Wednesday, February 11, 2015

On Turning 39

I once thought they were ancient, those football players of the 70’s.  And as a kid I got to know them well.  With two brothers and no sisters, NFL films would regularly trump “Little House on the Prairie.” But I honestly can’t say that I minded.  I was mesmerized by the skill of those old men who seemed to do the impossible at their age.   They were past their prime, but they ran the plays of the highlight reels with style and skill.  It was a pre-HDTV era when the footage was grainy and the camera angles less than impressive.  Through it all, the unmistakable voice of the NFL narrator was our guide.  Deep and dramatic, he spoke of the grit and the gall spilled out on snow-covered fields in sub-freezing temperatures.  With helmets removed, sideline footage revealed even more of these men—their bulging necks, thick beards and poofy afros.  Yes, without a doubt, these men were strong men.  These were tough men.  And these were old men.

I’m not sure when it occurred or exactly how it all transpired, but professional athletes aren't so old anymore.  Perhaps it began when watching college football in my late 20’s and realizing I had more years on me than any guy on the roster.  It really hit me two years ago when I sat in Fenway watching that season's World Series champs sweep the New York Yankees.  The scruffy bearded Red Sox may have given the appearance that they had some years on them, but I knew the truth:  I was older than every guy on the field that night, with only one exception—Big Papi who had me beat by a mere two months and a day.

Maybe it began when the medical school students at work began to “ma’am” me.  And then the Beauty Advisors started shuttling me to the anti-aging aisle the moment I set foot in their Sephora door.  My mailman began delivering letters addressed to “Ms. Julie Blakey,” not “Miss”…and this continues to catch me off guard because I know “Miss Julie” quite well.  “Ms. Julie?”…not so much.  And so it’s always a sweet pick-me-up when my age becomes the talk of the 2nd grade Sunday School table.  They tend to under-guess and I am always overjoyed.  Shocked, they say, “That’s my mom’s age!” and then follow it up with an, “I thought you were like…22, Miss Julie!”  I love their perspective.

I had a birthday several weeks ago – 39, which seemed benign and uneventful.  But when I realized I had ended my 39th year and begun my 40th, I wanted to run for the hills.  Talking myself off the ledge, I remembered that everyone is doing this aging thing.  So it’s no surprise that I’m caught up in it, too.  I've even heard it said that birthdays are good for you:  the more you have, the longer you live.

So maybe it’s not the actual aging that arrests me.  No, what’s most alarming is that I’m doing it in a way that I never thought I would.  Outside of graduating from college and securing a job, all the other adult rites of passage for your average girl have been decidedly off-schedule for me.  Instead of arriving right on time with things like marriage and motherhood, I've been unintentionally off-schedule for oh, let’s see…the last 15 years or so.  Yes, if tardy slips were given in life, I’d probably have a few more of them than you do.

Many of us (whether off the schedule or on it) grow up with little girl dreams for our big girl life that look like this:

Flight of the Elephants/ Terry Fan

 But in reality, life looks a lot more like this:

Photos by Michael Raimondo

Much like the black rhinos of South Africa, we are sedated, bound by the ankles, blindfolded, turned upside down and then transported to a place we would simply prefer not going.  And we land there in unfamiliar, unplanned territory...bound, blindfolded and ultimately broken by the fact that life hasn't turned out as we had hoped.

I’m not sure what you do after the landing, but I will pray, cry a little, laugh a lot, cry a little more (not always in that order or in those degrees of intensity).  And as my life falls a bit short on joy, I’ll cash in on yours…soaking in and celebrating your nuptials, spending time with your sweet children.  I become a joy bottom feeder of sorts…and I hope you don’t mind.  But the danger comes when I get so lost in your joy that I fail to see my own.  We’re told that those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.  And that’s exactly what happens:  clinging to the way I thought life should have been will always forfeit the grace that’s right before me.  Distracted by the joy I don’t have, I miss the grace that is invariably mine.

