When I meet people for the first time, sometimes they learn that I went to college on an island in the Pacific. Their immediate reaction usually goes something like this: “Wow!” After they’ve had a moment to envision an enticing, tropical paradise, then juxtapose it against the rigid reality of D.C. life, they follow with “Why would you leave?”
It’s my eternal kick in the pants – an eternal priority-check.
I usually give the most universally acceptable answer: “to be closer to my family,” but to be honest, that was a benefit that emerged only as I matured. The truth is and always will be this: “I just felt like it was time.” I felt that I still had so much more world left to explore. Call it naivety, but I wasn’t ready to confine my entire future to the dimensions of a volcanic formation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
I left the island with my head high and peace in my heart. I didn’t shed a tear and I never looked back.
Something, maybe some bit of nostalgia in the humid August air, had been gnawing at my soul all day. For some reason, whatever-it-was was compelling me to go to Burke Lake. Now, in the course of my upper side of 20-something years of life, I’ve learned never to disobey soul-gnawing whims — God speaks to us in whispers after all. (A lesson my willful soul learned the hard way.)
So in complete obedience, I shooed away the sad, gray anxiety cloud that had accumulated in my consciousness, laced up my running shoes and psyched myself up for some exercise. I had just parked myself when this text message struck like a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky:
“Katie, as you know a year ago today was the worst day of my life. I want to thank you again for being there for me. It meant more to me than you know. :)”
It was from Joe, the boyfriend-SLASH-roommate-SLASH-coworker-SLASH-best friend of my summer running friend, Jennifer.
Jennifer and I befriended each other last summer, must have been early August, when I first moved into The Townhouse with those mixed-curse/blessing, stinky, smelly boys. I had just finished running after sunset at the lake and naturally, navigating the parking lot, alone and completely vulnerable, in the darkness. I just barely made out the figure of another person — a female, also alone. She saw me, too, and called out to me. I learned that she was waiting for her friend and wanted to know if she’d be locked inside the park past 8 p.m. In good conscience, I couldn’t leave in that dark parking lot, so I waited with her. We stood, our sweat becoming a dry film of salt on our skin, conversing for the better half of an hour before her friend finally emerged from the dark woods. Her name was Jennifer.
We were both single, female runners with no friends in the area. It only made sense, in the interest of safety, to pair up for exercise. And the prospect of making a new friend — who actually lived in the same town — excited me. We promised to call one another the next time we needed a running partner. I’d need a gal to pal around with, especially being inundated with testosterone at home. And we were true to our word, becoming fast friends, sharing intimate details of one another’s lives. We opened up to each other on those long runs because there was no danger of being found out by Naysayers or Judgers, because we had a lot more in common than either of us expected; our distressing living situations were eerily similar. We quickly began relying on each other for support.
Then one day, she called to postpone our run, giving few details as to the reason, just saying she’d call me later. Despite phone calls and text messages, I never heard from her again.
I learned the shocking and devastating reason when I ran into Joe at the a couple of weeks later. Instead of going on our run that afternoon, Jennifer decided to go to her room and blow her head off. Joe was the one who found her.
In the weeks and months that followed, Joe would send random text messages, most of which were asking how I was feeling. I always told him I was fine, and would return the thoughtfulness. He would tell me, “be well,” and then disappear for another few weeks or months. I’d only met him once before running into him and his heavy yoke of guilt in the woods that late August afternoon. He’d held the closest living relationship with Jennifer, hadn’t he? Why would he be so bizarre as to ask how I was doing at random?
After reading that most recent text message from Joe, I realized it was Jennifer that had brought me to the lake that particular day. I got out of my truck and began a slow jog around the trail. As I jogged, the air grew increasingly dense and difficult to breathe. I glanced up at the sky to see dark, brooding clouds had since covered overhead, in sync with my mood. I slowed my pace to a depressed walk, trying to sort a barrage of mixed thoughts and feelings. Tears welled in my eyes. A streak of lightning flashed through the treeline. Raindrops punched holes in the stillness of the lake like a perfectly-spaced, galaxy of stars in the sky. Stragglers on the trail were scrambling to get to their cars. I slowed my walk, no longer having energy or enthusiasm for running or anything remotely close, came to a bench and sat down, not caring that I was becoming drenched in rainwater. I silently marveled at the pattern of God’s rain on the lake for a long time as lightning and thunder rumbled ominously. I was sad, very sad, and feeling guilty for her death, trying to fit it all into the larger picture. I thought about Joe’s text message and how strange it was that he would thank me. For what? I didn’t feel like I’d offered him much support. It’s not like we got together for commiserating or anything. I’d met up with him a couple of times, but nothing of significance. We were more like text buddies than anything else. Then my mind moved to Jennifer. I wondered when I would be able to run on that trail again and not see Jennifer in every runner I passed. I knew she was sad when I met her, but I hadn’t known her long enough to pry the lid off her boxed heart so that the sun could shine in her again. We were only beginning our friendship. And in every runner, every person, I see someone who needs a light in the darkness. How can I hold a light for every one of them, and what if I fail like I did for Jennifer?
