There is one story I’ve been burning to tell through this experience and no matter how many times I sit down to write it—I end up backspacing and deleting and eventually moving on to the next topic because I just can’t seem to convey how one person made such a huge difference in my life. With just hours to go before my streak ends, here is my very humble eleventh hour attempt.
I remember the exact moment I decided I wanted to run a marathon. It was before I even knew what a marathon really was, how long of a distance, and how deep you really had to dig to get through the endless training and then the race itself. It was before I knew anything about IT band pain, Gu, finisher’s medals and even that holy grail, Boston—I knew I wanted to someday be there with a bib number to toe the line.
It was my senior year of high school and I was sitting in Mr. Ryan’s AP Government class and I nearly had whiplash from whipping my neck 180 degrees behind me. In the back of the class a student had just announced he ran the LA marathon. Or rather, after provocation from our teacher (who we affectionately nick-named Rocky) Joe Olson was talking about the marathon, the conditions, his time…
All of those numeric details were lost to me. I had no real frame of reference anyway for how long it should take to run 26.2 miles. All I know was here was Joe Olson, a kid I had known since the third grade describing how he had just accomplished a major athletic endeavor. I thought, Joe? Joe Olson had just done a marathon? What?
Like I said, I had known Joe since Mrs. Dunn’s third grade class at St. Michael’s school. Our class was small, but I mostly got to know Joe through his plastic-framed glasses with lenses you could measure from the side with our crude wooden rulers. In gym class I could count on Joe as being one of the fellow inhabitants of the lonely side of the gym opposite of where the “athletic” kids were quickly drafted for games of capture the flag. In that soul-crushing early humility-teaching way we were the last ones standing. Through the ubiquitous system of elementary school segregation of boys and girls—Joe and I barely made verbal or physical contact. But I felt through all that mental anguish—pick me, pick me—the two of us were somehow intertwined.
Over the years Joe had grown up—or more accurately, shot up in that bionic way of adolescent boys. He got new frames for his glasses and maybe a new pair of Levis. But it wasn’t the kind of transformation that is the stuff of an 80’s movie montage. Joe wasn’t suddenly donning a letterman jacket and showing up to prom in a Porsche. Rather, he grew a beard, joined the cross country team and continued being the nice and bitingly funny person he had been since the third grade. While I and many others struggled with who we were and who we wanted to be—Joe simply become more Joe. It was beautiful to see.
But here was Joe, my Joe, from my side of the gym explaining to the class how he had just finished a marathon. “What!?” I remember saying out loud. While Joe had been running Cross Country—I still considered him someone similar to me—an un-athlete. Someone who ran from a game of pick up basketball rather than run down the court. Now it had all changed. Joe had left me and become one of them: one of those wretched people who played with bats, balls and sticks and ran because they enjoyed it.
But wait! If Joe, my Joe could turn his lumbering gait into something smooth and strong so that he could finish a marathon—maybe, just maybe I could too. Maybe there was room over on the other side of the gym for us all… my mind whirred with a spastic energy. I think they call it inspiration. I want to do a marathon I thought to myself as I opened up my textbook and plunged into checks and balances and the three branches of government. That was it—a goal was born.
A few weeks later I was at home preparing for another graduation party. For me, high school was over and all I had to do now was pick up my diploma on the stage the next day. And then it was on to college and jobs and big and scary adult situations I couldn’t wait to throw myself into. I don’t remember how I got the news—I think it was my friend Katie who called. Two years ago she had reluctantly played Shiva the harbinger of doom—to tell me four of our friends were killed in a car accident. Once more before exiting high school she revived the role. Joe had gone cliff diving with some friends out on Lake Superior. I think he was the first to dive in. Head first. The water was too shallow. His neck was crushed in the impact. He was paralyzed.
Paralyzed. The word’s syllables sat on my lips in a strange way. As a class we had already dealt with the realities of death. We lost four good, happy boys and were told (or made to believe) their deaths were instantaneous. But here was Joe—tall, funny and recently athletic Joe was paralyzed. A small, evil voice in my head wondered who was worse off—the four classmates or Joe.
Days later after all of us had walked across the stage to pick up our diplomas I went to see Joe, who we were told would never walk again. My boyfriend at the time (who I also had known since our days at St. Mike’s) said he had heard Joe’s mom was also in the hospital on tranquilizers she was so upset. It sounded unbelievable—we both remembered her soft voice and gentle way she handed out cookies and cups of kool-aid after our Christmas concert and who chaperoned our field trips in such a calm and mothering way. It seemed nothing could upset her. Our childhood illusions of invincibility were quickly shattering before us.
I thought visiting Joe was going to be terrible. I had never feared hospitals, but I had never been to one where my friend was sick. And words like “Get Better Soon” seemed as inappropriate as “Congratulations on your Bar Mitzvah!”
But when I saw Joe—I knew that everything was going to be alright. He was sitting with his head propped up on a pillow, a glass of 7Up in a Styrofoam cup in front of him. He greeted us both like we had just dropped by his house to hang out in his basement and listen to music. “What’s up guys?”
We talked for awhile. And everything seemed strangely…normal. I started to forget about everything until Joe got hungry and I realized his hands hadn’t moved the entire time we were there. Another Styrofoam cup, this time filled with Cheerios arrived and Joe stared at it.
A beat went by and I said, “I’ll help you Joe.” I awkwardly picked up the cup (here I was the one with full control of my body, but ashamedly uncoordinated) and began picking out two or three round Os and lifting them to Joe’s mouth. “You’ve never done this before—have you?” Joe laughed at my bumbling fingers and how I couldn’t quite figure out how to get the Os in his mouth without spilling them down his hospital gown. “C’mon you’re going to have to get good at this.” Then he gave me a look that bordered on flirtatious. My boyfriend was not more than five feet away and Joe opened his mouth another mouthful—obviously enjoying the attention. He might have been paralyzed, but his balls were certainly still intact. I blushed as I fished for another O. Joe’s life had turned on an instant and in one of the most dramatic ways possible. But he was still Joe and it was still something beautiful to behold.
After that summer I went to college, and by Christmas I was also in a wheelchair (although very temporarily). My arthritis came on suddenly and soon every joint in my body seemed to be burning in pain. The morning I saw Dr. Hadley—my rheumatologist in Duluth—my mother had to dress me and all I could think about was that cup of Cheerios. I remembered how Joe had taken mouthfuls of food from my fingers without a shred of self-pity. Thinking of Joe helped me be brave and to keep it all in perspective.
In the weeks and months that went by when my arthritis was at its worst, I kept going back to Joe for inspiration. Joe hadn’t let his condition slow him down. He was continuing on to college, moving hours away from his family and being just as independent (if not more so) than most young adults. I was more than determined to do the same—giving up on any of my goals wasn’t an option.
One day I was laying down with my knees swollen like two overripe cantaloupes in front of me and I made a promise to myself that if I ever was able to run again I wouldn’t waste my life avoiding or despising it. I finally realized how precious our ability to run truly is and when I got that ability back I would make the most of it. Just like Joe.
So here I am tonight. On the eve of another marathon and about to realize what’s been a major goal for me—running every day this year. And I can truly say that this year I did make the most of what my body can do and that is also a beautiful thing.