The Thousandth Mile

I’ve mentioned before that I live in Monroe, CT.  We here have been deeply affected by the events that took place on 12/14.  I wrote extensively about the charity 5K I put together (with a lot of help!).  One of the groups that benefitted from that race was the Race4Chase organization.  They get involved with various athletic events and encourage runners especially to run to raise money for their foundation, the Chase Kowalski Foundation.  Chase was an avid runner, even at 7.  He had competed in races and triathalons.  His energy and spirit are the rationale behind the cause.

Monroe is one of those places that people don’t leave.  It’s a small town in close enough proximity to NYC that there are plenty of reasons to stay.  Not only is it beautiful here, but there is a true sense of community here.  The people here are so nice; nicer than pretty much anywhere I’ve lived, and that includes my own hometown in Michigan.  Chase’s parents grew up here in Monroe, and didn’t go far.  They live next door in the Sandy Hook area of Newtown.  A lot of their friends from high school also live nearby, including one named Kevin Bresnahan.

Kevin is a runner, and not long after last December’s tragedy, he had the brainstorm to run a 1,000 miles this year in honor of Chase.  He’d heard that Chase had loved running and races, so he thought it was the one thing he could do to help.  He asked people to sponsor his miles, at $10 per mile.  His efforts actually helped give focus to the idea that eventually became Race4Chase, running to raise money for the foundation.  He started a blog to journal about each and every mile, and it can be read here:  1000 Miles 4 Chase.

He started last January.  I started reading it back then, and it was amazing to watch the miles, and the money, add up.  Kevin ran our local 5K as part of those miles, and I joined him for another 5K later that month.  He ran, and ran, and ran.  And lo and behold, the miles have added up.  This weekend, he finished.

As he neared the end, Kevin and some of the friends of the Kowalski family hatched an idea to share that last mile of his journey.  He worked with them to plan a route, a meeting place, get a police escort, and a big party for afterwards.  The last mile started at Chalk Hill School, where the Sandy Hook students now go.  It ended at their good friend’s house, just a mile away.  So meaningful.

This weekend was that last mile, and I was one of nearly 100 people who came out to complete that last mile with Kevin.  It was an awe inspiring, amazing time.   It was hot, so much of the route was walked by most of us, and I walked up part of the route with Becky Kowalski.  What an amazing energy and spirit she has.  She was upbeat, and positive, and even joked about how much she hated running, and why couldn’t Chase had loved a different sport that was less taxing?   She was incredible.

At the end, Kevin held Becky’s hand and ran through a finish line in their friend’s yard.  Then they both jumped in the pool to cool off.  And stayed to party with everyone who had come out in support of them.  It was friendship and love and support and faith and strength all together in one thirty minute span of time.

They inspire me.

Now I Know

Yesterday was an emotional day for me.

What I didn’t mention in my previous post about the race I’m putting together is that it has two components:  a main 5K and a kids’ fun run.  The fun run has always been kind of an afterthought to the race, and almost didn’t even happen last year.

When I heard that one of the Sandy Hook kids was an alumni of our kids’ race, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to think of putting that part of our race on in his honor this year.  Because his parents grew up in our town, they’ve all been part of the race.  In fact, this little boy’s grandfather has worked on the 5K for years as part of our volunteer EMS crew.

Several of my friends know the family, because their kids went to preschool with this little boy here in our town.  I asked one of them to reach out to the family to see if they would be interested in having our kids’ run be in honor of their little boy.

They were.

So for the last few months, I’ve been quietly putting together this part of our run with a group of women who know the family.  One of them is a good friend of mine, the rest I’d never met before.  In a matter of three weeks they’d raised thousands of dollars for the event.  They reached out to local and national business to gain sponsorships, donations, you name it.

I’ve tried to focus on the nuts and bolts of it, because this?  I don’t get to feel sad about this little boy.  He’s not mine, he’s not part of my world.   I didn’t know him, didn’t know the family.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday, I went to a meeting with a member of their foundation that our race will benefit, and this little boy’s mom.  I was nervous.  How would I introduce myself?  Was it appropriate to say how sorry I was?  How much I’ve thought about them, prayed for them, ran for them?

