By Terri Scadron
This award winning essay first appeared in Bethesda Magazine during the 2012 Bethesda Literary Festival.
We charged up the Davenport hill, me with my head down because I couldn’t bear to see the long stretch of pavement still remaining before the crest. Arms pumping, breathing in short spurts, I wanted nothing more than to stop and collapse over my knees. But Michael was right behind me, singing stupid Army songs. For him, this was barely a jog. He probably hadn’t even broken a sweat. I couldn’t outrun him and I’d never live it down if I stopped. Army songs it was, at least until we hit Beach Drive and he sprinted past me.
Those days, I wondered what he saw in me. For god knows how long, I had been more drawn to bars than the outdoors, spending more than a few smoke-filled happy hours making fun of people swept up with the running craze. What was the point? But Michael seemed oblivious to all that, when he asked me out for Thai food and then, would I please come to his carbo-loading party for an upcoming 10K. As the months passed, the girl who cut gym class to sneak Marlboros in the parking lot began to fade away.
It was a world I’d never known, running predawn with Michael, our footprints forming a steady line in the new snow. Tasting salt from sweat on his forehead, after a hard effort under the July sun. Shrieking like a teenaged Beatles fan when Michael won his age group at a 5K on Hain’s Point.
Things changed the day Michael’s legs buckled during a routine training run. Within six months, he went from cane, to walker, to wheelchair. A neuropathy of unknown origin, idiopathic, the doctors said. “Meaning the doctors are idiots,” said Michael. Instead of running down Beach Drive, we took measured steps down the hallway of our apartment building, him holding tight to his walker, me gripping his safety belt to ease his fall if he went down. I moved my running shoes to the back of our closet, out of eyesight.
One morning, Michael noticed that I had no sweaty running clothes in the hamper. “That doesn’t matter,” I said. “Yes, it does. It matters to me.” He wouldn’t take no for an answer. When I was sure he meant it, I slowly laced my shoes, saying nothing until I could trust myself to speak without my eyes welling over with tears. As I headed out the door, he called after me, “And don’t even think of walking when you hit the Davenport hill.”
Now, when I enter the final stretch of my tenth marathon, I don’t hear the crowds lining the street, I don’t see the balloons soaring over the finish line. I see only Michael, leaning against a telephone pole for balance, smiling broadly and waving. And in the gasp of a moment, my legs are transformed from leaden blocks to pure air, unconnected to my spent body, carrying me to him with each stride.