by Elizabeth Watson Chaney
After a major life event, it’s standard advice not to make any big changes for at least a year. My neighbors had been kind to us during the nine months my husband battled cancer, but I had no close friends, and the house was big enough to swallow me and my two small children whole. I felt isolated there, and so I sold the house, the pontoon boat, and his car as quickly as I could. We were all grieving, and I didn’t associate those material things with him. If there was one thing I knew for certain, it was that as an only parent I needed to make my life as simple as I could.
I bought a single-family house with a nice front porch on a corner lot. It was a small, safe neighborhood tucked discreetly out of sight, and in walking distance from everywhere we needed to go. The neighborhood kids wasted no time in enticing mine into glorious adventures back in the woods that extended behind the house. I had a reliable car, but I knew part of surviving the emotional pain was forcing my body to move. It was healthy for the kids too. We could get just about everywhere on foot. The grocery store was the longest haul—about two miles—but a quick trip by bicycle. I added a basket onto my front handlebars, and I learned to carry what wouldn’t fit in a large backpack.
It was a college town which was great for people watching, and the locals always seemed to be out and about. There was a big community of runners, cyclists, and generally friendly folks living healthy lifestyles. It was common to see college professors darting between huge oak trees on their way to campus, college students sitting at picnic tables with their shoulders touching, moms and dads with jogging strollers, and a busy blur of children and dogs running freely on the huge green in front of the library. There was even an old-fashioned soda shop with counter stools that gave the place a 1950s vibe. I felt safe, and as happy as was possible as the three of us moved about trying to heal.
I met the kids one day after school and we went to a nearby park. Another woman started chatting with me. She was kind, and I mentioned my husband had died. She invited me to join a group of women she jogged with regularly. I wasn’t a runner, but I said yes immediately. A few days later I found myself breathing heavily trying to keep up with five other women. We all had children roughly the same age and at the same school.
In the beginning I was certainly the slowest of the group. Occasionally I would stop and say, “You go on ahead, I’ll catch up in a few minutes when I catch my breath.” Instead of leaving me behind, someone would always say, “Oh, thank God you said it first. I couldn’t have made it much farther.” We’d all slow to a walk until I’d caught my breath, then off we’d go again. I began to run with them regularly, and we jokingly referred to our bi-weekly outings as “group therapy.” Our priority was getting together and chatting about balancing kids, work, life’s day-to-day problems, and what on earth we were going to make for dinner. Running was the vehicle for finding my closest friends.
Those mornings of moving through town with my little support group were something I looked forward to. Over time, they gave me that first genuine spark of hope that one day I would actually want to get out of bed. It didn’t hurt that I was becoming very fit, and I was taking those big, deep breaths more easily. We ran through fall, winter, spring, and summer.
I didn’t consider myself a runner, but when I heard of a half-marathon coming up to benefit Race for the Cure (a nonprofit organization funding cancer research), I knew right away I was going to sign up.
I began an online fundraising site for the upcoming race. I trained hard for several months, but like many things in life, this one didn’t go according to plan. Just days before the race I went on an easy run at a casual pace. I took one careless step off a curb and went down. I couldn’t bear weight on my ankle and the x-ray confirmed a stress fracture. I was devastated. Yet just as they had when my husband was diagnosed, people came together to lift me up. My running friends consoled me, and not a single sponsor failed to follow through with a pledge.
Five years passed before I signed up to give that distance another go. This time I entered a race in Asheville, North Carolina, a far hillier terrain than the one where I lived. The race took place five years after his death on my forty-fifth birthday. I had set a goal of finishing the 13.1 miles in two hours or less. The hills were more than I bargained for, and I finished in two hours and six minutes. My birthday bumped me up into the younger end of the next age bracket (45-50), and I squeezed out a third-place medal. It felt good.
About a year later I married a man with two wonderful children of his own. The three of them moved in with us. On weekends the six of us can be seen walking into town. Our dog Petey is always listening for the sound of his collar being lifted off the hook. The kids are just as easily motivated by the mention of a stop at the new homemade custard stand.
It was the mobility that brought us new life. The swinging of arms, the briskness of step, and the smiles of those passing us by. Day by day, year by year, breath by breath, it kept our blood pumping through our beating hearts, and moved us just where we needed to go.