In the end, it was like meeting someone you have always known.  She is friends with my good friend, so the odds were good that we’d end up getting along just fine, and we did.  It was a little awkward at first as she and my girlfriend caught up (they hadn’t seen each other in a few months), but as we all got more friendly, the conversation flowed more easily.  There was a lot of laughter, a few tears, and a naked honesty that I was impressed with and humbled by.  There were stories.  There was determination.
There was even a little gossip.

We spent two hours sharing thoughts and food.  I thanked her for meeting with me and she drove off, in her minivan, moving on and forward.  But I stood there in the parking lot, wanting to burst into tears.  I could feel the weight of what had happened to her, to her child, to this community, just hanging there all around me.  And I felt so wrong for feeling that way:  if she could be so positive and energetic, I certainly had no business wallowing in my emotions.

So I will take that sadness, that frustration that we all felt in those dark days after December 14, and I will use them.  I will use them to make this race, the kids’ run and the main race, as wonderful and as successful as I possibly can.  I will honor this little boy with this race, with this day, with this event, in every way that I can.  It’s the thing I can do.  And I will do it.

Keep On Living

“Did you hug him today?” the elderly gentleman asked me as we walked down the aisle to exit the church this morning.

“Of course,” I replied, knowingly.   It’s been fifteen days since the shooting at Sandy Hook, and here in nearby Monroe, we all still feel it.  The funeral wakes, several of them, were held in the funeral home here in our town.  The families are our neighbors, our friends.   If you didn’t know one of those families personally, you know someone who does.  I volunteered before Christmas in the school where the Sandy Hook kids will come back to later this week.  I helped set up the library.  It was my job to remove all of the shelves and lower them down to elementary student height; the building had been a middle school in our town.  Here the pain is still real and raw.  The holiday we just celebrated bittersweet, the carols sung between tears.  I knew what he meant.

“I lost one,” the man went on.  “In Newtown.  My family, we lost one.  My grandson.”

I stood, stunned.  This poor man had come out to church this morning, two weeks later, in the midst of his grief.  He was alone as he addressed us; no wife, no daughter, or son.  It came to me, as I searched for the words to console him, that my son must look like him.  Like the one he lost.

“I am so, so, sorry,” I said in response.  I had no idea what else to say.

When I was working at the school before Christmas, there were families that came in while I worked, feverishly at my task, trying not to think about what the people who worked alongside me had been through.  Parents came in with the siblings that survived, hoping to ease their fears about going back to school.  Thousands of brand new plush animals lined the too tall bookshelves; we offered one to each child who passed through.  They weren’t crying.  They weren’t grief stricken.  They were trying to put one foot ahead of the other, for their other kids, for themselves.  More than one of them thanked me for volunteering in the school that day.  I could barely look at them.

How could they thank me?  How could they think of anything but how terrible this tragedy was, the child whose photo had already been sent out in their Christmas newsletters and cards but wouldn’t be there to open their gifts?   I cried through Mass at church on Christmas, thinking of those kids.  I bawled looking at the Snowflakes for Sandy Hook flyer tacked carelessly on the wall of a restaurant we ate in, a thousand miles away.  The pain I feel is insurmountable and terrifying.  It is nothing compared to theirs.

“Thank you,” the man answered.  “It’s just so terrible.”

He didn’t cry, this man who clearly needed to talk about the little boy who must have looked like my own.   He didn’t even look sad.  Just matter of fact, stating the obvious.  The devastatingly obvious.  I suppose fifteen days afterwards, after all of the news and the cameras and the shock and the everything, that would be all you could do.  Reach out to others who were lucky enough to have what you lost.  Remind them that every day is a gift, every moment with your child isn’t guaranteed.

We lost the man in the crowd as a few people came to give him a hug on his way out.  But if you’re familiar with church, you know the long queue out to the open gathering space is crowded and takes a bit to navigate.  We found ourselves standing at the door with the man again, and I paused, wondering what to do next.  It wasn’t required, of course, but he’d shared his most personal loss with us.  I couldn’t just silently walk away.

“I hope you have a good day today,” I mustered, kicking myself.  I should have said that I would be praying for him, or his family.  The mundaneness of my closure to our encounter frustrated me.

“Happy New Year,” he offered in response.  “This year has to be better than last.”

And it occurred to me, as I stood there, how in awe I was of this stranger.   He was still hoping for happiness even in the completeness of his grief.  He’d come out to church, alone, on a snowy Sunday, looking to be part of the community.  He had lost a grandchild in the most unspeakable way, but he was forcing himself to continue on.  To look for hope despite it’s absolute absence fifteen days ago.  To find, in my little boy, a glimmer of something that made him smile.  To reach out to us and let us know that.

