a hug i failed to give

When, exactly, do we stop caring about a person?

Is it once the ink dries on the divorce papers? Is it earlier – when we’re climbing the stairs to the attorney’s office? Or did we leave the caring behind in the car?

I want to know. I’m trying to understand how the uncaring unfolds. Is it a gradual process, or more like flicking a switch? Is family something you can truly divorce yourself from? Or is it more like a wart? Something you burn or carve out of your flesh only to have it spring forth anew years later?

I ask because I’m still turning a conversation over in my mind that I had the other night. With an older woman I met at a screening of a documentary. A film about drug abuse. She drove an hour to see it.

Do you know anyone affected? I asked.

Oh no! No one in my family.

You’re very lucky, I said.

She paused.

My ex-husband’s son has a drug problem. My ex-stepson. He’s not doing well. But no one in my family. I’m lucky.

She came to the film alone. The showing was sold out. She lingered by the door just in case a seat became available. One didn’t. So she sat for 90 minutes at a table outside the screening. She attended the question and answer session afterward.

Later she found me outside. She wanted to tell me what she learned about treatment. About how it’s hard to find a good one.

I keep thinking about this woman. And what I should have said to her.

I keep wanting to tell her there’s no shame in having a problem. There’s no shame in being frustrated about a situation you can’t fix. That we can’t ever get well if we feel ashamed of who we are.

And I kind of wish I had given her a hug. I feel like she needed one.

pushing back

Once a week I pull on my running shoes and head out for a ten mile run that I hate. I don’t do this because I am in training. I do this because it is hard.

The run itself is not technical. It begins with a relatively flat first mile that gradually climbs for another two miles. It gets steeper through a suburban stretch of McMansion homes, Mormon tabernacles, and more Hummer houses until it dead ends at a trailhead. Then it continues for several miles up the canyon to Logan Peak. This time of year it is covered with snow. It has been since I moved to Utah. I have not yet reached the top. I haven’t even come close.

There are no flat portions. The singletrack path crests a mountain, 4,500 feet higher than you started and connects you to the next peak. And the peak after that. And so on.

When I arrive at the trailhead I am relieved to escape the cement valley of driveways and basketball hoops.  I round one bend and am immediately surrounded by pine trees and a steep rock face to my left. As I climb my sneakers plunge into the snow and slush, and my knees occasionally knock together when I slip. I typically curse a few times before stopping to swipe a mitten full of snow that I suck on as I continue up the trail.

I think about how this run isn’t much fun. How it’s pretty. And how much it kind of hurts. And then I think about how this run is important for me to do. To stay healthy. To keep my legs strong during the winter months. To remind myself how lucky I am that I can do this. Even though I don’t want to.

I think about my dad on this run. About how he needs to do things that are way more uncomfortable than slipping in the snow to stay healthy, and to stay strong. I think about my mom. How she needs to press on when she is tired. When she is scared. When there is no one else to talk to except a yellow lab who spent the day napping and waiting for her people to come home. I think about my sister whose days are never easy. And my brother who is still learning how to stop being so hard on himself. And then I turn around and can see how far I’ve come.

Church steeples dot the valley floor and university buildings clamor for space in the sky. I look up the canyon walls and scan for mountain lions that aren’t there. Just jagged rocks and skinny trees. And then I smile for the first time.

This trail is teaching me how to run downhill. Fast. How to let my stride figure out where it wants to go. And allow it to explore along the way. Sometimes after a powder snowfall like today, I can’t differentiate the trail from everywhere else. The sun is so bright that the shadows have nowhere to hide. I won’t describe it as flying or free-falling. Because it isn’t. My feet only leave the ground for split seconds at a time. And I actually really love the moment my foot strikes the ground and I can feel it pushing back. Pushing me forward. Into the slush. Out of the woods. And it is freeing just the same.

sometimes you overstuff the ravioli

I found myself alone in the kitchen last night. Kneading pasta.

It was my first time making ravioli by myself. I had only made pasta at my parents’ house in Massachusetts, with my Grampa leading the charge. He has meaty hands. They are the hands of a man who has worked his entire life turning a wrench. A big one.

We are Italian.