Anne Lamott once wrote, 'I do not understand the mystery of grace -- only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.'  Explain that to a black rhino in South Africa and he probably wouldn't understand.  But we see it clearly.  This is no cruel act.  Contrary to what it may appear, this is a gracious rescue.  Heavily hunted by poachers, the rhinos are at risk.  Their peace and prosperity are at stake.  And so what looks to be a 1,000 mile tortuous flight is described by conservationists to be the “kindest way” to save the rhinos from extinction.  Without it, they are doomed to disappear.  Grace, as cruel as it may seem, kindly meets them where they are and it does not leave them where it found them.

Grace is mysterious.  You can drive yourself crazy trying to understand how God is using your leg-bounding, eye-blinding, helplessly-hanging-upside-down circumstances for your good.  But without a doubt, He is.  Scripture promises that no good thing does He withhold from us.  John Newton affirmed that truth by writing, “Everything is necessary that He sends and nothing is necessary that He withholds.”  As life unfolds with all the sending and the withholding, what may appear to be a limitation ultimately becomes your liberation.  Grace truly does not leave us where it found us. 

I’m not really sure what this 40th year is going to look like.  Almost one month in, I’m still off-schedule and the tardy slips may continue to keep rolling in.  But here’s the thing about the roll call:  you can be late every day, but still have perfect attendance at the end of the school year.  And that’s my hope for this 40th year – a continued attentiveness to the grace in your life with perfect attendance to the grace in mine.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

All Yours, Chicago

45,000 runners ran through 26.2 miles of Chicago this morning and I am thankful I was not one of them. After spending the last three hot and humid summers under the ruthless rule of a running schedule, I've thrown in the towel. No more waking up at 5:30 a.m. to beat the heat. No more dodging deer, rabbits and raccoons in the pre-dawn darkness. No more finishing a run, drenched in sweat from head to toe like so:

And there wasn't a lot of tossing and turning, deliberating and debating on this decision. No, this sort of decision is made rather effortlessly when you endure a marathon like I did last fall.

Last September had me wrapping up a solid summer of training. My near 100% compliance with the training schedule placed me in a position to make this my best race yet....  Then tooth pain set in—a tooth pain marked by an unresponsiveness to over the counter medications and exacerbated by the pounding of pavement. A visit to the dentist gave me a disheartening referral to an endodontist that in turn, led to my first root canal.  One hears horrific stories about this particular procedure…the drilling, the grinding, the crowning, etc., none of it pleasant. But I knew it would best to deal with the tooth pain in Augusta versus enduring it for 26.2 miles of Chicago.

Things were going swimmingly well with the root canal…that is until I was told my case was complex (of course) and that I’d need to return the next week to complete it. I ran in place for a week with a temporarily capped tooth and returned six days later for Part II.  “Looks great, Julie,” was my cue that I crossed the finish line. Tooth had been closed. Post-op x-ray in progress. The pain was setting in, but definitely mediated by the fact that I was almost done….or so I thought.

Focused on the x-ray with his back toward me, he hesitatingly asked, “So, when is the marathon, Julie?” “In two weeks,” I replied. Rotating on his swivel stool, he offered the most disappointing of news. “A filament of my tool broke and it’s now lodged in your root canal,” he explained. “It’s here on the x-ray. See it?” I nod in the affirmative and fight back tears. “I need to open your tooth again and remove it.” He asked if I wanted to return the next day. “Absolutely not,” I replied. An hour later the broken filament was removed and I finally crossed the finish line of root canals. I inquired about receiving a medal for finishing, but quickly added, “Never mind. I forgot you all give out crowns, not medals.”

Later that evening, numbing medications wore off and the pain from the highly irritated tooth set in. Regular rounds of pain medication began which introduced its own unique set of complications. All of that added up to a near liquid diet for five days with less than two weeks to go before the marathon start gun.

