Look, before I start marathon training and inundating you with posts about buttcheek chafing and runner’s trots and other savory topics, I figured I should spill the whole, gory, raw story about why I am running for Team in Training. I hope you will humor me whenever I talk about it once you read this, because this is a very, very important cause to me. This will be the only time I will pour out the full story.
(Note: some of this is filled in with things I’ve heard about the situation from my mom, sister, and other friends and relatives. The seven-year-old mind is not the most sophisticated. Also, excuse the lack of photos.)
It’s 1991. I have just turned seven years old. We are at Cedar Point, an amusement park in Ohio, on a summer vacation. My dad, who is known as Mr. Fitness in my family because of his love of running and vegetables, wakes up with a large lump in his mouth. Thinking it’s a tooth or gum abscess, he goes to the dentist when we get home. The dentist refers him to an oral surgeon, since he doesn’t know what it is. The oral surgeon sends him for a biopsy.
We are in the basement. We go to the basement when we have serious family discussions, because there is a couch my sister and I can sit on while our parents can sit in the armchairs and tell us things. (Normally, we watch television in our jammies on the floor of our parents’ bedroom, or are playing outside. Okay, I’m usually reading in my bedroom.)
My mom is crying. She says, “Your dad has leukemia.”
I don’t get why she is upset. The extent of my knowledge of leukemia is that people on TV get it, but they beat the odds and get better, even if they have to be bald for awhile. I say, “okay,” and go back out to play.
I start the second grade. My teacher is really, really nice to me and gives me extra attention.
My dad is admitted to the hospital for treatment. My mom starts disappearing, too. Before my dad was sick, she worked part-time and was usually home after school. Now, after school, I have to go to my friend Laura’s house while my sister goes to basketball practice. Sometimes I will come home and find my mom crying. I learn to ask things like, “What are his platelet counts?” and “How are his white blood cells today?” even though I don’t really know what that means. (I can usually tell if it’s good from my mom’s reaction.)
After awhile, my mom and dad both come home and I am excited. But my dad lays in bed all day. His thick, curly black hair starts falling out in clumps, so my mom shaves his head. He has a tube in his chest that has to be cleaned and dressed every day. I watch my mom do it. She has to use red, white, and blue swabs on it and give him medicine through it.
Pretty soon, we start hearing the term “bone marrow transplant” floating around. Transplant! I think. That’s when they get better on TV! I’m happy this will be over soon. We wait and wait. Everyone—my mom, my aunts and uncles and grandparents and all their friends—are tested to see if they are a match for him. They’re not.
Finally, one day, we get the call. They have found a donor! We can’t know who it is, but my dad is going to get his bone marrow.
School is out for the summer, and my mom moves to Minnesota with my dad. The University of Minnesota hospitals have one of the best bone marrow donations in the country. Before they leave, my dad writes me this letter.
My sister and I become constant babysitting charges. My grandparents move in for a week, and they are always looking at me with pursed lips. We stay with my dad’s best friend Uncle Bob and his wife Aunt Sally, and Aunt Sally buys me my first outfits at Gap Kids. I don’t hear much about my dad.
It’s my eighth birthday. My Aunt Pat throws me a birthday party and my mom isn’t there. We paint pottery and eat cake. I find out that as I painted my ceramic kitten, my dad’s bone marrow transplant was underway.
My Uncle Bob drives us up to see our parents afterwards. My mom is living in a sad looking apartment. She gives me a pink unicorn sleeping bag for my birthday. My sister and I sit in the waiting room a lot and only get to see my dad a little bit. I remember being shocked at how thin he had gotten.
My sister and I go home to Chicago and watch the fireworks with the neighbors on the Fourth of July. I participate in a bubble gum blowing contest and can’t wait for my dad to come home once the transplant fixes him.
On July sixth, my mom comes home. I know immediately something is wrong. My aunts and uncles are lurking but not answering my questions.
Again, the basement. I stick my head in the couch cushions because I don’t want to hear what she is going to say. I don’t know how she said it, but I remember thinking, “Who will walk me down the aisle when I get married?” right away.
We all cried, and cried, and cried. There was lots of food brought over.
A family friend took us shopping for dresses for the funeral. Mine was a white turtleneck with a black and red plaid jumper over the top.
At his wake, my mom gives us pictures we drew to tuck in the casket with his body. My sister puts hers under my dad’s hands but I am scared so I just put it on the side. He is so pale and cold and doesn’t have the gorgeous curly black hair my dad had.
He was buried in a suit and his running shoes. This is the song they play–his favorite, while he was sick.
I’ve been out walking for hours.
I’ve got something on my mind.
How did we get here? where are we going?
And why is life so hard?
I read the stories, see the photographs.
World’s in a crazy space.
I’ve got to hold on to my dreams;
There’s just no other place.
There’s just no other place.
we can change anything.
we can rise above this.
there’s a reason for everything.
in my dream.
We all dealt with the loss of my father in different ways. My mom tried her best to keep it together, but she was devastated. My sister retreated into her bedroom and shut the door. I tried to hold everyone together. Our family was broken.
As time passed, obviously, the pain becomes less acute. Our family motto was “one day at a time, one foot in front of the other.” My mom had to start working full-time and figure out the finances, which my father had always done. My sister and I became latchkey kids. The teachers at school looked at me sadly when I went back to school in September. They had all known my dad; he read to the kindergarten classes because he liked giving back to the community, and he’d worked the night shift so he picked me up from school ever day.
And they’d all seen him running around our small town every morning, waving, every morning on their way to work.
Today I go through life and not having a father is just a fact. I don’t cry about it every day like we once did, and I can tell people, “Oh, he died when I was eight of leukemia” without a second thought. But you bet your ass I’m sitting here, writing this, sobbing like a baby thinking about getting married in a month without him there.
So, this is why I’m running for Team in Training in October. I realize that you might be annoyed when I mention this and ask you to donate or participate in fundraisers. And I’m sorry if that bothers you, but really? No little girl should have to know what a platelet is and stand at her father’s coffin.
If my dad was here, he would be running this marathon by my side. But he’s not, and I need you to help me get through this. I need to run for something.
Please, donate. Nobody should have to go through what my family has been through.