My mom grew up in a house in Quincy where pasta lay drying on newspapers in the kitchen. In the dining room. And in the living room. The first time I made pasta I was 28 years old. My nana was still alive. She was tasked with making the filling. Cheese. And sausage. She never liked pasta, but helped make it anyway. She was Scottish.

The last time I made ravioli was over Christmas.

My dad found the pasta maker and clamped it to the kitchen table. My mom located the eggs, flour, and salt. My Grampa began a process he has done from memory countless times over the past 89 years. Only this time there was no prosciutto hanging in the back porch. No olive press in the basement.

He dumped a bag of flour on the table and made a well in the center. He filled it with a carton of eggs. He used a fork to beat the yolks, slowly pulling flour towards the growing pool of yellow. This took a long time. We all looked on waiting for something to do. D was there, too. He is German.

Eventually, Grampa began working the dough with his hands, sweeping the dust into the pile. He folded the dough onto itself. Again. And again. When he tired, my dad stepped in. Then my sister. Then me. And around we went.

The first time we made pasta as a family, my Grampa claimed he didn’t remember how. And maybe he didn’t. But his hands did. They rolled the dough until it was shiny and slick to the touch. He didn’t add olive oil to make the pasta more manageable. It was just the result of working at it. Hard.

Last night, I decided I needed to make ravioli in my new apartment. I wanted to see if I had really been listening. I began the only way I knew how. With a pile of flour on the countertop, a well for the eggs, and a fork.

I would like to tell you that the ravioli came out just like my Grampa’s. That I was an expert at stretching the pasta. That I was able to work the dough into shiny submission.

Instead, I will tell you the truth: they came out okay. The dough never had a satiny texture. I couldn’t figure out how to feed it into the machine in a way that created perfectly even sheets. And I overstuffed the ravioli, the cheese oozing out the sides. But I guess that is part of the learning process.

Because my Grampa showed me how to make pasta so that one day I could do it myself. And I did.

 

Grampa works the dough.
Dad works the dough into submission.
Jen's turn.
many hands make light work.
this is what ravioli should look like.

no demons here

“The will to survive is the most important factor. Whether with a group or alone, emotional problems resulting from shock, fear, despair, loneliness and boredom will be experienced … When isolated from his unit in the course of combat operations, the individual soldier is obligated to continue to fight, survive, and/or evade capture so as to rejoin friendly forces.”

-Survival Evasion and Escape, Department of the Army Field Manual, 1969

When one of your favorite people is diagnosed with cancer you go for a run. You climb a snow-covered mountain to talk to God. You climb until you think you are high enough that he will hear you. And then you do not speak. Instead you think terrible things about him. Because you know he hears those, too. And then you turn around and head back to where you came from.

And at night you talk to your nana. You ask her to come back from wherever she is. You picture her as dust. Flying through this galaxy and beyond. Smiling. If dust can smile. Visiting all that she never got to see in this life. At the edge of the earth. Or, maybe just down the road, at the nudie beach she always wanted to go to. You summon her to your side. And ask her to look out for your person.

In your dreams she comes to you.  For the first time. And you cannot believe it. You haven’t seen her without oxygen tubes sprouting from her nose in years. She is not wearing glasses either. But she is lying next to you in bed. And she locks eyes with you and tells you about the cake she bought. It is in the freezer.

“There isn’t a lot of fruit inside,” she says, shaking her head and pinching her fingers close. It is important that you know this.

You wake up. That afternoon you get a phone call from the hospital. The surgery is over. The doctors couldn’t find much cancer. You are relieved. But you already kind of knew. Because an old lady who loved strawberry and banana cream cakes didn’t order any.

Later, your favorite person has a shunt put in his brain to deliver chemotherapy to his spine. The idea is that poison will kill the bad cells that have gone haywire and leave the good cells intact. Mostly.

Weeks ago when he was diagnosed with cancer he did not ask why me? Instead, why not?

Still. The demons come for him at night, he says. They whisper things to him. Bad things. They scare him.  And then he remembers everything. His lovely wife. And he is no longer afraid.

A pretty lady comes to visit him every day in the hospital. She smiles and talks to doctors and handles the incoming calls. She is his cheerleader. And she is a pretty tough one too. She is the rock. Always has been really. And she is preparing for him to come home. Everything must be sterile. Everything must be clean. Everything. Even the mind.