Marathon weekend, I boarded a plane to Chicago. I had lost 10 pounds during the root canal drama and somehow gained a coughing/sneezing/sniffling cold between Augusta and Chicago. With very little of an appetite, I ate a half a sandwich for lunch, the other half for dinner and a bowl of fruit for dessert…not enough fuel to see me through 26.2 miles the next day. That explains why I was consuming pound cake at mile 8, grapes at mile 10, bread at mile 14 and bananas at 18.  Eating my way through Chicago…coughing, sneezing, and freezing…I somehow managed to haul my body through a morning of marathon misery that spilled into the afternoon. With legs that felt like noodles and lungs that could barely exchange air, I crossed the finish line. My dear friend Veronica had already finished long before I did. She set a personal best. I set a personal worst.

And that's the sort of race you have when you find yourself in Corral L at the start line.  Those of us in L are not like those A, B, C, or D.  No, they have their eye on things like winning; qualifying for Boston; setting personal records; etc…. Those of us back in L have more short-sighted goals…such as, "finish before day’s end." One of my Corral L confidants turned to me there at the start line and confessed that she really didn't enjoy running. “Me neither!” I exclaimed.

Quite a contradiction, I know. Julie doesn't like to run. I never really have. But running has always served a purpose…helping me draw boundaries in life that push health and wellness to boil on the front burner instead of simmering there on the back.  And even through sprained ankles, near hits but sure misses, tough finishes and this year’s multiple root canals, it’s always been the discipline that works for me.

Digging a little deeper, I’ll confess that I do find a little joy in pounding the pavement. Those early Saturday morning long runs have earbuds in my ears that stream the music I love. Perspective is everything. “It’s not a three hour long run,” I say to myself. “It’s three hours listening to fabulous music while my legs move at a more rapid than normal pace.” (Ahhh. That’s so much better.) And then there are the gifts: flowers left at the car at the end of long runs; bouquets delivered to the hotel room; a foot massager, shoe laces and headbands all mailed to me the week before the race. I truly have such dear friends.

And speaking of dear friends, I never do these races alone.  Friends who run are always in tow with me, heading toward some fantastic city. And while we might split at the start line (me heading to Corral L as they press on toward A, B, C, or D), we connect at the finish and celebrate. We've burned enough calories to eat like there’s no tomorrow and we guiltlessly do so at a fabulous restaurant Marathon evening.  Whether at the top of the Hancock Building or overlooking the Water Tower, tired and worn out bodies assemble themselves among tried and true friends.  Glasses are raised to celebrate a long run.  And the finest of food, while so enjoyable, cannot compare to the real delight of the evening:  enjoying the company of dear friends.

So, am I still running? You bet. Six or so miles or so a week…a far cry from the 40 miles mandated by the training schedule. But recent research proves that’s probably best. Those who ran less than 20 miles per week at a slow pace (that’s me!) lived longer than those who ran more than 20 miles a week at a fast pace (definitely not me). Less is really more and contrary to what so many might believe…running is not bad for your knees. (Mine are still flexing just fine.)  And here at the end of this Chicago Marathon Sunday, after ushering in the last three fall seasons in Chicago, I really am missing the fantastic city. I'd love another fabulous meal, another night at The Drake and more of that sweet time with dear friends pictured below. But not once have I longed for those 26.2 miles. They are all yours, Chicago.  All yours.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Still Doing Things...

I had to smile back in January when I watched Dad install the drawer glides and plug the screw holes on Baby Jack’s changing table. I had taken note of the sign hanging on the garage wall reminding us that he had retired. It exhorted us to stop asking him to do things.


Dad will be the first to tell you: we don’t listen very well. Through the years, we’ve asked him to do a million things for us: coach little league teams, fix broken bike chains, unclog drains, refinish floors, etc… And in his retirement, that trend hasn’t changed. Even today (on Father’s Day, of all days) I asked for his help with some home repairs.

Yes, he may have retired from his job as a machinist, but he continues to maintain his job as Dad. And of all the millions of things that we’ve asked Dad to do, he’s done just as many, if not more, without our asking. He has provided for us, shown us what’s important in life and consistently reminded us that we’re loved. And for these things that he’s done instinctively, I am most grateful.

