I had dinner with a good friend of mine last night. We went to my favorite restaurant, downtown, where everyone knows me and our conversation was peppered with people walking by and saying hello, catching up briefly. Smiling, laughing, eating good food and telling good stories. I stopped by my favorite bar right after to say hello, and it was more hugs and hellos; genuine but quick check-ins, as I had to get home and get some rest – “I’m running a race in the morning.” I turned around to leave, and saw a dinner table full of even more of my favorite people, who I’d be running that race with the next day. More hellos, more hugs, more laughing. I went downstairs – more friends. In a one-block radius of downtown during a span of a few hours, I ran into upwards of 20 good people, good friends, humans I feel lucky to know.
Before I knew it, it was 1:00 in the morning, and I was still downstairs, sipping on a glass of water, still murmuring about needing to leave, needing to rest, that I had that race. It was “just” a 5K – which I used to be able to pound out no problem, and some people can do without breaking a sweat, which must be nice and thank you for sharing. But I stayed at the bar, and I kept drinking water, and then things got really quiet. I was sitting at a table with a handful of people who I love to be around, but I could not stop thinking about that race.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the race, and I could not understand why I felt so alone in the downstairs of my favorite bar, on a night when I was so surrounded by people who are important to me, who love me well, but I couldn’t feel that. All I could feel was that I was missing my most important person. I didn’t feel surrounded. I knew that I was, in my head, but I could not access that. I looked -- stared -- at their faces, and I hoped I was making the face for “good listener” instead of “terrified”; but there came a point where I could not hear a damn word that any of them were saying because all I could hear was how silent my mind had gone. It was deafening. “I have to run a race in a few hours,” I kept repeating to myself.
“I have to run a race.”
The last time I ran a race, it was a half marathon that I ran a few months after Maggie’s murder. Most of you know about sweet Mags, but if you don’t, all you really need to know is that she was my person and she was every bit of magic to the square inch that God has ever packed into a human being.
That half marathon was the second worst day of my life. I didn’t want to run it. Not because I don’t like running, but because running without Maggie is painful for me. Maggie is who taught me to love running, how to find peace from shoes hitting pavement. She ran for the same reason I write – to center herself, to clear her mind, to find out what she really thought and wanted. The first time she took me on a run, she did this really nice thing where she let us walk the whole time. I knew this drove her crazy, but you’d never be able to tell. She also came to spin classes with me even though I knew she hated things that were not running. (She got extra jewels on her crown in heaven for all of this, I am sure.)
So, since she walked for me, I decided to run for her. It was not pretty, and I whined a lot. We’d go to this one trail in Boone called The Greenway, and man, I hated it. She ran without music, which sort of led me to believe that she was a witch. But the good kind, like in The Wizard of Oz.
She could literally run circles around me, but she stayed with me and helped me learn my pace and stride. The girl was a marathon runner, but she always made me feel like we were equal. When I could do the trail without walking, I was so slow, but she still stayed. I never understood at first why she did that; I told her to go on without me, that I’d turn around with her on her way back, that I knew I was driving her crazy, that I knew she was dying to run fast. “Manda, NO!” she’d always yell, in her loud voice. “It doesn’t matter how fast you go just as long as you keep going.”
So I kept running with her. We bought real running shoes instead of cute Nikes. Mine were bright blue. She’d knock on the door of my apartment after we got home from class, and I’d lace up the blue shoes. And we’d run. And I loved it. I loved that she made me feel like I could do anything in life; even things I didn’t think I could ever do. She made me feel like a great runner. She used to sing to me on the trail. She was tone deaf, so it was so bad, but I loved it. And I’d sing with her. Dumb things, like pop songs, but we’d sing at the top of our lungs, and we’d run. Even when I moved to South Carolina and we spent an unbearable six months living in different cities, she’d call me from Hickory and tell me to go for a run and I’d lace up my blue shoes. I’d run my neighborhood, and she ran around her whole dang down. When I hit a hill or wanted to stop, I’d just go slow, and I’d sing one of our dumb running songs.
After she was gone, after she died, I remember lying in bed for the first time and just feeling…silence. And knowing that from now on, for the rest of my life, that the songs were just gonna be me now. That I wouldn’t have her right beside me anymore, whether we were running or driving around, or laying in my bed talking until 2:00 in the morning. She was gone, her voice was gone, the way it used to soothe me, it was all gone. And all I had was silence.
I tanked hard. I refused to make friends with anyone for a solid year and a half. I stopped running. I went to a lot of therapy, but the loss was as real as the day I found out every session, just as raw as the months went by. I stopped a lot of things. I was very depressed, and felt very alone. If you were in my life for this season, you are an angel for holding something so broken, so well.
A few months later I found a video of her singing. “Just Give Me A Reason” by Pink. This was one of the songs in music trivia last week. I ended up winning.
Mags ran a half marathon every year in Hickory called the Charity Chase. I signed up for it, but I didn’t train. At all. The race was a little less than a year after she died, and though I didn’t feel like a runner anymore, I am nothing if not a natural shower-upper. I carbo-loaded at Olive Garden with the others who were running, and sweet Rachael, one of Maggie’s former students, talked me back into actually running the race. Mind you, one does not usually run a half marathon on a whim, but hello, it’s me.
Again, second worst day of my life. I’d lost my strength and endurance, I couldn’t get a good pace, and by Mile 10, my feet were bleeding through my blue shoes. I got in the back of a police car and demanded to be taken back to the expo plaza.
“Ma’am, we are not a transport vehicle,” the officer said, confused.
“Okay, well, I will sit until you call one,” I said back.
They gave me a medal anyway, even though I did not finish. They knew what had happened, who I was, who Maggie was. Everyone in the group waited on me at the finish line; I was so embarrassed, and swore that I was done running forever.
But I ran a 5K this morning.
And for the last couple of months, I’ve been running on treadmills next to people who have become fast friends, and even family. Today, I ran a race among a huge pack of strangers, some in tutus. We were all in white t-shirts, all covered in color powder. I found some of those people I’ve been running next to on those treadmills, and one of them stopped to introduce herself to me personally, Jennifer, and encouraged me to keep going. I swear to you, some of Maggie’s spirit was in that woman, and so I kept running. Even though it was slow, I just kept running.
I sobbed the entire way home. No one could tell, because of all the sweat and color powder.
The people I run with on those treadmills sing with me. They sing with me while I run. Abby and Zoe and Jenn, especially, and goodness we are going to get kicked out of class for that one day, but I don’t care. Because people run beside me and sing with me again. And even though it’s not Maggie anymore, and it’ll never be Maggie again, I can feel her when my feet are pounding on that treadmill belt. I can hear her singing voice when someone is rapping Nicki Minaj right beside me.
I can feel her again. Not all the time. It comes and goes, and when it goes, I feel so lost and it is so hard there. The loss of her, the hole she left is still so real and so painful, and I worry that it will always be. But when I’m running, and when we’re all singing, I can feel her again.
This is the greatest gift to me. It’s not Maggie beside me on that Orangetheory treadmill, but even though she’s gone, she is still up there in Heaven finding ways to tell me to keep going, even if it’s slow and even if it’s hard and even when I want to stop. In running, in life, in all of it.
I can feel her again.
I ran a 5K this morning, and when I closed my eyes, I swear to you, it was like she was right beside me.
And it’s because she was.