“Hey, Dad, do you want to go watch the Philadelphia Distance Run with me?” No sooner do I ask, does he answer, and we are in the car driving down the Black Horse Pike. He has a lemon Tastykake pie in his left hand and he is frantically pointing to the sign for the Ben Franklin Bridge with his right finger. I roll my eyes and let out a sarcastic sigh. “Dad, I am thirty-two. I know where the Ben Franklin Bridge is.” He smirks, I laugh because I know what is coming next.
“Col, did you know I lived here as a kid ?” He asks as we walk towards the Art Museum. “When I was about seven, we would jump in these fountains and throw balls over the prison walls. See that alley, we would place dice there all day.” I expect these stories like clockwork. I have heard them a million times. Impatiently, I listen. I would do anything now to hear just one of those stories again.
The fact that there are thousands of people in the city does not deter the current mission of my father and me. We need to find one person in the sea of runners. No cell phones, no maps, no meeting spots. It is the first time we have been to a race of this size and are both overwhelmed by the athletic spirit in the air. The excitement of it rushes through our veins. Then, out of nowhere, I see her.
“Amy!” I scream. You did it, you did it!” I say, embracing her. My dad is totally caught up in the craziness of the finish line. He gives her a high-five and a huge hug, even though he has never seen her before in his life. He then starts his race interrogation, how far, how fast, where was the start. He was hooked and for me the next 15 seconds were life changing. As I remember it, my dad pulls me close to him and looks me right in the eyes. “Can you do this Colleen? Can you run this far? 13.1 miles?”
I hesitate, being quite uncertain, but with nervous laughter and a convincing voice, I say, “Sure, Dad, I will run this next year.” My moment of excitement quickly fades as I think, I only hope you are standing here to cheer me on.
No more excuses! I have had my babies, I moved into a new house, I started a new job, and with my father’s encouragement, I signed up for the Philadelphia Distance Run. A half marathon! I was a runner in high school, the concept of running was not foreign, but I was out of shape and I had never run more than 5 miles. Determined to cross the finish line, I made a 12 week schedule and stuck to in religiously. My runs were marked on my calendar as if they were a dentist appointment four times per week. June, July, August. A bold “X” would mark off every day completed, inching closer and closer to September 19th. My training started tapering. This was going to happen! As it turned out, I enjoyed training. I looked forward to my long runs which allowed me to think about everything. My mind often drifted to the sobering fact that as I was getting stronger and faster, my father was getting thinner and weaker. The air that he so loved to breathe was slowly being taken from him.
Soon it was early September, and the race was only couple of weeks away. My father was excited, “Col, you ready for the race?” “ Dad, I am actually up to 12 miles Dad. I am going to do it.”
A light danced in his eyes, “Of course you can, Colleen. You can do anything, you know that. Anything.” As he says the second “anything,” he is staring at me with such intensity I feel like my heart is going to burst and my brain is going to melt, because I can’t make sense of any of it. He looks at me like he is never going to see me again, as if he is really concentrating and trying to remember what I look like. With that one look and that one word, I knew our conversations were now going to be limited. That soon the morphine would take over his body and his mind.
September 19, 2004 I know exactly why I did it, but I am just not sure how I did it. How I got up the morning of September 19th, tied my sneakers, and drove myself to Philadelphia. I stood on the starting line with thousands of strangers, ready to do the longest race of my life. I did not know a soul. I did not have a cheering section. I ran 13.1 miles in just over two hours. My breathing controlled, my pace even, but crying the entire time. Crying for two hours from start to finish. Sweat from my forehead mixed with stinging tears from eyes.
I showed up at the funeral home only a few hours later, hair pulled back, wearing the black dress that I purchased three years ago when my father was initially diagnosed with lung cancer. I had the people I love most in the world standing to my left and to my right. I greeted, smiled, hugged and thanked everyone who knew my father. Very few people knew that I had run my first half marathon that morning. Most would not have understood…although I know with great certainty, one person would have.
Thank you, Daddy. I carry your your love of life and passion for sport with me everyday. I only wish you could see how it all turned out.