So here’s to you, Dad! Thanks for all those things you’ve done for us, and a special thanks for those things we didn’t have to ask you to do. I’m grateful that the job of being a father will continue to offer you some employment. Granted, the pay is pretty miserable, but I hope we can make up for that in the benefits department.

Happy Father's Day, Dad!

Monday, January 16, 2012


Dressed in a brown jacket, gray trousers and a pair of blue canvas sneakers, it was a stretch to believe this gentle, grandfatherly figure was a leading civil rights activist. It was an even greater stretch to believe that this Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles had spent an hour with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Lorraine Motel —an hour that turned out to be King’s last.

I had the chance to meet Kyles last summer when Jennifer and I traveled to Memphis to visit our dear friend Jessica. Jessica had raved about Kyles after having met him earlier that week. “What a privilege!” I thought. Imagine our joy when at the end of Jessica’s flawlessly executed tour of Memphis we find him standing there in the lobby of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Kyles is a spry and active 78. He still pastors a church in Memphis. He’s currently traveling across the country sharing what happened at the Lorraine. “A lying witness is dangerous. A witness who has information and won’t share it is of no consequence and so I’m thankful I’m able to be a truthful witness,” Kyles has said.

On the evening of April 4, 1968, Kyles had left his wife at home preparing fried chicken (King’s favorite dinner). He arrived at the Lorraine at 5:00. Dinner was to be served at 6:00. The shot rang out at 5:45 as two pastors, King, and several aides departed Room 306.

What has always impressed me most about the civil rights movement is the age of its leaders, the majority of whom were under 40. “To have all that accomplished in Martin Luther King’s lifetime and he was not even 40 years old, it shows young people that they can find something to do,” Kyles once said. “It doesn’t mean you sit by the river and come up with some great scheme. It simply means you do all the best you can do about what’s going on in your surroundings.”

"An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines
of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kyles was 34 when he stood on the balcony.
King was 39.
I’ll turn 36 tomorrow.
(Timely encouragement.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hats Off

“The Pacific POWs who went home in 1945 were torn-down men. They had an intimate understanding of man’s vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it. They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended the knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized…For these men, the central struggle of postwar life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness.”
~Laura Hillenbrand in “Unbroken”

"How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy."
~Thomas Jefferson

Reminded today of the amazing privilege I have to treat the most distinguished patient population in all the world. Wishing a "Happy Veterans Day" to all Veterans and a special hats off to the 1,000 of you who roll through the SCI unit each and every year. Trusting that our work at the VA never falls short of restoring dignity, shedding light in darkness and showing deep gratefulness for the precious blessings of freedom we possess.

(photo credit: Freed POWs celebrate WWII's end / Naval History & Heritage Command)

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Sprinting through Hartsfield’s Concourse C, chasing after an unknown individual who had mistakenly taken my luggage wasn’t exactly how I planned for the marathon weekend to begin. Moments before the sprint, I had stood speechless in front of the luggage lift, overwhelmed by a harrowing nauseated feeling. You get that way when you realize the one remaining black bag there on the second shelf from the top doesn’t belong to you. Be it known that I’ve taken untold trips with this black carry on, all around the continental U.S., to Mexico, to England, and even twice to Ghana…but never had this problem. And you’d think that the snappy luggage tag I had applied the day before would help avoid such a mishap. Not so. Regrouping my harrowed, nauseated self, I sprinted down the concourse, grateful that my running shoes were on my feet versus packed in the MIA bag, bound for who-knows-where.

If you didn’t already know it, 99.9% of travelers at the world’s busiest airport have roll-around bags that are identical to mine. I desperately asked all I encountered, “Were you on the flight from Augusta?!?” Eventually, just steps from the escalator to the train, I got a “yes.”

The traveler stopped and propped my roll-around on all four of its spinner wheels. I spotted my beloved pink tag. “Excuse me, but that’s my bag!” I declared.

“If this is yours, then where is mine?” he inquired with a thick German accent, heavy-laden with irritation. I tugged at the bag and he gripped it tighter, refusing to surrender, as if he expected this to be an even exchange.