In that moment I didn’t care if lightning struck me dead. Arms outstretched, I was ready for God to call me — his great failure — home. I sat for a while, tears streaming. The skies roared with thunder.
And then I heard a voice in the back of my head. “Go to back to your car, Kate.”
I begrudgingly stood up and began the long walk back to my car.
A few days after my lake encounter, still bothered by Joe’s bizarre “thank you,” I made an important connection. I realized that Jennifer had few real friends, and one of the last people she spoke with, and because of that, I was probably one of Joe’s few living links to her. In reaching back to memory of grieving the loss of own beloved, I realized if his grieving process was anything like mine, he probably sent those texts to me when thinking of her or experiencing feelings of extreme guilt and sadness. By responding with a simple gesture of kindness, without even knowing it, I was holding a little light for him during one of the darkest periods of his life, keeping him connected, keeping him moving forward, helping him heal.
I didn’t understand it at first because I didn’t feel I’d very done much, and really, I hadn’t, but in simple acts of kindness and love, to someone I’d done everything — a great failure.
I held a light in the darkness.
I was on a plane, halfway to Denver when I suddenly became alarmed.
“Oh, s***!” I thought. My gut wrenched with that sudden pang of nerves that comes when you’ve done something stupid. You know that buckling physiological response you get when you realize that you’ve left the iron on at home, or worse, forgotten to ask someone to watch your dog while you were away. I don’t have a dog … or an iron for that matter, but I had done something stupid.
I forgot my running shoes!
A less stubborn person’s story might end there — at forgetting her running shoes. Not this woman.
My mind immediately began formulating a backup plan. “I could find a shoe store somewhere in downtown Denver, get fitted, and get back to the airport to pick up my colleague in plenty of time. … Who am I kidding? There’s no time. … Maybe there will be a store near my hotel. But what if there’s not? I have no GPS and I won’t have any time to drive around and find one considering I’ll be working during the day. …”
Between work and meeting a former college roommate for dinner, my mind stayed on MUST-make-exercise-happen mode for the next day and a half. Finally, on the afternoon of day two, I couldn’t take it anymore. I marched myself down to the hotel receptionist.
“Where is your pool?” I asked the woman at the front desk.
Unfortunately, I’d also left my bathing suit at home, but I figured my workout clothes — Under Armour bike pants and sleeveless tank — would function just as well as a bathing suit, in a pinch — and if ever there was a pinch, this was it.
I changed, grabbed a towel, slipped into my street shoes (really, who am I kidding? They were slippers), and headed to the pool. I’m no swimmer, but getting some laps in would help relieve some of my restlessness. No dice. I peered into the glass door leading to the pool with silent anticipation. My heart sank. It wasn’t much bigger than a kiddie pool!
“This is crap,” I’m pretty sure I said aloud.
Dejected, I turned around toward the elevators to head back to my room. But my mind immediately began searching for a solution. The entrance to the gym was on my immediate right. I peered inside. Decent facility. Treadmill. Yoga ball. It could work. I glanced down at my feet. Slippers. No dice.
But then I remembered hearing a story about how Kenyans run without shoes, and how there were studies trying to prove that Kenyans have fewer foot, joint, and back problems than Americans because they run the way nature intended — barefoot. I’d even seen someone doing it in a race once. I figured it couldn’t be that bad, and it was my only shot at a workout.
So I kicked off my slippers and hopped onto the treadmill. I could feel my toes grip the tread with every step. It was such a strange feeling, being suddenly very aware of the texture of the ground beneath my feet. It wasn’t so bad, I kinda liked it. I ran along merrily for the first three-quarters of a mile before another hotel guest entered the gym.
I contemplated jumping off the treadmill and hoping the stranger didn’t notice me running barefoot. “He’ll think I’m an idiot,” I worried. “What if he says something?” I kept running, hoping I wasn’t noticeable. I didn’t make eye contact to reinforce my invisibility. After a while I began to hope he would say something so that I could make a joke, poke fun at myself. As I continued, I cared less. “You’ll probably never see this dude again anyway,” I thought. “And now, you’ve given him a funny story about an utterly ridiculous woman running barefoot on a treadmill that he can share with his friends back home.”
