I run not just to soothe my golden retriever soul, not just to chase down whatever conceptual or emotional problem scrambles my brain, not just to fall in sync with that carefully selected song or simply to fade away and find myself three, four miles into a run. Yes, of course I run for these reasons, but I also run to cope. It’s my processing plant, where emotion evolves into a thought and a thought into realization and realization into truth. I run because I’ve always run, even when running was more emotional than physical, except now I run not away but towards, through whatever hides in that abyss and out the other side, reflective, at ease. Unwound. I run for the same reason I delay sleep until deep into the night: quite simply I fear the act of standing still.
When mourning, everything stands still. Life stops- how could it not, for at least a little while, to regroup, take inventory before beginning again. Most use this freeze frame to surround themselves with friends, family, and food, sit Shiva- perhaps a solution for me had I known I was Jewish at the time of the funeral, but again, a story for another time- while others in Eastern religions don’t shave for 40 days. So many genuine yet ultimately empty words of consolation, hugs and handshakes, photos and shared memories. Some seek comfort, smell her favorite blanket or sit in a closet full of her clothes, and grasp any reminder that she’s still there, somewhere, this a misunderstanding, or a throwback childhood game. Light a cigarette or drink whiskey, swallow a Valium and fade away, eat a pizza and name it sorrow, tell jokes to ease the mood or fold oneself into the fabric of the couch and let the television rape your reality. Everything, anything, to steel your broken core.
Instead I just watched, never still, neither numb nor drugged. Hugged when approached, shook when shaken, lifted when hand grasped sanded wood, pointed to the empty patch of soil and nodded when asked if that was it, the place where finality lives.
I hovered over the scene, nodded in recognition as one step of grief led to the next. Stared in the mirror and pinched my skin. Aware. Engaged. Sturdy.
I empathized. I clenched my jaw and ground my teeth and held eye contact as my father malfunctioned, as layers of hidden history unraveled at the table each night. I nodded, I swapped the ‘son’ tag for the one that read ‘adult,’ I listened and responded as ‘man’ and not ‘boy. I filtered the unfiltered and pocketed the substance for another day.
Driving streets once familiar, pizza parlors now fast food chains, supermarkets now dollar stores, a motel doubling as a meth lab and the bowling alley boarded up and even the graffiti’s uninspired, a joke two decades past its prime.
Said goodbye to a mother and buried a childhood. Because in memory time stands still and when you’re not nearby nothing ages and everything stays the same. Except you.
And then I’m back and we’ve moved to Boulder and I’m running six miles a day, through the Boulder canyon, past the foaming creek, lost in song. One leg kicking out in front of the other, heel on gravel, arms pulling me forward, a breeze at my back. The sun hiding behind the mountain, one white cloud overhead, climbers scaling the base of a rock, a dog chasing a squirrel. The right song, one I’ll never share with another, and the rhythms mesh together and then she’s there, her voice slipping through the lyrics, that motherly comfort coating me, and that goddamn song on target with the lilts and the syncopated drumbeats, the guitar’s vibrato as metallic as the taste of tears in the back of my throat. Run faster and remind yourself she’s gone, picture the last time you saw her, rubberized and confined, her hair not quite how she’d like it, her makeup too heavy. Running faster now, tears keeping pace, rolling the word “dead” between tooth and tongue.
Stop. Over there. Standing next to a rock. Grazing on grass. A bull elk, alone. I stand. Watch. My breathing heavy, I wait. The sun’s overhead now. The massive rocks glow orange. The animal looks up, stares back. She’s five feet away, too close and yet I can’t move. Soft hum of the song. Sweat cold on my skin. We stand like this, the two of us. I pull out my phone and snap a photo. She eats again. I nod. The song fades into the next. I wipe at my cheeks with the side of my hand.
And then I run.