Because I'm the Mom

How mothering pervades all relationships in life.

Running From Grief: Can Moving Forward Heal?

Can moving your body alter your mind?

The idea of a New Year brings dread and hope to those of us suspended in grief. There is so much pain in the idea that time pushes ahead without the very person we most wanted to spend time with. It's cruel. And makes me want to stop time and space and whatever plane we're on and rewind to when my beloved brother was here with me in his mortal frame.

But something about moving forward is pulling at me, like a muscle memory.

Maybe literally a muscle memory. I am a reluctant, but relentless, intensely, painfully slow runner. Runner seems too aggressive an interpretation of what I do. Jogging sounds too bouncy. My feet leave the ground and I move forward. Well, they did and I did. I have not run since a couple of months after my brother's death. I still lived in Oregon and left the house only to teach, run and grocery shop. Other than that I was pretty much crying on the floor with the dogs. The last time I remember actually running was in a 5k that our whole town turned out for. I was so utterly raw and in such unspeakable despair it was a small miracle that I got out there and ran that thing.

Looking back, there is something about that experience that resonates now, as I look ahead, as I think about my relationship to grief and death, to transformation and healing.

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I was one of 874 runners in the 5k. Like I said, I'm not really a runner. I mean, I run. Slowly. Very. Very. Slowly. Like as slow as the guy, say, who picks up the poop behind the tortoise. If I were a messenger service my ad would have been something about how if you want to get it there fast, don't use me. But if you want it to get there, for certain, with commitment, at some later date - but for certain- go with me. I'm all about endurance. My endurance is freakish.

I remember picking a place in the middle of the pack to start. People who cared about time in front of me. People walking and just out for some air behind me.

It was in their snippets of chatter, small talk, haven't-seen-you-in-ages ...that it hit me hard, how profoundly alone I was. I could not make small talk. All I wanted to say, needed to say, was:

My brother is gone. I am gone. Don't you see me bleeding all over the street? Don't you see my broken heart? I am broken. Shattered.

Their lives go on. Their world goes on. Mine stopped.

They share the details like I was not standing there, bleeding. The details of lives actually being lived: The lushness of Saturday's farmer's market, the start of school, how he's going to beat this time or that, the gloriousness of our shared sunny day, the strained ankle, the blast that was had in Italy; none of it. I could do none of it. I was in the middle of humanity, but not in humanity. I was in-humane.

Running the Human Race

This is how I remember it:

The horn shrieks. The scruffling scrum of New Balanced-hooves beats apace. I am shuffled, lost. How can I be among so many and with no one at all? My solitude, my grief, are at once perfectly metaphorical and literal. I cannot stand the human race. I ache with aloneness, in this throng.

I have left my body somehow, am moved - and yet utterly unmoved - by the mass of humanity taking me with it against what's left of my will. I start to move with my own power, I guess, because I hear my feet thromping through my heart. My heart, I notice, is beating. I literally notice it, and it is a surprise.

I am off. We are off.

The legions of stroller-pushing moms at the back of the 5k starting line push right by me.

I still appear to be moving forward. I am aware, as I always am when I run, that I like feeling my feet hitting the ground. Like a person who could be mistaken for someone who is alive.

I make it through the first six minutes, which is always the worst for me. Once I get beyond it, for whatever reason, the motor just goes. Painfully slowly, I should mention again. People who are not walking that fast pass me.

Mommy! Mommy!

About 12 minutes in I see a girl, about my daughter's age, limping, crying, alone. Running and crying, just like me. I run to her, introduce myself as the mother of a third grader, ask where her parent is. She said her mom ran ahead, and she "popped" something in her leg. I told her my name, and asked if she'd like me to sit with her at the sidelines and wait for her mom to come back around, or maybe we could call somebody. She said okay, if I wanted to. I said I did. I pointed out people I knew in the race as they zipped by because the 10k had started behind us. I didn't mention that I can't/won't speak to any of those people because I'm in too much pain and have left the human condition behind for some other existence in exile in my own dark brain. I told her who had kids, how old, what school. I told her about my daughter, how embarrassing she thinks I am. She seemed grateful for the distraction. So was I. We were both holding back our tears.

'The race doesn't matter, sweetie'

Then, suddenly, her eyes welled up, her face flushed. "Mommy! There's my Mommy!" she said, lurching up, holding her leg, bending over, the sobs overtaking her.

Her mother ran right by her. I knew it was her mom because they looked so much alike, and had matching shorts and t-shirts. "Can't I just finish the race?" the mom yelled...clearly frustrated, in the zone, wanting, probably just this once, a few freakin' minutes for herself, that's all she's asking for is that so much?

The girl's sobs grew. I looked at the mom, wondering, and she slapped her hands to her sides, "Damnit!" ran to her daughter, held her, cradled her, "the race doesn't matter, sweetie," she said, more to herself. "It's okay."

The girl's sobs were breathtaking and intense. Or maybe that was me.

I started running again. The 10k runners were plowing through us now like bullets. I was going at a decent pace for a belly-crawling tortoise. Good breathing. Calming breathing. Suddenly, this bolt of blonde, lithe lightening dazzled by me, or through me. A real marathoner probably just warming up with the 10k. Total Amazon goddess. Legs for days. An old boss of mine would have seen her and said, "Now that's a tall drink a' water."

As she was passing me, staring straight ahead, she said: "You are kicking ass."

Was she talking to me?

Initially my brain processed this through my own filter of self loathing. Did she say something about letting her pass or my fat ass? No, it was actually quite clear. She was cheering me on. My brain then wanted to explore the possibility that she thought I seemed so pathetic that I needed some kind of ....or it was remarkable that a person such as myself was upright (which, actually, given my state of mind, it was....) But before I could fully develop the theme of complete self-loathing, the feeling came back. That is to say, my feelings came back from wherever it is they go when I go numb to function. They came back and I sobbed and sobbed because there was something so intense and painful to me about her support.... this anonymous winged Athena murmuring back to me from her perch, urging me on, reminding me I am not alone. I am not alone. It was an unbearably kind gesture that almost sent me to the ground.

Drive-by Act of Kindness

But I kept running. And weeping. And being so grateful she said that. It was all I could take, this drive-by act of kindness. It was the most intimacy I could stand. Almost too much, but somehow, I withstood it.

At the end, I passed the stroller brigade, the wine-tasting chatterers, the taking-in-some-air dilly-dalliers. I ran by them, one by one. The 10k winners were sailing by me, pumping and thrusting to the finish line. It was a literal finish line, with an announcer saying our names and numbers, throngs of cheering townspeople. I just kept running. A little further. I can do it. I am kicking ass, afterall.

A few feet from the finish line I hear the announcer say my number and my name ... Sobbing, I put my fists in the air. And then, "Mommy!! That's my Mommy!! Hey That's My Mommy!! You're doing so great! Mommy!!" I see my daughter's dancing black eyes, feel her fling her arms around me.

I have won, and lost, so much. I grieve and weep and run for it all.

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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