Eight months ago, my life was busted open, not by COVID, but by grief. One of the most important people in my life died that month of cancer; it had spread from her breast to her lungs and then to her brain. I flew between Michigan and Oregon four times in three weeks; I must have been a terrible teacher during that time; I didn’t write or read; I barely slept. Inexplicably, the only thing I could eat was Mama Leone’s chicken soup from a restaurant called Elephant’s Deli in Portland. The catch was I was only in Oregon half the week.
Someone once told me to say the hard part first. So there it is.
I don’t remember what I did in those first months after she died besides manage. My friends Sarita and Luisa called me every day for a long time, then every week after that. I still did not read or write, but I did pray the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. And then, when COVID started, I began to run.
I had been a runner years before. Nearly twenty years before, when I was in college, I had run a couple of marathons, mostly as a way to prove to myself—someone who had never been particularly fast or fit—that I could do difficult things. Three friends and I would get up, very early in the morning, and we would make five then ten then eighteen mile loops out in the country. We’d run by densely-packed farm fields and a monastery, sometimes up a bluff on the edge of town. The long runs were painful, but a good pain, a pain that felt like it was getting us somewhere.
Sometime in March, I remembered that feeling. I started with an easy jog through my neighborhood, looping down city streets, past rows of historic houses, and still-barren oak and maple trees. Eventually, I began to run out in the country again, over wooden bridges, past horse farms, down dusty lanes. Sometimes I listened to music, but mostly I just moved, outside, through all that open air, the perpetual late-winter then spring light all around me.
A couple weeks into my COVID running, I tripped over someone’s dog, and ended up with a hand covered in blood, a small break. When I returned after six weeks to have my hand checked, the young doctor who was seeing me told me the large red scar that had formed across my palm would be permanent, though it might fade some, in time. More than anything anyone had said during the past eight months, this felt right.
What do we do—I think about sometimes as I run—with individual and collective grief? With trauma?
I gave a reading with a colleague and friend on campus, less than one month before things would begin shutting down for COVID. We both had new books coming out. I originally planned to read from that, but at the last minute, found myself reading an essay I’d written about cancer. I could tell a few of my colleagues thought the piece was perhaps too dark, too soon, but after the reading, one of my students came up to tell me her father had died a few months before, and she’d told no one. Then another student emailed me, and another one stopped by my office. At some point in our conversations, each of these students asked me the same thing: how to get through a hard time. I can’t remember what I said then, but if I could go back, I would tell those students how I sometimes light candles on Saturday nights, how I sometimes pray, how I often talk to my friends, and mostly, how I find myself running. For now, this is both okay and enough.