There are no dark thoughts allowed. Just books. And a Bella – a yellow lab who is a little bit dumb and a whole lot to cuddle. She will sit beside him and take up too much space on the bed and make sure there are no demons here.

over. for now.

Twenty weeks of training boiled down to 51.2 miles and 9:52 minutes. I thought three days out I would have enough distance from the race to write about it intelligently. Quite frankly, I thought I would have a lot more to say. But I don’t. Maybe I am still processing the experience. Maybe this is a classic example of how running or life or whatever goal you are working toward is more about the journey than the destination. Maybe that’s why not 36 hours after finishing I am already thinking about what to train for next. That is, once I can walk down stairs without holding onto the railing just in case.

But the Northface 50 miler in sum: I got through it. It rained a little. Then it didn’t. It was dark. And then it wasn’t. I was fast, until I was slow. I cried at mile 41. And then at mile 43. My family came. So did my friends. They were there at the finish. I placed 16th for women. And 67th overall. I am still trying to figure out how I feel about everything. However, I did learn a thing or two along the trail. You kind of have to learn something after nearly 10 hours running.

Fighting gravity is hard
10,731 feet. That was the total elevation gain during the race. It doesn’t sound like much spread out over 51.2 miles. But it is. Because what goes up must come down, and that downhill wrecked my quads. I signed up for the Northface 50 miler because I wanted to learn something about myself I didn’t know before. Well, here’s what I found out: I suck at running downhill. As strange as it may sound, running downhill is much more difficult than climbing. At least for me. Because I haven’t yet learned to stop fighting gravity and to simply trust myself to fall downhill on two feet.

Sometimes it is best to be in the dark
We started at 5am and spent the first 90 minutes running through what remained of the night. Nearly 300 headlamps bobbed up and down as we began our first ascent of the day. We looked like a traffic jam in the Headlands. From the terrain I knew we were climbing. But because I couldn’t see anything, save for the three feet in front of me, I didn’t know how far, or how high. Sometimes it’s easier not knowing exactly what it is you are getting yourself into. Because if you could see all the uphills you would face – maybe you wouldn’t do it.

Say hi to strangers
Running/suffering is always easier with other people. During an ultra you often spend a lot of time alone. And it can get lonely out there on the trail over the course of 50 miles. Sure the views are nice, and the sound of nothing but your feet hitting the dirt is meditative. For some people. But I don’t always like me. My brain is rarely supportive, offering up cheers like, good job Kristen! Keep going! It typically forgets who it is speaking to and whines, saying things like Who got you into this? When you find that Kristen you go punch her in the face. Not productive. I find talking to other crazies on the trail is much more helpful.

It is not ok to cry
I cried. I admit it. At mile 41 and again at mile 43. It was my first 50 miler and my arches hurt. So did my knees. And I acted like a baby. On Friday I warned my first pacer Andy that he had the very difficult job of keeping me on the trail from mile 32 to 45. I warned him that I might have a meltdown or two and it was his task to make sure I didn’t go hide in the bushes. I don’t think he expected it to happen. It did. That kid should get a medal for delivering me to Emily for the last stretch. The truth is, I was on course but lost in my head. I started focusing on how far I still had to go rather than putting one foot in front of the other. Next time I need to remember to remain in the present, working only to get myself to the next bush, the next rock, and forget about checkpoints and finish lines.

You are where you are because of help from other people
Sure, I put in the miles. But that is about the only thing I did by myself. And really, most of that I did alongside a team of other runners all working to accomplish the same goal and with coaches who knew what they were doing. But I did have Team Munson: the loudest pit crew at the race.  They are special cohort of people who called and texted and flew in from Boston and Los Angeles and rallied from San Francisco to make sure I was never alone on the trail when things got hard. Who strategized race logistics and rented cars and bought plane tickets to be my side when things got really hard. And who I absolutely cannot imagine my life without.

They made T shirts and grabbed me food from the snack table in case I was hungry. They stood out all day in the cold to watch me hobble by for a few seconds. They kept me going when I wanted to quit. And let me cry when I needed to. (Thanks Andy.) They stood at the finish line waiting with hugs, or on the other side of the country for a phone call. Thank you all, I really could not have run that sucker without you.