I still haven’t found my way through all of my many emotions about what happened in Newtown.  But I know, after this morning, that the important thing is to keep on living.  Despite tragedy, death, loss, suffering, pain.  Because if this man can do it, then certainly I can.

Keep on living.

Newtown

I had just come home from a run and was feeling pretty proud of myself.  I’d run 6.25 miles this morning, in 30 degree weather, and walked another half mile to warm up and cool down.  It was farther than I’d ever run before, in preparation for a 10K race I signed up for in New York City.

I’d planned to spend most of today working on a website, an upgrade to a current client’s site that they wanted done by Christmas.  So I quickly hopped in the shower and got cleaned up before sitting down at my computer to get to work.

My homescreen is NBC News.  On the screen was a red breaking news bar.  They use red for the really big stuff, so I glanced up at it.  “Shooting at elementary school in Newtown, Conn.”

Newtown is the town next door to me.

I frantically clicked on the words, but they weren’t a link yet.  The story was too new.  I ran for the TV remote and turned on the television.

It was true.  It was sickeningly, horrifyingly true.

I called my girlfriend to see if she knew anything.  I couldn’t even get the words out.  I called my husband, out of town for work in Florida.  He already knew via Twitter.  He seemed calm.  Why was he so calm?  This was ten miles away.  This was an elementary school.  This was too close, too awful.

I turned to Facebook for more information.  Friends started posting that our own school district was contemplating a lockdown status.  With the news reports hinting at more than one shooter, I wasn’t surprised when the call came through:  schools on lockdown.

At first, it seemed like a terrible tragedy had been somewhat averted.  For several hours the only fatality reported was the gunman, and the local hospital reported only three hospitalizations.  I tried to work on my site with the TV on in the background.

But then my girlfriend called back.  “27 confirmed dead,” she croaked into the phone, her voice thick.

“No.  That cannot be true,” I answered.  But then I started changing the channel.  Sure enough, some stations were indeed reporting that.  We cried together for a minute, until my cell phone started ringing.

When the out of town calls started coming in, that’s when I realized that this was not a tragedy averted.  This was real.  Those statistics were real.  My seventh grade daughter called home and asked me to come get her; the schools were allowing parents to pick up their kids (but you couldn’t go inside the locked down school).  I ran out of the house and made my way to her.

There were six other parents waiting there when I got there.  My girl reported to me that dozens of kids had already been picked up.  That the school had shut down the wi-fi to try and protect the kids from the worst of it.  The TVs normally running during lunchtime in the cafeteria were switched off.

But it wasn’t until I returned home with my girl that I learned the worst of it.  I wouldn’t turn the TV on to protect her and her brother from the scary images being played wall to wall.  I opened my computer and looked to the Newtown Patch, a site I follow because it is the town next door, a town so similar to our own.

It was then I learned that the children were killed.

Children.  Babies.  Kindergarteners.  Children younger than all of mine.

I cannot process this tragedy.  I cannot find words to express how horrific this all is.  I cannot even imagine what those parents are going through, what this day that started out so ordinary, so typical could have been like.  Just a few miles away from me.  In a school just like my kids’.  I am stunned, saddened, heartbroken, lost.

God bless all of those sweet angels.  Take care of the too many families going through hell this cold December night.

 

Gratitude

The day before Thanksgiving.  Today is the day before Thanksgiving.

I was going to type in a longish, ranty post about my brother again.  For those keeping score, my brother ended up not cancelling his trip to FL this Christmas, so we will in fact all be together.  He sent me a note asking what my children, my husband and myself would like for gifts.  I think the note was as close as I’ll get to an apology.  But by then I had already moved on from my anger to acceptance.  This is who he is.  Whatever.  I told him to not bother with gifts for us, gave him inexpensive ideas for my kids, and told him what options I was choosing off of his kid’s list.  He responded that they were thinking of getting a laptop for his kid for Christmas, so those would be perfect options.   My sister went ballistic again, but I’d already moved on.  My brother is who he is.  He won’t change.  I’m done trying to hope for it to happen.  It won’t.  Life goes on.