“I believe it’s still at the plane,” I replied, directing his attention to the pink plaid tag, hoping it would help build my defense. Confused, he loosened his grip a bit and I acted quickly, snatching if from his hands. And that’s how my marathon weekend began.

And so I had to laugh on Sunday morning when I found myself standing in the midst of 45,000 people at the start line next to a runner from….you guessed it…Germany. Whatever frustration I had with the nation melted away as this older man stood towering next to me. He was as delightful as delightful can be. He told me about his goal of running all 5 world major marathons. After having checked off Berlin (his hometown) and London, he had hopped across the pond to tackle Chicago. NYC is on his calendar for next year and he hopes that the older he gets, the easier it will be to qualify for Boston. For me, his “good luck” encouragement was enough to ease the international tension that erupted in Hartsfield. I had made peace with the Germans at the start line of Chicago. Now I’d make peace with 26.2 miles of Chicago pavement. The start gun fired at 7:30 a.m. Perhaps it was a start horn, who knows. I was too far away to hear it. With 45,000 people, it takes 20 minutes to eventually make it to the official start of the race. Eventually you hit it and you’re off and running.

The old saying, “You win some, you lose some,” never applies to marathons. It’s more like, “You win none, you lose all.” And that’s why a slow and steady runner like me will usually set goals such as, “Cross the finish line with a palpable pulse.” My only other marathon experience nearly did me in. Twisting an ankle at mile 3 was bad enough. Then there was the horrific chaffing on my sternum and ribcage resulting from the constant exposure to …hmmm, how can I put this delicately…an undergarment (see arrow). Certainly marathon attempt #2 would be better than #1. And so I set more ambitious goals for Chicago, both of which were modified at mile 20, restructured at mile 23 and then ultimately downsized at mile 24 to the following: “Finish without a bleeding chest or a twisted ankle.” I succeeded.

The course was spectacular. An estimated 1.7 million fans were on hand lining the Chicago streets, sometimes five people deep. I had three favorites…Veronica’s mom, Sarah Giddings and Sarah Mizelle. They traipsed all over Chicago for 5 hours last Sunday morning; catching us at miles 4, 11, and 18; holding impressive signs; cheering their hearts out; and having slices of deep dish Chicago pizza waiting on us at the finish line. Sarah’s sign “May the course be with you,” made me laugh hard. So did the guy who was holding the fluorescent green one that declared, “Worst parade EVER!” A few others suggested, “Tell your legs to shut-up.” Another pleaded, “Hurry-up. My arms are getting tired holding this sign.” I read a prayer on the back of a runner’s shirt that I particularly loved: “Dear God, PLEASE let there be someone behind me to read this.” Another runner’s shirt exclaimed: “I thought I signed up for a 2.62 mile race!?!” A “Welcome back Friday nights!” and the “Sleep in next Saturday morning!” signs were both so refreshing. Another favorite: “This sounded like a great idea 3 months ago, didn’t it?”

We weaved through all the major Chicago neighborhoods and by multiple churches, all of which had cancelled services in lieu of thousands of people running by on foot. Pastors, nuns, priests, etc… all came out to support us, standing on cathedral steps, no doubt pressing us onward with prayers and petitions. This was the encouragement that resonated deeply with me, especially in moments of such exhaustion. Passing by an African-American church with several ladies holding signs was the greatest boost. They read “YOU are anointed to finish!” and “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” All so encouraging. I appreciated the reminder of, “God is a very present help in times of trouble.” Granted, my context was a little off base…not only had I signed up for this “trouble,” I actually paid someone to allow me participate in it. Nevertheless, the encouragement was much-needed and well-received.

Several streets were lined by historic row houses and arched by oak trees in fall hues: peace in the midst of my agony. Sedgwick Street was one of my favorites. Families lined its curbs. Little kids gave you high-fives. And in the distance you could hear the synthesizer intro. Then the bass, followed by the piano. “Chariots of Fire” was booming from enormous arena-like speakers, ushering you into Chinatown. I felt compelled to run in slow motion like the movie…but then again, I was pretty much already in a slow-mo state. So I dug in and ran a little faster. Passing through their gates, countless Chinese well-wishers were beating drums, dressed as dancing dragons and lifting spirits. Made you feel like the most welcomed visitor in all the world. Miles before that I had crossed several bridges over the Chicago River, all of which had purple carpet over the grates to protect our feet. Carpeted grates. Witty signage. Fall foliage. Warm welcomes. Well done, Chicago. Well done.

