefoot along the soft sand. Sometimes Pary would walk down and we’d watch the sunset together from the bluffs overlooking the sparkling Pacific.

“You really love to run, don’t you?” she would say to me. “I can see how happy it makes you.”

She was right. I did love to run, and it had become my solace and freedom. Though she wasn’t a runner herself, she could sense this.

As the sun dropped below the horizon, setting the evening sky ablaze, she’d say, “That was a good one. Best one ever . . .”

She would say this every time we watched the sunset. Sometimes I would tease her: “Pary, that’s what you said last time.”

“Well, it was,” she’d respond, “Tonight was the best one ever.”

In high school, Pary was stunning, with beautiful brown eyes, olive skin, and golden flowing hair. Still, she didn’t think much of her physical beauty. There was no vanity or pretention in the way she acted or how she treated others. Pary was just Pary.

I was a senior when she was a freshman, and as I watched a cadre of boys swoon over her, I was concerned. But she was surprisingly adept at seeing through their showmanship and attempts at attracting her attention. Even as a freshman, she had things pretty well figured out and didn’t require much counsel on my behalf.

Pary was far and away the smartest member of the family and her marks in school were always the highest. In fact, she occasionally helped me with certain subjects, though she downplayed the amount of assistance she provided (which, in actuality, was quite substantial).

I managed to scrape my way through high school and head off to the craziness of college. I stopped running and started partying. Pary and I remained close. Whenever I returned home, we had a great time together, picking up right where we’d left off. Throughout high school Pary never lost her way, as I sometimes had. She graduated with honors and was looking forward to a long summer at the beach before starting college.

August rolled around. It was Pary’s eighteenth birthday. Although I was away attending summer school, we had talked earlier in the day. I told her I missed her and wished her a happy birthday. She had said that her girlfriends were taking her out for dinner. She was looking forward to it.

Early the next morning there was a knock on my apartment door. When I opened the door, a priest stood before me.

“I have some sad news for you,” he said. “Your sister has passed away.”

I went numb. “What?” I finally said. “You must have the wrong address.”

He said that Pary had been killed in a car accident. “That can’t be,” I insisted, “It was her eighteenth birthday.”

“I know,” he said mournfully. “I am sorry.”

And just like that, my best friend in the world was taken from me.

Bereavement is a disjointing process. At first, I refused to believe this had actually happened, despite carrying my sister’s body as a pallbearer at the funeral.

Then came the anger. It wasn’t fair. How could this be? I was mad at everybody, mad at the world. And it showed in my behavior. Reckless nights of drinking and raucousness followed. I was out of control and didn’t care.

Somehow I managed to make it through college and land a decent job. One thing led to another and I found myself in San Francisco in a corporate position. Over time I repressed the anger and the hurt, replacing them with the material trappings of prestige and fortune. The partying didn’t stop, though it moved to trendy nightclubs and upscale bars.

On the night of my thirtieth birthday I found myself in one such bar, doing what one traditionally does on one’s thirtieth birthday (i.e., drinking myself into oblivion with my buddies). But something fractured that night, something powerful and transformational.

My buddies were perplexed when I announced that I was leaving at 11 P.M. “What?” they said. “The night is young — let’s have another round of Tequila shots!”

I informed them that I was going to run thirty miles to celebrate my thirtieth birthday.

They laughed at me. “You’re not a runner,” they said. “You’re drunk.”

This was true, but I was still going to do it. I walked out of the bar and stumbled off into the night.

People think that change takes time. This isn’t always so. The desire to change may be simmering quietly under the surface for years, but once that flame reaches a flashpoint, ignition can take place instantaneously.

I didn’t like my life, didn’t enjoy the corporate world. It wasn’t who I was. The fancy cars, the opulent hotels, the lucrative bonus program — these things weren’t perks, but corporate handcuffs that only served to imprison me.

I longed for the freedom and grand sense of adventure that I’d felt as a boy when I was running. Those were the moments when I felt most complete. I wanted to experience those feelings again. So that night I took back my life.

It had been more than a decade since I’d last gone running, but even in my drunken state, it was amazingly transformative. Something just felt right, like I’d finally found my place in the universe. I thought about Pary a lot as I ran, about the way she always told me that if you do what you love, you’ll find your happiness. I began to believe again that she was right. I could feel her shining down upon me from the stars above.

So much of what Pary had told me was true. Every sunset was indeed the best one ever. Every footstep was indeed better than the last. Every moment of life was indeed worth savoring. As I ran along that moonlit highway, the anger and the denial and hopelessness I’d felt over losing her dissipated. It was replaced by a commitment to live every moment of my life to its fullest in celebration of my kid sister.

The sun was peeking over the eastern skyline when I arrived at my destination, thirty-miles from my starting point. Running straight through the night forever changed the course of my life.

I quit my corporate job shortly thereafter and decided I would make a living running. How, I had no idea, but Pary always encouraged me to follow my heart, so I did. Now, some two decades later, I’ve realized more happiness and greater fulfillment than I ever dreamed imaginable. I’ve used my sister’s wisdom to find my true calling in life, and she has been guiding me forward every step of the way. Whenever I lose my sense of direction, I turn to her for insight and perspective, and she always steers me back on course. Instead of being angry and resentful that she is no longer in my life, I am filled with gratitude and joy that she is.

You see, I used to babysit an angel, and now that angel babysits me.

~Dean Karnazes

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