In just a matter of days, I will join my cousin Tina and her friend Nora to run in the St. Luke’s Half Marathon in Allentown, PA.
I have only run one half marathon in my life. I finished the Harrisburg Half in 2002 with Kass at my side. We wore matching outfits and the same necklace as we ran that day. Along the route, we talked, we laughed, and we enjoyed every step. In fact, as the race photographer went to take this picture our natural inclination was to reach for each other in this embrace as we ran. This image I will treasure always.
Kass was mentally-tough and a much better runner than me. She motivated me more than I could ever have done for her. I remember as we approached the finish line together that day, she slowed down, reached back, and pushed me across that line first with a big smile on her face. Since I had gotten her into it, she knew that doing that race was my dream, and she wanted me to savor it. I will never forget that moment as long as I live. Our parents were there, too, to cheer us on at the finish line.
We did the Marine Corps Marathon the next year with my brother Tim, and although we did not race together that day (she was so much faster than me), she was the first one I saw as I crossed the finish line. Big smiles abounded! We were both so happy to have finished and just thrilled to check this off of our bucket list. Our parents were there for that finish line, too. Just as they have always been. We celebrated that night during dinner in DC. The sore legs, the tired muscles, the aching body could not dim the light that was shining from within us. We had accomplished something amazing. Together.
After all that has happened in the past 20 months, I would never have anticipated running more than a 10K again. It just seems too hard, too sad, too daunting. Whenever I run, I think back to all of these races I ran with Kass. In fact, the last race we ran together was on Thanksgiving Day in 2010. We ran the Run for the Diamonds, a grueling 9-mile course in Berwick. Looking back, I could never have known it would have been our last run together.
My running since Kass became sick has all been in honor of her fight. My friend Kate and I ran the LIVESTRONG 10K in Philly in August 2011. Then, I ran with other girlfriends in the National Race to End Women’s Cancer in DC in November 2011. And just this past January, three of my girlfriends from high school – Amy, Kelley and Christine – signed on to run a 5K every month during 2013 in loving memory of Kass. We call this undertaking Friends Running for Hope. With four runs already completed, we continue to run each month for Kass. While we run, we carry Kass’s picture on our backs and her determination and grace in our hearts.
But it was my cousin Tina, with whom I reconnected after losing Kass, who encouraged me to do the St. Luke’s Half Marathon. We had started working out together in January. A few weeks later, she called me and told me about this race. Tina is a nurse at the Susquehanna Health System and another nurse in her unit, Nora, had been inspired by Kass’s story and now they both wanted to run for Kass. How awesome is that? How could I possibly say no? I was reluctant at first – this distance is still intimidating to me – but I registered a week later. I am so thankful that they encouraged me to do this. I know they will help to see me through. My body is in no way ready for this run. But, my heart is fully engaged.
Losing my sister has been the most difficult experience of my life. She was not only my sister, she was my best friend. My rock. My soul sister. A part of me. And, a piece of me that is now gone forever. The hole is my heart is huge.
In fact, I have come to understand that only those who have looked through this side of sadness and loss can truly understand the challenge of what lies ahead: How do I continue? Where do I go from here? What can I do? How will I make it without her?
Just a few months back, instead of focusing on how I felt, I began to think about how the world must have looked through Kass’s eyes over that year she fought. If I was looking from there, what would I see?
It was through this experience that I found the courage to run again.
I know that early in her fight, I would have seen this gutsy determination, this tremendous courage, and this willful strength to beat this disease. And fight, she did. She fought for her little girl, she fought for her family, and she fought for her life. It was unlike anything I have ever witnessed.
But, I believe in her final months, if I had looked, I would have seen an overwhelming sense of love, acceptance, gratitude, and peace. There was no bitterness, there was no “why me?” There was only profound acceptance, layered in a soft mist of faith, hope, and love. With this knowledge, I ask myself: how can I see what she saw and ever give up?
So this Sunday, when I am weary and tired, I will just keep going. Just like all of those who have ever experienced the pain of losing someone they love. We know loss and we know love and we understand the impossible task of trying to make any sense of these two contrasting emotions. Yet, somehow we just keep moving forward.
We do this to honor and remember those we love. We do this in appreciation of all of those roads we have walked that have not been so kind to us. We do this to remind ourselves of the healing power of pushing ourselves to our limits. We do this for others who cannot. We do this because we can. And, we will.
I have learned that we only get one chance at this life and in a moment, it can all be taken away. Just hearing the daily news reminds us that this is true. Watching the events unfold at the Boston Marathon last week was difficult and sad, as I have been both a spectator and a participant in this type of event. Amidst the celebration and accomplishment, there is tragedy. So senseless, so unfair.
Yet, every day when we wake up we are given a new chance to forgive, to dream, to hope, and to love. So as long as I am able, I will continue to shine a light on Kass’s life and will attempt to live my life from that same tender lens that she looked through as she prepared to say goodbye.
As I read during Kass’s funeral mass, one of her favorite sayings from Helen Keller was “Keep your face to the sun, for you will not see the shadows there….” I know that Kass’s amazing grace and awesome courage will be with me on Sunday. And as I cross that finish line, I will look toward the sun and I already know that she will be there, helping me across that line just as she did that day in Harrisburg all those years ago.
For you, Kass…I shall run. Here we go!