The course wrapped back around to Grant Park, exactly where we began. And it’s interesting how the last 1.2 miles were easier that the first 25. Throngs of people lined the streets. Adrenaline was through the roof. And I had met Anne at some point between mile 23 and 24. She was a Chicago native and suddenly my new best friend. “Three more long blocks, sharp right onto Roosevelt, up a murderous hill, left onto Columbus Dr and we’re done,” she declares. I ran up the hill, took the left onto Columbus and finished with Anne, who proved to be part angel/part drill sergeant. Volunteers shoved food and water in our hands, medals over our heads, foil blankets around our backs. Walking through the finisher’s corridor, we revelled in the fact that we now had our Friday nights back. We parted, she expressing her regret at the fact that in such a state of mental exhaustion she’d never be able to remember my last name. “If I could,” she said, “I’d drop you a note and tell you thanks for helping me finish.” Marathon minds think alike.

Dropping notes to all who helped me finish would take weeks. Friends and family encouraged me all along the way, patiently bearing with short Friday evenings that accommodated early Saturday morning long runs. Three months of training began during Blakey Beach Week as I ran to the Jacksonville pier and back. And they culminated there on Columbus Drive in Chicago (click here to see more). I think I can speak for everyone on this one...I'm glad they're over. You've got seven months to rest up before we do it again!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

20 Miler

Two weeks ago I managed to put more miles on my legs than I did on my car. Strangely enough, the soles of my shoes saw more pavement than the tread on my tires. With two 20 mile runs on repeat Saturdays and several short runs sprinkled in between, the running odometer had hit 60 miles in a week’s time.

In this my #2 attempt at the Chicago Marathon, things have gone swimmingly well…so well, that it’s been difficult for me to fathom. Normally riddled with issues and complications, this training has been smooth sailing ever since the first week of June. And at week #16, I couldn’t be more grateful.

The 20-miler isn’t so bad when it’s tempered by a good running partner. Lucky for me, I have two: Jenn and her dog Emma. They helped make the first of the back-to-back long runs bearable. Jenn is a veritable encyclopedia of random facts making conversations with her lively, never dull. She shares and I am enlightened. Emma sprints through the Greeneway’s woods, chasing squirrels, deer and rabbits. Jenn commands “Leave it!” and Emma hangs her head as the hunt is suspended. Thirty seconds later, she’s at it again. She turns heads on Broad Street and has fans all around Old Towne. For every mile we average, Emma averages two. The marathon record was shattered today in Berlin. Emma could split that time, effortlessly.

For all of Jenn’s facts and Emma’s speed, 20 miles is draining. Doing it once…bearable. But twice?!? So the following weekend had us in the mood for a more meaningful run. We thought about literally “running” errands, but we would be forced to carry whatever we purchased. The goods would need to be flat and featherweight. A book of stamps from the post office was about the only thing that would meet that standard. After just buying these fabulous Edward Hopper stamps a week before, I really didn’t need stamps. So we ditched the running of the errands.

Thanks to a nifty new GPS watch strapped to my wrist, we were able to run freely, without the constraints of a pre-mapped course. So on 20-miler #2, we just ran wherever our feet took us. First, down to the marina where the crew teams were rowing amidst the low-lying fog as they skimmed the Savannah River waters beneath them. Their racing boats hung in the boathouse…probably a hundred of them. Surrounded by the hanging hulls, we snuck in to drink from the circa 1950’s water fountain. Walking away from the fountain, the hull with “Isaiah 43:2” painted starboard on the bow caught my eye. How fitting.

