Earlier this morning, I laced up and hit the trail after dropping my son off at school. It was a gorgeous fall morning, my favorite for running. My sleep last night was fitful, as faces and voices from Saturday night’s 25th high school reunion filled my mind. Despite my exhaustion, skipping the run was not an option. It seemed right, actually, that my last long run before the marathon would happen under these circumstances; I needed to complete the catharsis that unfolded over the weekend.
The first few miles were spent on a secluded path along the trickling end of the Cooper River. The path ends at the base of one of the few hills in the area, a long, slow ascent that runs right past a local high school. Exposed now, out of the wooded sanctuary, I spied out of the corner of my eye a high school kid sitting in a parked car. With the bleak strains of the Decemberist’s “Annan Water” in my ears, I literally felt my heart strings being pulled. I never knew what that meant: “Heart Strings.” But I ran past the high school, in the direction of my son’s pre-school, and the aching in my heart was so real I thought I would burst. The (final?) waves of emotion stirred by reunion night came swelling up, and the tears flowed once again. All of the adolescent emotion, frozen in the face of the unsuspecting boy in the parked car, and doubtless teeming through the halls of Haddonfield High School, was raw and renewed, and bled right into the wonder and fear of parenting, of middle age, of where so many of us now dwell. These strings were pulling me right through the past, into the present.
For a moment, I thought I couldn’t go on. Running felt impossible. I had many miles to go. Suddenly, the crisp morning gave way to a blazing sun, and I felt myself melting. Was I possibly overheating on a 45 degree morning? I imagined sitting down under a tree on the brick sidewalk, sobbing, as construction workers milled around me. What is wrong with her, they would wonder?
But I didn’t sit down, and I didn’t stop. I breathed more deeply. The incline resolved into more forgiving flat terrain, and within a few moments, I knew I would be able to continue, now a bit lighter, perhaps having left the last of these tears in my wake.
There had been a premonition of sorts, in anticipation of this peculiar past weekend. This was the first time I’d ever allowed myself to be so fully submerged in the reality of time passed. But for me, and for so many others, it wasn’t just about the passage of time. It was about facing a present that looks so very different than you ever thought it would. It was about sharing the journey that brought you to this place – sometimes deliberately, with a measured caution, and other times with a tear-soaked abandon that was probably only partially the result of one (or two or three) too many glasses of wine.
It was one thing to approach the prospect of a 25th high school reunion with a light-hearted sense of curiosity and amusement. It was something else entirely to enter a room filled with so many familiar faces, and to see time written on all of them. In those first adrenaline-laced moments, I could only sense the surreal. But before long, the inevitable began to unfold: my cancer brothers and sisters found me. There were unending hugs and tears. This huge, incredible reality, of touching other wounded spirits, and seeing how desperately we need (and help) each other fairly knocked me over. But not once did I feel self-conscious, or wonder, “What must people be thinking?” It was the most beautiful polar opposite of everything that marks adolescence: insecurity, fear of exclusion. Everything was real and completely exposed, at least for me, and for those I know have been fighting there own battles, or have lost people, or perhaps almost lost themselves. Those who I’ve held close through all these years were at my side, buoying me, keeping me grounded. Others to whom I have grown connected in the intervening years shared a new kind of love and empathy, borne of our adult struggles and the realities we now inhabit.
When I met and embraced one of my far-flung soul-mates, whose light and passion and brilliance I never understood fully when we were kids, she held my arms, looked me in the eye and said, so sweetly, “You’re real!”
We live in a world where so much is virtual, and thus attenuated. This past weekend, there was nothing but the unvarnished immediacy of human spirits, living, breathing, making each day into something, and hoping – sometimes against hope – that after this day, there will be another, and another, and that through all of them, we will find a way to hold on to each other.