By the numbers:
20 weeks of training.
51.2 miles
10,731 elevation gain
21,462 total elevation change
Time: 9:52
Place: 16th women’s

Photo courtesy of T-shirt designer and photographer Allison McCarthy. To see more of her race photos visit

http://www.flickr.com/photos/allisonmccarthy/sets/72157625414519361/

wilderness first aid – part 1

One of my favorite childhood activities was exploring the woods behind our house. Because I didn’t like adventuring alone, I would force my younger brother Matty to go with me. I enlisted him to help me assemble first aid kits filled with Dixie cups, Q-tips, band-aids, gauze, and ointments from mom and dad’s medicine cabinet, and to help make sandwiches for our lunch boxes – his Ghostbusters, mine Strawberry Shortcake. Then I would pack a notepad and pen and we’d set off along the well-worn paths.

Every few feet we stopped to flip over rocks and roll logs to discover what type of nature was living underneath. Sometimes we poked at it with sticks to see how it moved. Dug holes just to watch the soil change colors. Or pulled apart flowers to find out what made them pretty.

After a few hours (or more likely 20 minutes) we set up camp and I would make up answers to his questions because I was older and supposed to know things he didn’t. For some reason, saying, ‘I am not sure’ was never an option. Once we got to wherever it was I decided we were going I’d leave notes in the trees and under stones. I’m not sure who I wanted to find them, or if I really expected a response. But sometimes I’d go back alone and recover the messages to no one and find them waterlogged or lodged in branches nearby. I still wonder if anyone ever read one.

When we returned home I often embellished the hike crafting danger around every bend, like the time we were shot at by unseen enemies, and the day we were almost kidnapped by teenagers. Two decades later I live 3,000 miles from Matty and still love walking in the woods. I’m not sure how old I was when I stopped packing a first aid kit and started simply hoping for the best. At what age I stopped pretending danger lurked behind every tree. Maybe it was because I didn’t have anyone else to look out for anymore. Maybe it’s because I’ve learned that not everything that can hurt you is hiding in the shadows.

While I am grateful for all the years Matty played along when I’d make up stories that could never be true and for all the times I got us lost and he found our way home, I realized this winter that I was taking unnecessary risks. And not only with myself, but with the health and safety of my friends I convinced to go wandering around in the woods with me. I realized that if I don’t know how to take care of myself, I will never be able to take care of anyone else.

So this spring I signed up for a wilderness first aid class so I could stop making things up as I go along. Because the truth is, what worked for you in the past is not always enough. There are some problems you can’t fix with bandages and kisses alone. Because at some point you realize there is no one out there with all the answers. And that if you lose sight of your path, you have to be able find your own way out of the woods.

love in a part-time room

Home. That place of childhood comforts and first real kisses. And later, goodbye kisses and the refuge between the two.

The last time I was home was for a funeral. I knelt by my nana’s bedside and whispered my thank you’s then kissed her face and walked to my bed 10 feet away – a hospital bed she never used. She didn’t need the railings, she had us to support her.

In the fall, my parents made a bedroom for my grandparents out of our study. A room I remember writing papers in for high school. Being up all night. Clicking my way through the dark.

While home for Christmas I visited that room. Not a study. And not really a bedroom anymore. A part-time room at best. I sat on her bed. Her pink bathrobe still hung in the adjacent bathroom. Her medicine bag rested on one of the shelves. The commode was gone. I would sit on her side of the bed and think about what I wanted to say to her, but found nothing would come out.

December 26th was her birthday. She would have been 83. I spent the evening listening to recordings I made of her last conversations. They make me laugh and help me remember her. They help me remember more than just her last weeks. Weeks when my grampa sat with her in the dark and the light. When he would read the paper and sometimes nothing at all.

I remember how he checked on her as she slept. How he needed a job other than waiting for her to wake. So I made him peel apples – 7 lbs of them. And I made him help me bake pies. And crisps. Later, we did a hack job moving Nana in bed. She was lopsided on the pillows but said she was fine. At 28, I was still waiting for my mom to come back in the room to clean up my messes.