We ran to Jenn’s house where I threw my long-sleeve shirt just inside her front door. It was cool enough to warrant it at the run’s start. No longer needed it at mile 8. We hung a left out of her door toward the Magnolia Cemetery, of all places. We ran through the magnolia-lined lanes as Jenn filled my head with historical facts. I stopped to take pictures of the notable places…like the revolutionary war canon driven into John Martin’s grave. John managed to survive a hatchet to the head in the French Indian War, a long stint on the battle lines of the Revolutionary War (supposedly saving the canon on his grave as a souvenir) and went on to live to the ripe old age of 105. We then ran past what’s said to be the oldest tree on record in the state of Georgia…a crepe myrtle at the far wall of the 60 acre cemetery. Judging from its knots, twists and wrinkles, I needed no convincing of this fact.
We departed the cemetery at mile 10 and headed down Reynolds Street. People dressed in red t-shirts declaring “Stop Child Slavery” were on each corner. “Are you running in the 5K?” they asked. I answered no, muttering under my breath, “More like a 32K.” The next volunteer told us about the awareness run. At that point, I realized I was getting hungry. Food and water were back in South Carolina at our cars. I knew bagels and bananas would be at race’s end, not to mention, this was a noble cause. Jenn had her credit card. After a deliberation that lasted less than 3 seconds, we headed to the start line, arriving as the runners were departing. We found the registration table. With weak arms and sudden onset ataxia, I scribbled my emergency contact information. We pinned on our numbers and then turned to realize the race had left us. I asked for a map. The registration table offered an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper and we ran. I clumsily held the map with my ataxic hands. Jenn managed Emma. We both were wearing running belts, filled with Gu packets and water bottles: complete overkill for a 3 mile run. We were dripping sweat the entire time, giving all appearances that we were utterly out of shape and ultra-anxious about our hydration needs. We crossed the finish line. I made a B-line to the bananas. We posed for a picture and pressed on. 14 down. 6 to go.

I thought it would make a great story to run not only to the VA, but THROUGH it…down the hallway in front of the glass windows of the gym. “Was that Julie?” the patients would ask as they exercised…and I would hope that they would laugh, too. We arrived, only for me to remember that I needed my ID to access the entrance. Running around to the unlocked main entrance would only add to the mileage. We already had quite a few great stories under our running belts. With four miles to go, we headed back to South Carolina. Jenn’s number was irritating her, so she had removed it earlier. Mine was still on, giving all appearances I was a lost, off-track runner who had wandered far from her course.

So, I with my number and Jenn with her dog crossed the bridge to South Carolina, traversed mile 20 and finished at our cars. We capped off the run with our usual treat -- Luigi’s Italian ice. Spooning it in as we sat on the bumper of Jenn’s car, we offered one another a celebratory high-five. And at some point in the near future, I’ll need to offer Jenn this tidbit of information: 20 mile run #2 was absolutely unnecessary.

Somehow in transposing the training plan from the internet to the calendar in my purse,
I wrote “20” when I should have written “14.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Digging Deeper

My mother has had a calendar on her refrigerator for as long as I can remember. Held by magnets on all four corners, a particular month is posted for its appointed days then removed to make way for the next one. And if you happen to have a birthday during the month on tap, you’ll find your name written in red and preceded by a celebratory star. Like mother, like daughter…I have a similar calendar. While it’s in my purse (not magnetized on my fridge), it still maintains a record of important people whose names are written in red ink and preceded by a celebratory star.

September always holds a hesitation when I flip the pages to its 3rd week. There I find “VA” on the 20th of the month and I rack my brain wondering who I know with the initials “V.A.” Eventually, I remember the entry marks my VA birthday (or more correctly, my VA "Service Computation Date”… but that evokes a rather cold sentiment, so I’ll stick with the warmth found in “birthday”).

And so about this time every year, I delve into a reflective moment…remembering the past year, rejoicing over the successful moments and evaluating (and often laughing about) the not-so-successful interventions (like the time I prescribed a padded raised toilet seat frame…remembering to order the frame, while forgetting to order the all-important SEAT!).

