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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 14

Mom asked me to drive her to Dr. Callahan’s office the Friday morning before Easter for an appointment. I was happy to because I got to sleep in late and skip morning classes without penalty. We hadn’t seen dad all week, so I stopped next door to borrow Mr. Johnson’s car, my father’s location presently unknown.

I felt like a grownup chauffeuring her but was a little nervous driving an unfamiliar vehicle, navigating the city streets well below the speed limit, skittish as a cat while I listened to her directions. She thanked me for taking her, quickly mentioning this was for a “woman thing” so I didn’t ask any questions, glad to be talking about anything but the reason for her visit.

She displayed the first smile of the day when I shared with her that I really liked Liz as we rode the rickety elevator to the third floor office, the elderly operator sitting on a wooden stool staring at the numbers as we climbed. What a boring job. Mom made me promise I would take Liz to Homecoming Prom next fall as we stepped off the elevator, pausing in front of the frosted glass door of the doctor’s office, smiling as she continued with the happy memory.

"I had the most fun at our prom back in high school. My date loved to dance so we spent most of the evening on the floor, the spotlight fixed on us while we danced. Later that evening I led everyone in a…” She paused, smiling with tears in her eyes, not finishing the sentence. “That night was one of my best memories…ever” She sighed.

The way the story lit up her face made me reach over for a hug before we opened the door. She smiled and then checked in at the desk, sitting on the chair next to me, staring out the far window while I read an assignment for English class.

Mom leaned over and kissed me on the temple when she was called, glancing back before she followed the nurse into an examination room. It was clear by the look in her eyes that she was nervous. I watched her walk down the hall like a condemned prisoner, suddenly anxious about what the doctor might have to say. I hoped it was good news.

Her face was empty when she returned, quietly riding the elevator at my side, staring at her purse as I drove home, obviously too distraught to share the doctor’s prognosis. I was too scared to ask. I dropped her off at our garage and parked the car next door in Mr. Johnson’s garage, knocking on his back door to return the keys, thanking him for the generosity. I forced a smile before I walked away. We both knew something was wrong with mom.

When I got back she was already in the bedroom, her door sitting ajar. I paused just outside, peeking through the crack, uncertain whether to go in. Mom’s back was to me so I knocked softly, her shoulders shuddering in a steady rhythm. I approached her bed with trepidation, crawling on top of the covers to lay down beside her, awkwardly putting an arm around her as she quietly sobbed. She interlaced her fingers in mine and pulled it tightly around her waist like she would a comforter, the tremors gradually fading until she fell asleep, her soft breaths reminding me of Alice.

Steve, Mike and I were undefeated the first three weekends in April, the lingering cold, and sloppy cinder tracks producing times of little note. Each week we traded events, alternating in the 880, mile, and two-mile, the three of us running legs on every victorious mile relay. I showed Alice the medals after each race and then hid them in my closet, afraid dad would toss them in the garbage if I stuck them on her bulletin board.

Despite the thrills of the early meets, it was the Columbus Invitational on April 25th that we looked forward to, praying the running gods would provide the good weather needed for fast times. I was dying to show the rest of the state what I could do. We followed results in the Cedar Rapids and Des Moines newspapers but didn’t have a clue how we would stack up against eastern Iowa’s best. There was always someone who could surprise us.

Steve and I stood beside each other behind the chalked line, the stadium lights above creating eerie shadows on the track, some of the best runners in the state stretched out on either side of us. I hated these moments, the discomfort of what was ahead hanging over my head like a trip to the dentist. Last Monday we turned in a great workout, each of the eight 440’s under sixty-five, with our last one in 63.2. After the cool down that day Raff said a sub 9:20 was in the bag in Waterloo.

Waiting for the starter to reload his pistol I didn’t feel the same confidence I had four days ago. I was unusually nervous. Fortunately our strategy was simple. Run seventy second laps until there was no one remaining.

Finally the starter blew his whistle and twelve runners leaned forward, waiting for the blast from the pistol. Steve and I sprinted to the front of the field, commanding the position of the alpha males. We traded turns in the lead, none of the others willing to make a challenge to the brisk tempo. The field diminished from ten and then to six as we passed the halfway point at 4:41. Wow. We're flying. The thought a second mile at this pace began to unnerve me.

On the fifth lap we lost another opponent and with two laps remaining were down to a group of four, only Schmidt of Jefferson and McGovern of Assumption gamely following our lead. During our warmup Steve and I agreed on what we were going to do with half a mile remaining.

Over thousands of years it takes 725,000 pounds of pressure per square inch to turn coal into a diamond. A relentless imposition. In the two-mile it takes less than three minutes to accomplish something just as valuable to us - stealing our opponent's courage. It's done by pivoting from seventy second laps to sixty-seven second laps, the demands turning a decent runner into a broken athlete.