While I worried the next half mile away, the heat had been rising below the ankles. Tread began to feel like sandpaper on my tender toes. If I were a cartoon, smoke would have been rising from my toes. Ouch! “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” I thought. I hopped off, quickly, as if there were a fire under my feet. I tip-toed tenderly out of the gym and into the pool, where I could cool my burning feet. “Ahhh!”
The next day, I reported to my duty station with soft feet, said “hello” to the gentlemen sitting behind me, and sat down. Then one of their voices called from behind.
“Oh, I didn’t know that was you in the gym yesterday!”
My heat of my face now matched my singed feet. And now, you’ve given him a funny story about an utterly ridiculous CO-WORKER running barefoot on a treadmill that he can share with all your other CO-WORKERS back home. Awesome.
I could hear the drumline marching by my house — a reminder that it was Memorial Day, a federal holiday commemorating U.S. soldiers who died in service. Seems like an insult to have to define Memorial Day until you hear radio hosts get excited because pools open, thus marking the unofficial beginning of summer, or when you see all the advertisements for mattress specials. When I heard that drumline, I remembered that the day marked something more than that.
I got up off my tuchis and marched it to the sidewalk outside, where I caught the last part of the Memorial Day parade. I expected to see patriotic displays, families, and lots of red, white, and blue Americans lining the streets. I expected more of the floats.
Instead I saw the flag of Bolivia. Several floats moved past me — all of them dancing in full Bolivian regalia, dancing their traditional dances. They were sweaty and miserably under the weight of their colorful, flashy costumes, but mesmerizing in their movements.
My heart sunk. I wanted some Americana, some symbol with which I could identify. Perhaps I came too late, or maybe this is the new fabric of America — Bolivia. I immediately thought, “I think the meaning of Memorial Day is completely lost.” I was disheartened. As the dancers continued past me, I thought, “Is this what our soldiers died for? Is this really the best way to honor them?”
And then I realized, yes. Yes! This is the ONLY way to honor them. This IS what America is about. This is exactly why soldiers throughout history have died. The mere fact that we — or people of any origin — can dance in the streets exactly as they please is freedom that is not granted in many nations. Freedoms such as this are exactly why so many people come to start lives here. We typically give little thought to the sacrifice, bloodshed, and suffering that the few have made so that we can enjoy the peace and security of parading through town calling attention to our differences. A seemingly trivial concept, but to do that in any other nation might get you killed.
My heart grew ever grateful for being able to watch these talented Bolivian dancers in the street by my house. I felt safe, secure, and happy. How lucky I am to be an American, and even more fortunate for the ultimate sacrifice the few have made for me to have that feeling. May we march on, despite our differences, in honor and gratitude to those who died in service to this nation, and always remember the cost paid for our freedom.
There’s nothing like waking up every day of your life with a searing stomach ache. Really. It’s the best.
I’m not sure if the culprit is gluten, dairy, or just general digestive revolt. I’m leaning toward the latter, although, at this point it doesn’t really matter. I’ve been invited to the bridal shower and bachelorette party of a dear friend, which, on its surface, is a very honorable invite. Except that the festivities are 1) in New York, 2) expensive, and 3) not particularly Celiac friendly.
I told my friend that I doubted I could make it. “I just can’t afford it right now,” I told her. (The new “Financially Responsible” FW has been working diligently to pay off all her outstanding debt by mid-summer — an ambitious goal.)
My friend nodded compassionately in clear understanding. Then immediately set about trying to solve the problem.
“Well, you could ride up with me. So you wouldn’t have to worry about travel expenses. … And we’d stay with my sister, so you don’t have to worry about lodging. … And, there will be food at the bridal shower, and you don’t have to worry about getting me a present — ” she said.
“Mags, I can’t NOT get you a present,” I protested.
She continued, “The only thing you’ll have to worry about is going out. And beer up there isn’t as expensive as it is here. You could probably have a good night out for $40.”
“Yeah, but how much is the limo?”
“Oh, well it depends on how many RSVP, but I remember pricing it out. A limo for seven people would be like, $70. …. So you’re looking at maybe $150 for the weekend.”
“Ouch,” I said. “I don’t even have that.”
“Well, I could talk to the girls. You probably wouldn’t have to pay,” she said.
I was deeply touched. “Maaags! I can’t do that. I can’t be the friend who comes up with you and mooches off every one. That’s not cool.”
She paused. “Well, they’d get over it,” she said. Then turned on a tone I’d never heard in her voice before. It was a soft, sad, imploring tone that could have melted the ice-cold heart of Hitler. “I just important to me that you’re there. It doesn’t matter to me about anything else.”