Instead, I am mulling over Thanksgiving.  We are staying at home again this year and I am pushing myself hard to not allow it to be as unsatisfying as it was last year.  Last year, R and I fought silly battles with no big meal or task to distract us from sweating the small stuff.  This year, we won’t even have my eldest home to behave a little better for.  Z is staying in DC this year, spending this Thanksgiving with his fiancee, since they plan on spending Christmas with us down in FL.  I think this marks the first time I’ll have spent this day without him.  Which makes me sad, in a way, but mostly grateful that he is doing so well and happy on his path.

Which is how I am resolving to feel about myself and our Thanksgiving together this year as well.  We are doing well financially this year; my husband’s job continues to be incredibly busy and therefore (we hope) secure.  I am getting enough website work to keep me feeling productive and justify me spending my time this way.  The two younger kids are both doing well in school.  My daughter seems to have mended fences with several of the kids who were causing her trouble at school, and did amazingly well in her role in the school play a few weeks ago.  We are planning our annual trip to Florida for Christmas, which is always a wonderful week of warmth, family and sun (hopefully).   R has worked hard in the last six months to address the needs that I laid out to him in our devastating fight last May.  It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but I think we have both done a pretty good job at trying hard to appreciate each other and not sweat the small stuff.  We’re talking more, doing more together, and not getting upset with each other when life gets in the way as much.  It’s a nice feeling.

So this Thanksgiving?  I won’t spend it thinking of years past, wondering if I’d chosen this path or that path would my life be better.  This is the path I chose, the present I have, and I am grateful for it.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone.

No More Waiting

I spent this morning looking for therapists.  Well, doing work on a freelance web design job that came up quickly and needs to be done quickly, and looking for therapists.

It kind of feels good to be honest about it, frankly.  I think I spend a lot of time projecting to the world what I want them to see.  People tell me all of the time that they find it hard to believe how insecure I am; they only really find out if they become a close friend.  Most people see me as someone who is organized, intelligent, confident enough to stand up in front of the whole town and speak their mind or boldly walk up to their favorite rock star and ask for a job.

They don’t know what goes on in my head.  I don’t go around talking about it.  A very few people know the stories that I have shared here on this blog.  That I grew up in an exceedingly dysfunctional family.  That I had a brother who spent a great deal of time under psychiatric care.  That I too spent years in therapy trying to figure out to break that cycle.

I never really thought I had, of course.  I knew that when my husband and I got down and dirty in our fights the despair felt black and all encompassing.  It’s true that I have actually attempted suicide several times since I’ve been married.  I know who I am.  I know where my mind goes.  My strength isn’t that I have grown beyond those impulses; I think I have finally accepted that they will always be there.  My strength has to lie in the desire to push back against those impulses when they come, and to try and lessen the amount of times they come.

It’s been a while since I’ve felt this badly.   I remember feeling this way after my third child was born.  I was overwhelmed and frustrated by my husband’s work schedule and my inability to be able to manage the house, the three kids, the burgeoning duties I had working for a rock star.  I went to my doctor then, asking for help.  He suggested exercise rather than drugs.  Not that I wanted to be taking the drugs anyway, since I was nursing and all, but I thought it was a pretty cavalier attitude for an OBGYN who should have known how serious post partum depression can be in a person with depression and anxiety in their background.

The other time I remember feeling this blackness, although not to this level, was a few years back after I ran for elected office and lost.  It feels silly now to type that sentence, actually.  But there was something about this small town I live in, feeling as if the entire world was against me, didn’t want me, didn’t find value in me.  My husband was out of town at the time, and I think that was when I truly started drinking alone at night when he wasn’t home.

And frankly, I have been self medicating with those drinks ever since.  Drinking away the sadness, the pain, the frustration, the paralyzing feeling I have when it comes to what is wrong in my life.  When it all becomes too much, when I am sad or hurt, I pour myself a glass.  There have been nights when I have drunk a whole bottle by myself here at home, which is horrible to admit.  It’s easy enough to do when it seems so culturally accepted; it’s sort of a joke that moms drink their wine at playdates, at night, whenever.  It’s easier to pour a glass than to work on what’s really going on in my head.

But it’s time.  I can’t keep going on like this.  I can’t be this unhappy.  I can’t keep showing my children that it’s OK to live an unhappy life.  In everything else in my life, I see a problem and I lay out the steps to fix it.  And one by one, I complete the steps until a goal is accomplished or a problem is solved.  This has to be the same.