Today the strategy produced a 1-2 finish and times that were the #2 and #3 in the state – 9:12.4 and 9:16.1.

Steve and I were euphoric when we heard the times from Raff, embracing each other and finishing with a pat on the back, shaking hands with McGovern and Schmidt after they raced each other across the line. We ran our cool down in the quiet of the street-lit neighborhoods, dreaming about future races, planning our double date for tomorrow night.

The 1975 State Track & Field Meet was a repeat of my cross country finish, only this time Mark Johnson had to come from behind to beat me. Inspired by Steve Prefontaine and his motto, “Somebody may beat me today but they are going to have to bleed to do it” I made my move with 660 yards left in the two mile race and opened a fifty yard gap on my rival, thoughts of the surprise making me hopeful I would win.

Unfortunately, the effort was too aggressive and too early, my bold gamble eventually sputtering like a dying 4th of July sparkler. Johnson flew by with seventy-five yards of real estate remaining, the final straight as painful as dad’s kick to my ribs. I crossed the line lost in a fog – spots dancing across my vision the last few steps. I came to a stop five feet past the white stripe and collapsed to the track like a puppet whose strings had been cut, crushed by the defeat.

Nothing registered in my brain but the defeat.

Ten minutes later I stood on the award platform with the silver medal hanging from a ribbon, using fingers as a comb to control my windblown hair, smiling as the official photographer took pictures of the top six. Though I ran a 9:06.3 and gave Johnson a run for the money, the loss was a bitter pill to swallow when I had hoped for more. But I knew I wouldn’t look back and say I played it too conservatively, lacked the courage, or wasn’t tough enough. I hoped it would send a message to other future contenders that I had the toughness of Steve Prefontaine.

Mom was so happy that afternoon when I showed her the medal, that she arranged an impromptu Memorial Day picnic with Mr. Johnson’s help, the second place medallion around my neck as the three of us posed for a picture in the back yard, my arms over mom and Alice’s shoulders when we smiled at the camera.

We sat and talked at the picnic table after the meal, roasting marshmallows over the coals, making s’mores until we were full of the gooey dessert, holding onto the special moment we shared. In the soft glow of the embers it was the first time I noticed how much Alice and mom looked alike when they smiled.

On May 30th I read that Steve Prefontaine died in a single car crash in Eugene, the inspiration he provided over the last two years suddenly dampened. His death haunted me for days. It wasn’t the only bad news that week.

Monday afternoon when Liz picked me up to swim at the reservoir, she commented on how thin mom looked, wondering if something was wrong, if she had been sick. The past three weeks I had been so focused on running that I hadn’t noticed her frame was too fragile, the collar bones too prominent, her cheeks too hollow. After Liz’s query, it was hard to enjoy the excursion, thoughts running to another stay in the hospital – and maybe more surgery. I needed to know more. Mom hadn’t said anything to Alice or me and I didn't have the courage to ask.

I called Dr. Callahan’s office Tuesday morning to set up an appointment. We needed to talk. Late that afternoon we faced each other in an empty examination room, crushed when I learned that mom had ovarian cancer. After he said those two words the rest of his speech didn’t register, the nomenclature he used not part of my vocabulary. My medical experience was limited to broken bones and stitches, not terminology like hysterectomy, metastasis, or carcinoma.

When he finished Dr. Callahan leaned forward to put a hand on my shoulder for his final words.

“Matt, I hate to tell you this…but your mother only has weeks left. A month at the most. The cancer is everywhere.”

He pursed his lips and looked down at the floor. I stood and thanked him, walking down the sidewalk in a daze until I found myself on a bench along the river, mesmerized by the flowing water, trying to come to terms with this new reality, tears sliding down my cheeks in a steady stream. This can’t be true. How would I ever explain this to Ashley and Alice?

Later that evening I called Ashley in Des Moines while mom was asleep, begging my sister to come to home, explaining to her of the hospital visit last August, the doctor’s appointment in April, and mom’s recent weight loss, reluctantly holding onto the worst news until she arrived in Iowa City. I needed to tell her in person.

Ashley was shocked at mom’s transformation when she came home, tenderly hugging her in the kitchen when she arrived, eyes filled with tears as they held the embrace for a long time.

The next day the four of us used Mr. Johnson’s car to drive out to Lake Macbride after lunch, letting mom relax in a lounge chair in the shade of giant oaks while Ashley, Alice, and I took turns doing acrobatics off the mini-trampoline into the water. Mom laughed at our spectacular failures, enjoying the scene with a tired smile, all of us so engrossed in each other that we failed to notice that she had fallen asleep.

On the way home we stopped at the Dairy Sweet in Solon, each of us stealing glances as she slept with her head against a bunched up beach towel. We all prayed that a miracle would occur and mom would survive this health scare.

She died two weeks later - one day after her 38th birthday.

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