I went home that evening, crunched some numbers, did some soul-searching, and came to the conclusion that friends are more important than money. This wasn’t an irresponsible, unscheduled foray into some stretch of bars. This was a deeply rooted tradition that happens, arguably, once in a woman’s life. If it set me behind schedule an extra month, so be it. Last I checked, paying off debt quickly isn’t a condition of getting into heaven, but loving thy neighbor as thyself is kind of a big one. And if I were the bride in this situation, I know it would mean the world to me to have all my friends in one place, and I’m not gonna lie, I’d probably feel a little wounded if any of my girls didn’t think I was important enough to make the sacrifice to be there.
It was settled then. I would go.
In chatting with Mags on the phone, hashing out the details of this little venture, she tried again to reassure my practical side that this could be done in a most frugal fashion — even though I’d decided not to worry about it out of the fear I’d ruin her time in the spotlight in stressing over such nonnegotiables as cost. Nope, part of accepting the invitation is accepting all of it — cost, time, travel, silly outfits, whatever.
But it was in her rehashing that I realized something about myself.
“OK,” Mags said. “Are you stressing about this?”
“No, Mags. I moved a little money over from my savings to help out. This is your day. It’s more important than money.”
“Well, I promise you won’t have to spend all that much money. We’ll pick you up Friday, we’ll stay at either my sister’s or Tony’s parent’s place. I was thinking I’d bring some sandwiches … oh wait, well I know you can’t — . Then Saturday we’ve got the bridal shower. There will be food there … I’m not sure about the gluten, though. Then we’ll go to my sister’s for dinner, and when we go out, beer is real cheap … Oh, but I know you can’t have beer, but still, it won’t be — ”
And there. There it was. The truth right in my face. Mags could introduce me to everyone as “my friend, Katie, the very big inconvenience.”
“Jeez, I sound like a big stick-in-the-mud. I can’t do anything fun …” (Unless, I want to continue waking up with searing stomach aches F-O-R-E-V-E-R.)
This is gonna be grrrrrreat! Really.
I bundled in layers, rain boots, armed with a shovel, and found Maljamar, who was crying for help pitifully beneath a mound of snow and ice. Plows barricaded her on every side with a waist-high bunker of solid ice and snow. And another foot or more was on the way. Awesome.
I began digging her free, but after an hour I’d only cleared a 3-by-3-foot area. My effort seemed futile.
I leaned on my shovel, slightly out of breath, and looked around at all the people in the parking lot, slightly flustered I’d been digging for an hour and not one of my neighbors had come along to so much as offer a finger in help. In the upper lot I saw a small group of middle-aged men with a snow blower, and all around me were little old women digging as feebly as a toddler in a sandbox.
“Disgraceful. These guys should be ashamed of themselves,” I thought.
I hadn’t made much progress freeing Maljamar, so I started with the person nearest me – a little old woman not more than 20 feet away. (The look of stunned appreciation on her face was worth every scoop of effort, which, by the way, moved like soft butter, faster than the rock solid block of ice that’d trapped Maljamar.) With my iPod keeping me motivated, I soon slipped into a groove – the kind when you’re making progress and it feels so good you don’t want to stop. So I didn’t. When I left Little Old Lady No. 1, I moved to the next damsel in distress. She was much, much older than Old Lady No. 1 – probably in her late 70s or early 80s. The shovel weighed more than she did.
Maybe it was the music, but the snow moved easier and faster with each scoop. Soon I found myself simultaneously digging out the cars next to Old Lady No. 2. As if the stars, moon and earth had aligned, I was moving so swiftly, lifting with my legs and body in a way that felt good. I gained energy with each scoop.
“You should get some sort of payback for this,” Old Lady No. 2 said in a gravelly, haggard voice.
“Naw, I can’t let the boys have ALL the fun,” I said playfully, continuing to dig.
(FYI, if my future husband ever sees this, I have absolutely NO problem letting you boys have all fun. Just want to make that clear.)
I got a little chuckle out of the old lady, who by now had stopped digging and started watching me. That’s when she started to yell at me to stop.
“You can get knee and hip replacement,” she hollered. “But you can’t get back replacement.”
Jeez, Lady. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
“I think I’ll be OK,” I said.
As I continued digging I realized I admired Old Lady No. 2. Part of me could help but believe she orchestrated the entire feeble-old-lady act just to elicit sympathy from some bystander who could do it for her. Oh, she was a smart one, alright. One day, I thought, I hope I’m as clever.
But then again … she was in her late 70s, early 80s, and clearly thin as a rail. Nah, this was genuine. I realized this old lady wasn’t going anywhere. I was digging her out purely for her peace of mind. Awesome.
One day, I hope, I have neighbors who’ll give a damn about me in a cold, icy parking lot after a record-sitting snowfall, I thought.
I never even got her name.