This particular VA year has been marked by the mantra of “do more with less.” Responding to the economic crisis, we’ve all been presented with new challenges and stretched in unfamiliar ways. The federal government is no exception. I’ve had the phrase “square deal with all your heart” posted at my desk for quite some time. Taken from Roosevelt’s words ("A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.”) and Ecc 9:10 (“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your heart.”), it’s a simple phrase that helps me maintain a complex focus: keep the passion flowing. Scarcity of time and lack of resources can drain that well dry if one permits. So on this VA birthday (my 12th), I’m drawn to the moments that have dug the well deeper—moments that remind me of why the square deal is so essential.

The greatest of such moments was the camping trip back in May. I wasn’t a mover or a shaker on the camp scene this year. I was pulled to cover other duties in the hospital during the weeks leading up to the trip, so most of the planning was done by others and I just showed up. I hopped in a diesel-fueled cargo truck with Ashley and together we hauled raised toilet seat frames (with seats, I might add) and a whole host of other supplies to Winder, GA. We flooded Fort Yargo State Park’s Camp Will-A-Way with 34 spinal cord injured Veterans and 21 VA staff members. While there, we fished, boated, and kayaked. We ate popcorn in a field under the stars at night and watched a movie on an outdoor screen. Those that surrounded the campfire manufactured a multitude of Smores for all to enjoy. The sun had set hours before. It was getting late…but no one seemed to care.

Thrill-seeking experiences can be hard to come by, especially for those who have no movement below the neck. Early the next morning a zip-line offered adrenaline rushes that many haven’t felt in years. When the cup was passed to zip down a line suspended several stories high, the C4 quadriplegic was eager to drink deeply. His adventure on the line lasted about 30 seconds, but the thrill will never fade. “My wife is going to kill me when she hears about this,” he remarked. “Take plenty of pictures, Julie,” he said on the way up. “No one back home is going to believe this.”

No one back home would believe that my coworkers spent an entire afternoon dripping sweat in the blazing sun, lifting almost every camper from a wheelchair into a kayak or onto a boat. Adrenaline rushes were on tap. Square deals were about to be made. And as the boat sped off from the dock, Veterans saw empty wheelchairs fade in the distance. In any other situation, these chairs would be necessary for motion. Not so in this one.

And down on the archery range, if you think hands are necessary to draw back an arrow, think again. An elbow, a head or a foot will work just fine. Can’t hold the paddle in your hand for a game of table tennis? No sweat. Here’s a Velcro strap to help maintain your grip. Anything to keep the square deals going.

In keeping with this year’s 1970’s inspired “Wheelin’ Groovy” theme, we all tie-dyed shirts and many wore them at the closing party. All of the camp staffers donned our best retro outfits. Ashley was Sonny. I was Cher. Alison rocked an amazing thrift store get-up and Shawnda’s “Chaka Khan” hair stole the show. Games were played. Prizes were won. We danced to all those fabulous hits of the 70’s and established the undeniable fact that your average Veteran in a wheelchair dances better on four wheels than I do on my own two feet.

And later that evening when the party finally died down, Ashley and I reported to one guy’s cabin. He has a quadriplegic level of injury. In addition to limited hand and arm movement, he’s also had both legs amputated above the knees. These impairments render him dependent on others when it comes to getting out of his wheelchair and into his bed. It was nearing midnight when Ashley and I headed his way. We were beat, but he was going strong, talking about the highlights of the night. I asked him when he had last had that much fun. His response? “Camping trip 2 years ago.”

I’ve visited him in his room at the assisted living home he shares with 9 other Veterans. I’ve seen his displays of camp memorabilia hanging on his wall: his “Survivor” theme inspired nametag from 2004; his Hawaiian lei from 2006; his Mardi Gras beads from 2007. When we get back from a camping trip, he’s the first to want to know when we’re going again. For one who only leaves home for medical appointments, the camping trip is perhaps one of the squarest deals he has going.

In a “do more with less” world, the wells of passion are running dry.
As with any well, one must dig deeper to unearth a new supply.
The square deal makes a great shovel.
Grab one…and dig.