I remember watching my father give my mom and Aunt Dot a lesson on how to use a suction machine for when her coughing worsened. It was big and the tubes long and wide. I was afraid I would have to help use it. And then I felt bad for even thinking that.

In the midst of doing dishes one afternoon Nana rang her bell. I quickly dried my hands and headed to her room, but my mom beat me. She crawled in bed beside her mother and I overheard Nana say, “I didn’t want to be alone.” I turned around so I didn’t interrupt, I turned around so I could swallow.

During those weeks, I began noticing how my mom and I cry exactly the same way. How pretty my Nana looked. And how tired. “Quality of life” became a phrase all too familiar. Then “comfort measures.” Morphine was added to my vocabulary. I was not ready to add others.

In the world of my parents’ house, I didn’t watch the news, read newspapers, and only left to walk the dog. I emailed work. Then returned to the kitchen to cook the meals, ordering only fresh ingredients. Thinking it would help. But she still lost weight. She slept all the time. Eventually there was nothing left to do but wear her out with love. Spend her last days laughing and playing cards into the night even though it made her tired.

Because we didn’t want her laying in the dark to salvage another two months. That is not a life. A life is everybody in her bed eating and watching the Red Sox. It is making the best pie you can and holding your mom’s hand when you see her chin quiver, and laughing when your nana rings her bell and you come running and she says, “I just wanted to make sure you didn’t go and die on me.”

I remember watching grampa retreat to a quiet place. That is to be expected of someone watching their companion of 62 years start to leave him behind. There was nothing he could do except sit by her as she slept and be there for the few moments she was awake. Maybe that is love. Swallowing your needs for someone else.

The process taught me a lot about family and love and dying and all the life you have in between. It was a circle coming to completion. Daughters caring for the woman who gave them life. During coughing spells Nana would go to a place none of us could reach. She closed her eyes and concentrated simply on breathing. That was the only time my mother and Aunt Dot teared up. Because Nana was not really there to see it.

Grampa would help us get her ready for bed. He braced her knees as we lifted her upward to use a bedpan. He did not cry. He did not look away. And I guess that is love too. I don’t think that is a scenario people envision on their wedding day. Flashing forward six decades and imagining having to coax their partner to eat something so she doesn’t disappear before your eyes, or helping her take down her underpants so she can pee. Maybe we would all choose our partners a little differently if we thought about who we want to end our life with rather than begin it.

Her last weeks, my Nana saw snow in October. Bright fall colors exploding in the backyard. Blue skies. It was as if the entire world was preparing for her departure and putting together one last show. Hundreds of ladybugs appeared. They crawled along the eaves of the house and held to the screens outside her windows. They dotted the walls of her room. They even hid between the lettuce leaves in the kitchen. I know science can explain why they came and stayed on the southside of the house. But it’s nice to think that maybe they were there because we needed a little luck.

It was as if our house was not just a house on a block where ordinary things were happening everywhere else but here. Houses where oxygen masks and O2 machines weren’t pumping 24 hours a day. Not a suction machine just in case. Houses that didn’t install doorbells on night tables for emergencies. Or have daughters who shared the burden of giving their mother her last dose of morphine.

“Winter came early,” Nana said looking out at the snow.

And it did. She died November 9. For years she was on blood thinners that caused her to be cold – even in the summer. She hated that. The night she died her hands were warm. Finally.

Sitting in her room does not bring me comfort yet. I’m not sure if the feeling inside is me realizing that I am not alone, or fear that I am. I’m not used to the quiet. Maybe in time I will be ready. Maybe I will one day find solace in that room, in the silence all around. Maybe once I am ok with the quiet – perhaps then, I will hear her once again.

In the months after my grandfather died, my dad couldn’t remember what his father’s voice sounded like, couldn’t recall what he looked like.

“It’s amazing what the mind can do,” he said.

And it is. What the brain can imagine. Can rationalize. Can forget. In order to get us through. The brain can trigger memory loss. Can protect us from ourselves. So that our hearts can continue beating. So that our lungs can continue breathing. So that we may eat. So that we may sleep and not dream. So that one day we can wake and remember. Feel a pain in our chest and smile. And recall all that we can never lose.