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Christopher, The Rest

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

I came to you for training when I was 18.

I was one of several young women who hung on your every word, eager for your attention, your approval, any sign of special favor. We were your first recruits–pups in a large and rowdy litter, away from home for the first time and climbing all over each other to get at a teat. The guys tried every bit as hard as we did but they would rather have died than seem eager. They acted knowing and peer-like. You tolerated this pretty well until you caught them doing things like wandering around the locker room drunk wearing kimonos and cowboy hats….

I’d stop by your office only to find I had to take a number. I wanted to be your number one! I wanted to be your top runner and your top girl. Girl, I was. And terribly innocent. My eyes grew large, and I froze when I learned that Siobhan, older, worldlier, and afraid of being bumped from top dog, had rumored that we were sleeping together.

I can see you standing on the track in your stupid reflective sunglasses. I knew it was more than coolness you sought. Hidden beneath the bravado was an introverted soul seeking privacy in plain sight. Where else could you hide? Necessity and convenience had landed you, along with a few of your charges, in a handful of the derelict rooms above the track office and a hop, skip, jump from the track itself. In those early days, you had no car and nowhere else to be. Your work was your life, and your life was your work. We pressed in, tails wagging, hungry.

I remember your rapid-fire gum chewing and see your bemused smile as you punctuate your observances with that quick, trademark jut of the chin. I remember your short waist and long arms. Your square hands and fingers. The port wine stain on your thigh. The smell of your sweat after a run. Nobody else smells like that.

I stroked your cheek now and then. It sounds more intimate than it was. We all stroked your cheek. You bragged that you had been showering without soap for years, and it had left your skin baby soft. You had to make sure we believed you. Yep, soft as a baby’s behind.

You always were weird about food too—inspecting scrupulously for flaws and checking expiration dates. Milk had to be rushed from cow to carton. Only bananas firm and just-ripe need apply. I knew this. I’d smuggle a fresh, ice-cold pint of milk and a spotless banana out of the dining hall on my way over to visit. Low fat was an abomination. You liked your milk whole and your meat red.

If I could turn back time, I’d leave things as they were. This, despite the parts that hurt. I’m thinking of the gut-churning Tuesday/Friday interval workouts. You tested us, and we tested each other. And of course, there were the races themselves. These pains were short lived.

As I was leaving the track office one day, you joked at my freshman backside, blossoming under the tutelage of the dining hall buffet: “Harpoon that whale!” My relationship with food changed that very day, and I became a statistic.

I recall how angry you were when I failed to reappear after finishing a disastrous 1,500m at a big indoor meet. “Always come find me after a race,” you had growled. I had run off to ferment in my self loathing and had been running laps beneath the dome’s bleachers as punishment. I hated myself and was too ashamed to show my face, yet tears would not come and relieve me. Young Yvette–you went on and on about her potential–had just placed in the 800m and broken the school record. Your upset took on new meaning when I thought about a peer from another school, someone we had chatted with at meets, who had attempted the unspeakable.

Our running life wasn’t all fun and games, but good times were in no short supply. Traveling with you and the rest of the pack was a bit of a rolling slumber party. Chemistry homework, body odor, screaming muscles, and the pre-race shits were balanced by friendly banter, naps, shared meals, practical jokes and, ideally, victory.

Remember how annoyed I got with Coach Cook when I needed a bathroom stop on the way to the conference meet? No? I was in his van, and I just couldn’t hold it. Nobody wanted to be the person to stop the caravan before it was necessary. We lost time when people started spilling out of vans in search of toilets and Pop Tarts. Sometimes one van stopped, and the others kept going; and that caused other problems. We had no cell phones or Google Maps. No worries! Coach Cook had this problem licked. Thereafter, whenever a stop was needed, the driver of that van just had to move to the front of the queue while honking and holding a large, handwritten sign in the window: JANE HAS TO PEE!

You had your childish moments too. I remember how you leaned forward and stretched out your hand every time the van rolled across a state line. You crowed! You had been the first to enter! Ha! But then you had to go and listen to Bob Seger. My wretching sounds just made you more determined. “Keep passing the open windows,” you’d say.

Remember when I mooned you? Twice. Once, as I left the track in a petulant steam after a frustrating workout. Another time, I roped some of the other girls into joining me just for the shock value. An odd way to show affection, I know. But neither of us was good at it.

Now and then you’d wrap a gorilla arm around my neck so we were head to head. “Dearie,” you’d say. But you didn’t hug. I knew you loved me because you named me after cars: “Ford” on normal days–to make me run faster. “Chevy” when you were feeling silly. You named us all so we would belong. We came when called.

