I have spent a good amount of time wondering how to write what I want to write, or even if I should. I think "this is not my story to tell" and telling it makes it feel like a blatant request for sympathy. It is not that. And while I can say it's not my story, a part of it is my story, and always will be.
Four years ago I was training for the Portland Marathon. It would be my second marathon, and my goals had progressed from simply to train and PR from my 4:41 to bigger goals. I registered with a 4:15 goal. I set a sub-4 goal as I began training, and eventually the stretch goal to BQ (at the time 3:40.59). Training went so well, and I felt pretty confident in my goals. I PR-ed the half with a 1:45 a month out from Portland, and I was ready.
The Monday before the race, I got a text that set the rest of the week onto a path I couldn't have foreseen. I could have handled that week differently than I did, perhaps. But I don't think I would have. For everything I can remember with painful clarity, I don't remember the exact words of that message. But it told me something was wrong with my dear friend's son. This friend I had met a few years before. We were both single parents to little boys, and I babysat his little one from time to time when he needed it. We connected simply due to our circumstances and lives. We dated off and on, somewhat hindered by baggage we each had.
I could relive all the details of that week, but I won't. The situation itself is a matter of public record. While there was a lot of confusion at the beginning, the truth came out that the babysitter of little C had pushed him down in frustration, and he had hit his head. It caused bleeding in his brain and he was immediately unconscious. It was the kind of nightmare that you see in a Law and Order: SVU episode. You don't see it happen to people you love. Little C, who I had seen 2 days before at a softball game chasing Ben around getting into mischief, was in trouble.
What followed was spending almost every hour I could at the hospital, staying by his dad's side. I could have visited once or twice, I could have told him I was so sorry, offered to help and be there a bit. But that's not me. It seemed like the right thing to do, the right place to be. My mom cautioned me not to throw away my training in the last week, which was mostly coffee, occasional snacks, a few short runs, a few hours of sleep and constant care of others. She might have been right, but I did what I did. I stayed late into the night. I brought coffees or milkshakes to people. I sat and held my friend's hand, and listened to so much information that I can't imagine hearing as a parent. I shared the grief. I tried so hard to shoulder as much of the burden as I could. I sped back to the hospital one night, doing 90 past a cop who somehow exited the freeway without pursuing me when it came time to say goodbye. I saw the last rites. I held this precious boy's hand and stroked his hair and tickled his feet and said my goodbye. And I walked out of the hospital Friday evening next to a parent who was doing the most impossible thing I can imagine: letting go of a child. It was some of the heaviest grief I have ever witnessed or felt.
Every year, I still feel it. Every October I remember the dates of that first notification, that last night we left the hospital, and everything in between. I boarded a plane the next morning and flew to Seattle then drove to Portland for my marathon. I was in a fog. I couldn't not think about it. I woke up Saturday with a cold (no surprise, given how little I'd taken care of myself) and with that time of the month. I was exhausted, sick, and facing a marathon. A race I had worked so hard for, and that now felt like a mountain to climb. This was 2010, so anyone who ran Portland that year knows. It was the rainy year. I learned that day just how much 26.2 miles of grieving and weird joy can feel. C was free, at least. The waiting of the last week was over. There was finality, instead of questions. I ran for Cohen. I wrote those words on my arm in magic marker and I ran for him, and for all the pain and emotion of that last week. I thought of him as I ran past the train yards. I talked to him about the trains. I cried in the later miles of the marathon. From the sheer physical pain of the task at hand, from the joy of running a marathon, from grief, from release. I cried when I crossed that finish line cold, wet and alone.
I came home from that race feeling a sense of peace. I had had time (3 hours and 56 minutes) truly alone with my thoughts and feelings. I was ready to be strong for his dad, to hold his hand and support him as best I could through the next week. Through the storm of emotion, and information, and decisions. Through the candlelight vigil, the funeral mass, the fundraiser. Through the weeks and months that followed. Eventually, I was no longer strong enough to bear the weight. We made the decision to part ways, and after that, I chose not to attend the sentencing of the babysitter. I chose distance, and let that be the way to move forward. I haven't seen or spoken to the majority of the people I came to love since then. I am far removed from the people, but not from this time of year.
Every October, it weighs on me. I remember it. Small details, insignificant seeming moments that were the end of a life cut tragically short. Death is hard. It is always hard, and truly, I think it is no easier to look at a life fully lived and think it's less painful than one cut so short. Watching my little man grow I remember the age C would have been. I think of the moments his family doesn't get to share with him. This is the sort of sadness I won't forget any time soon. Sometimes I feel guilty, because I am no longer connected with everyone who went through it that I should not feel so much anymore. But that's not true, and I know that. That I remember this little boy every year, on more days than not keeps his memory alive. It is easier to remember, even if that hurts, than to forget.