Two years ago, seized with the notion that everyone should run a marathon before she turns 75 and realizing that didn’t leave me a lot of time, I bought a ridiculously expensive pair of running shoes and signed up for the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco. Well, said my daughters Sandy & Pam, and Sandy’s running buddy Nan (later adding Pam-2), if you’re going to do that, we’ll come out and do it with you. Thus was born Team Gran. Sandy and Nan set about getting even fitter. Pam, who has rock-climbed all over the place but had never done this kind of flat-land business, signed on with a Team-in-Training group and set about getting seriously ready. I set about loping around the city — and promptly got breast cancer. That, plus a few other calamities in what became known as the Year of Medical Crises, interrupted my training enough for me to wimp back to a half-marathon. Even though I had paid for the whole thing. (Nike does not give rebates.) Ten months into the Year of Medical Crises, though, we assembled in the dark of a San Francisco morning, quickly caught the marathon adrenalin and Team Gran was off and running. Early on, going at our rather differing speeds, we each got boosts from my husband’s moving hug stations, from the cheers of friends and strangers alike and the general beauty of the course. Just to keep this blog honest, I admit to a few spans of walking. Still, when perfect strangers asked my age and said I was an inspiration, well, who can resist picking up speed? Nearing Mile 11 the first discouraging tiredness set it, only to be confronted by another hug, this one from my indomitable young friend Georg; the tiredness disappeared. Jogging across the finish line a good few minutes short of my goal, I had the utterly incredible feeling that I could easily have gone another 3 or 4 miles. (But not another 13!) Pam, not a lot later, charged across the full-marathon finish line just better than her own goal, with a grin that could’ve lit the Golden Gate Bridge. Accomplished runner Sandy blew a knee late in the race, struggled on with a lot of help from ice and friends, and finished somewhat tearfully. Unwilling to let that discouraging marathon be her last, she will run the More Magazine Half-Marathon in Manhattan on Sunday (not to mention the Empire State stair climb next year.) Pam went on to do her first Ride & Tie (you don’t know Ride & Tie? That’s another post entirely some day) and is currently into mountain biking around NC. Here’s what’s behind this post: running is one of life’s great metaphors. It’s open to anyone, even without the expensive shoes. It doesn’t matter where you came from; you’re all going in the same direction. The encouragement of strangers makes the community work. Adrenalin can kick in when you’re not even watching. With a little luck, you can still do cancer and marathon in the same year. Hugs along the way are vital. You may not get do-overs, but you can always do more. Team Gran will reassemble in North Georgia this July for Lakemont’s soon-to-be-famous Rabun Ramble run.
Talk may be cheap, but it’s not always easy. Or done well. I’m watching Barack Obama with joy and enthusiasm for, among other reasons, his inclination to talk to anybody, anywhere without even rattling swords in the background. Closer to home, and to the issues I often deal with, talk among communities of different faiths more often than not serves to show us we all believe just about exactly the same thing; at the very least we have far more similarities than differences. In interfaith gatherings we wind up wondering why religions stir up so much pain and anguish. (It’s easy to see how; we wonder why.) Several of us hope soon to launch a social group on Beliefnet.com, so perhaps if you’re reading this you can keep an eye out for that good talking place. Also closer to home, and apropos other posts on this wandering blogspot: At last night’s meeting of Compassion & Choices, N.CA, on whose board I sit, we talked of the troubles arising from the fact that so often doctors don’t talk (or listen) to patients. (I hasten to say we have two fine, genuine-listener physicians on that board.) Working with hospice, AIDS or dying C&C clients it is sad to discover, too late, that one simple conversation — with friends, family, physicians — could have saved acres of anguish. Yesterday, therefore, I Googled myself — this is what you do if you’re REALLY bored, and a fine thing it is until you see your book offered for a distress sale price. And lo, I found it, a piece I wrote for the San Francisco Medical Society several years back titled Conversations 101. That, along with last night’s meeting and the current events of the day, prompted this ramble. The point of which is just to say what a better day we might all have if we just put up the swords, the iPhones and iPods, the computerized medical charts and even the predetermined opinions, imagined ourselves in Conversations 101, and talked to each other.