The alternative is simply not an option.

The Hardest Thing

On Easter Sunday, my husband and I took our children to Mass, as we do every Sunday.  I wasn’t born Catholic, and I haven’t always been a regular churchgoer even after I became one.  But we love our church here, mostly thanks to the wonderful priests who run the place.   I originally became a Catholic because I felt that there was something I got during a Mass that I never was able to find anywhere else.  Our current parish carries that sentiment to the nth degree for me.  There’s always a peace, a message, a hope that comes over me during the service.  I’m able to put the petty worries of my life aside and just breathe.

During this week’s service, our priest talked about how so much of our time is spent running.  At first I thought he was going to rail on about the evils of this high impact exercise that I’ve come to love, so my dander was up (plus we went to the 7:30 service to avoid the crowds, so I was uncaffeinated as well).  But then as he continued, he made it clear that he was talking in much more of a figurative sense.  We’re running towards a financial goal, or a material one; we’re running from some horrible event in our past, or a person we were hurt by; running so fast, all of the time, that we don’t take the time to do what I do at church.

Breathe.  Reflect.  Be calm.  Remove the cobwebs and prioritize.  Figure out what is truly important.

Later that day, my husband asked me what I was running from.

“Excuse me?” I asked the tone I always assume when I feel my husband is making an accusation or a critical statement.

He was referring to the amount of traveling I’ll be doing in the next little while.  In a few days I am loading my children into our SUV and driving out to Michigan to see my brother and sister.  And I suppose it doesn’t make a lot of sense to him that I am doing this.  After all, neither of my siblings ever comes out to see me.  And most of the time when I drive out to see them, my brother and I get into some sort of fight that ends up in months of silence between us.  Why would I want more of that?

But my brother and sister have both had some trauma in their lives recently.   And frankly, they somehow seem less equipped to deal with the hard stuff that I’ve always been.  I’m not sure why that is.  For me, I thought the hardest thing I would do would be having gotten pregnant and 18 and have the father leave me.  And it was, until three years later.  That was when the woman who had supported me and helped me through that experience, my mother, was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer.  I was her caregiver at home, while finishing my student teaching and raising my two year old son alone.  She died eleven months after being diagnosed, and then I was left alone with a college degree, a part time substitute teaching job and a pile of bills.  My father moved across the country six months later, weeks before I started the only full time teaching job I could find; teaching in the inner city.   The next few years were a mixture of fear, despair and worry that covered me and everything I did like a blanket.

It was different for my brother and sister.  My sister was married and independent.  Where I was 21 at the time of my mother’s diagnosis, she was 27.  She was an adult, and had been for a while.  She had gone to college for a while but quit when she started dating the man who later became her husband.  When my mother was diagnosed it was devastating for her as well, but she wasn’t expected to provide round the clock care.  She was helpful, very helpful.  But not responsible for everything, like me.

My brother had dropped out of college and was floating from job to job when my mother was diagnosed.  He had partied his way through his late teens and early twenties, barely scraping by.  He had friends, and they drank and smoked through the weekends as lots of kids that age do.  When my mother was diagnosed he was working part time at a gas station.  He actually lived with us briefly but found his own place nearby later.  Again, it was an awful thing for him when my mother was diagnosed.  But the only responsibilities he had at the time were to himself.  He would show up, sometimes.  When he was able to.

I think for my brother and sister, while their lives too were sad and hard in the aftermath of our mother’s passing, it wasn’t going to change much in their lives.  They would still live where they lived, work where they worked, and go back home to a house that was going to be the same as it was before.  I didn’t have that.  Everything in my life changed.  It was horrible.  When I read back in my diaries or the words I’ve written here about it, I still can’t believe that I made it through, that I did everything that needed to be done.  That I went on to have a pretty normal life, despite the scars that I carry with me every single day.

Now, both of them are going through some pretty life altering experiences.  Different, for both of them, but still harder than much of what they’ve ever had to deal with before.  They are scared.  They are paralyzed.  They are unable to cope.  And so I am running, I suppose.  Running to give what I can in the hopes that it will help.  The same way that they “helped” me when I needed it, during my most difficult time.  I won’t know what it is like to live in either of their lives right now.  But I can be present, lend a hand or a shoulder or a few bucks, and try to make the hardest thing they’ve ever had to do a little easier.

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