I glowed with pride when you called me “Bitch.” In our code, it was a term of highest respect. It meant I had reached down deep and come up with rocket fuel.

I was no longer a puppy. I had become a beast.

For two other posts on Christopher, click here and here. For another post related to college recruitment/running, click here.

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Christopher, Part II

Cross CountryMay 2, 2015

Dear Christopher,

You would have been 62 tomorrow.

I just spent some time looking at old photos and re-reading your obituaries. My reserve has punctured, and these words have begun to swim. Don’t worry—I will be fine. I AM fine. I don’t want to pathologize the tears I shed when I allow myself to go to that sacred place of memory and appreciation.

I don’t think about you every day or even every week or month. I haven’t for decades. I graduated, and we pursued our separate lives. Part of the distance between us was born of my shame at not having lived up to my potential despite your having offered me every opportunity and all of your skill and—I felt it—love. Part of the distance was a necessary and normal development. There were crops of new athletes to coach, and the weight of maintaining old relationships would have dragged you under. This is the human life cycle, compressed. I may live to be 100 but my athletic death had been foretold a blink after my birth. My leaves had yellowed and dropped by the time I had become a wife and mother. I had made my choice.

I was afraid that my failures had caused you to stop regarding me, stop loving me. Unable to manage that pain, I tried to forgot about you and lock that chamber of my heart to you and anybody else from that time. But kairos had other ideas: I ran into Kendra.

Remember when Kendra and I gathered some of the other “girls” and showed up at your house unannounced about 10 years ago? That day is precious to me. I cried like a baby in secret for days after, and a long-time wound began to heal. How I cringe when I recall the letters I sent in those early years of separation: needy, angry, immature tomes in which I thrashed about, trying to understand myself and striking out at you instead. I am glad that time is behind us.

I was your first female recruit. Do you recall telling me, long, long ago, that you hoped, one day, to have a daughter like me? How could I believe that? I, who had quit when my body was strong and ripe. I, who had reached outside myself to explain the origins of my hurt and fixed you in my crosshairs.

I was afraid to see you. I was afraid to be seen by you. I had aged, and my body had softened and begun to bend. Time is less kind to women. You were in your coaching prime and turning out champions. I felt ill but I knew I was going to make the trip.

And you welcomed me. You welcomed me and my awkward ways as though no time had passed. You had loved me all along! And I, you. We spoke this without words. You never were one to display affection outright. I am not sure I could have tolerated it.

We had never stopped knowing one another after all.

I read the muscles of your face and the crinkle of your blue, blue eyes. I read the warmth of your joy, and it was more than I had dared to hope. Comfortably wrapped in the happy chatter around me, I said almost nothing as we sat around your table that afternoon. But my cup overflowed. From across the table, I saw and felt all you spoke to me in the secret language of friends. Words would have gotten in the way.

What if we had not had that day–that day of communion and completion?

How can you be gone?

Rest in peace, dear Christopher.

C.H.T., III
5/3/53 –- 7/1/11.

I wish your dash had been longer.

For Christopher, Part I, click here. For Christopher, The Rest click here.

I Missed My Dad Today

Drooping Sunflower courtesy of spyder239

Drooping Sunflower courtesy of spyder239

Today seems like a good day to publish this reflection. Blogging about my family has involved fleshing out pieces I had written in years past and adding a few in between. But the discipline of writing and editing is stirring up old feelings and awakening some I didn’t know were there. Focusing so much on my father and our relationship made me miss him so much earlier this week that I just wanted to climb into bed and hug myself.

March 17, 2013

I missed my Dad today.

Driving home from Charlottesville, after dropping our daughter Bec off at a friend’s house to catch her ride back to school, I saw two vintage Buick LeSabres just like the one my Dad used to drive. I became so lost in thought I missed my exit. The car was one of the few models which could accommodate his height. I suspect some odd synchronicity at work, as my drive had gotten me thinking about a road trip I took with my Dad during my senior year of high school.

I can see my father’s hands on the wheel. He’s in the taupe zip-up sweater he wore all the time back then. I remember the way he used to warm up the car and lay his puffy winter coat on the back seat. After my father’s death from stomach cancer in 1990, my Mom sold his perfectly-kept car for a song to an overjoyed fellow who turned it into a city cab.

I had begun hearing from schools interested in me because of my running stats. The University of Virginia was not one of them. I pursued UVA, and the school’s athletic department tolerated my interest. I knew it was a good school, and its running program was strong. In the end, I rejected the school because it rejected me.