Here’s something to celebrate: new music. I grew up (that’s me with the pigtails, c.1944 in our Ashland, VA back yard; I was very proud of that Girl Scout belt) to my older sisters’ big band dances, jazz and gospel and symphonies on the Victrola; they grew up to be serious musicians and one very accomplished artist. Recently I’ve gotten to know Carla Kihlstedt and her music. Went to hear the new 2 Foot Yard prepared to enjoy it, absolutely loved it. Then when guitar-percussion-electronics guy Shahzad Ismaily started talking in his gentle, quiet voice about recently lost loved ones and how life is short and death is certain and it is vitally important to enjoy every moment and be kind to those you love…. I was hooked. I was unexpectedly also hooked on Ara Anderson and his Iron & the Albatross group. Ara’s a “multi-instrumentalist” (a whiz on trumpet which I think is his #1.) The “multi” includes a toy piano, and Charlie Brown never sounded better. I’ve heard Carla do extraordinary new music, most recently premiering the last, great piece by the late Jorge Liderman with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players — the kid can do it all (she calls herself musically schizophrenic) — and still remember being introduced to San Francisco with her Charming Hostess group at the Bottom of the Hill. Those gigs are always fun partly in that my husband and I raise the median age of the audience by about 40 years. Still, the celebratory thing is that so much music — Mozart, John Adams, Frank Sinatra, John Denver, Duke Ellington, Carla Kihlstedt — is in the air, getting more joyful all the time. Especially if someone like me can delight in it all.
My youngest grandchildren just went to their first funeral, and I suspect they’re all the better for the experience. They are 6 and 4. (I hear intake of breath from readers.) They had been separated from their mother for a long week as she attended the decline and death of her own mother hundreds of miles distant, and now she wanted the family together. As might be imagined, extensive discussions surrounded all aspects of this: family members told their father Oh, You Can’t Possibly Take Them!; friends said, “Heavens, you’ll scar them forever;” casual acquaintances had expert advice. I don’t know any of this for a fact; I’m on another coast and only offered my own opinion when asked. but my own opinion is this: death is a part of the human experience, a perfectly natural thing to happen even if (and often when) we’d prefer it didn’t, and children are good at facing reality if adults around them will refrain from freaking out. My grandchildren were counselled by their parents and their questions, I’m told, leaned mostly toward “OK if we go play with the cousins now?” There are some touching examples of children handling their own or others’ deaths in my book Dying Unafraid, which you’re invited to read about or buy through the links lurking around this blog, but I will mention just one: an early patient of my hospice volunteer work who was a beloved grandmother of many. Children ages two and up clambered constantly atop her bed, talked to her as she lay comatose and dying, and discussed at the wake how she “looked prettier than when she was so sick.” Years later it remained clear that what they remembered was how lovingly everyone saw Grandmother through her final days; there were no spooky memories of an unmentionable event. I am neither a professional nor an expert in this (or any other) area. I’m just a writer who took to hospice work and later work with AIDS support groups and other end-of-life causes. But I do know that for centuries millions of people died with their loved ones (and often unloved ones who were just hanging around for other reasons) in the immediate vicinity, and humankind seems to have survived. My brilliant psychologist friend Marilyn gladdened my heart by agreeing with the advice I’d given pre-funeral about the grandchildren in the case above. I had simply said, “Why not just do exactly what their mother wants? She’s had a hard time. They can handle it.” It is seldom the single jarring episode that scars a child, Marilyn says, but the thing that happens over and over. Better, she says, to visit a visitation room once or twice than to listen to your parents arguing every day. I say, death happens and we live with it. If we talk about it openly and lovingly, those who are just beginning the journey might be equipped to see that journey fearlessly to its completion.