I wasn’t terribly excited when I learned I hadn’t made UVA’s cut for academic admission but the coach said he’d pull some strings if I wanted to come and run for them. His lukewarm attitude should have tipped me off but, given the reputation of the program, a campus tour and a meet-and-greet were in order. My Dad and I scheduled some other visits for the same week, packed up, and headed out of town.

I might have been able to swallow my academic pride but I couldn’t overcome the coach’s inconvenienced air and his underwhelming faith in my athletic potential. In one breath, he held out the offer of a 1/4 scholarship. In the next, he took it back: He made a point of letting me know he had a talent pool so deep I might not get to race.

Sayonara, UVA! Hello, University of the Free Ride! Let’s just call it UFR for now.

These were the early days of Title IX and athletic scholarships for women. UFR felt too close to home, and back then it was a popular “safety school.” I nearly wrote it off. The scholarship offer made me take a second look. That and the UVA snub. The program at UFR was coming along well enough to challenge and develop me, yet it was small enough that I would get to be a contributor at the Division I level. As a parent of three young ladies, I have developed a massive appreciation for the generosity my father displayed in squiring me around to several other schools without ever complaining. He was the sole breadwinner, and I had two younger siblings. We were comfortable but not rich. He never pressured me to take the money.

We had visited the University of Delaware (Great school but the program was not far enough along. To be honest, the thought of being a Blue Hen didn’t sit quite right either.). We had also visited Wake Forest (Gorgeous and welcoming but it felt too small.). McGill had been recruiting me but we never made that visit. The coach seemed like such a great guy but it was too far, too cold, and too much for me. I knew in my heart I was not mature enough to manage it. There were a few other offers here and there but nothing I considered a serious contender. So Dad and I visited UFR twice, just to be sure.

I don’t remember what Dad and I talked about while we were on the road. Nothing deep, certainly. Of the trip to UVA, I mostly just remember the nauseous smell of paper pulp and the effort involved in trying to damp down and hide my nervous energy. Those who know me well recognize that when I become unnaturally calm and rational, I am close to panic.

Were the college visits fun? That would be a resounding “NO.” A stoic young woman, I don’t think I came across as friendly or likeable. I looked good on paper but the real-life girl was distant and stiff. I had trouble connecting with other people because I had trouble connecting with myself. At this point in my life I am able to put words to the experience but I would not have been able to do so at the time.

Feeling scared and awkward was a dominant and recurring theme for me. It felt both exhilarating and alarming to have attracted notice. On the one hand, I felt sweet joy and power in my developing gifts. On the other hand, I was sure I would be discovered as an imposter–so much so that I feared failure to a paralyzing degree. I was my own worst enemy. I learned much later from my UFR coach that I had been branded a “head case,” which had discouraged some coaches from taking a chance on me. This assessment had some basis in fact.

My Dad had never been involved in athletics. My father found sports dull and had never watched them on TV or bonded over them with other men. He was afraid of water. He couldn’t throw or catch a baseball. With apologies to 50% of the human race, I am going to use an expression I know you will understand even though its prejudice will infuriate you: My 6′ 4″ father threw like a girl. He was a high-order nerd, a hot house plant, and he didn’t understand the culture at all. A few years earlier he had told me I should stop running because it would permanently damage my reproductive organs. He eventually started to come around to the fact that this running thing was here to stay. The one time he came out to support me at a high school meet, he became panicked when I vomited after the race.

My Dad wasn’t well equipped to champion me through the college selection process, and he hadn’t figured this out. I held the angst and self consciousness for us both. There was my father, only 46 at the time: tall, pasty, his upper body already permanently wilted like one of the giant sunflowers we used to grow in our back yard, making his way through terra incognita like Albert Einstein at a cocktail party. Witnessing his interactions with the UVA athletic department staff made me want to crawl under a rock. But remembering him now, I feel such affection. He was determined to care for me the best way he knew how. He was clueless. He was weird. He was difficult. He was my Dad, and he would have taken a bullet for me. I never thought about the fact that he’d be gone one day.

So there we were, two intimately-related, emotionally-disconnected individuals cruising down the highway in his pimped-out white Buick LeSabre with the blue vinyl top. It had baby-blue velour upholstery, and it’s ride was so soft we barely felt the road. We said little. The engine purred a comforting “ticka ticka ticka ticka.” I think I knew him. He thought he knew me. Yes, I can see his hands on the steering wheel. I drive the same way.

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