Running toward Healing

A month ago, August 19th at 10:30 in the morning, I held my hand gently on my dad's chest as he took his last breath. I will never forget that moment: me, my brother and mom clinging to each other in grief as we stood around his bed and felt him leave this world, his big personality and gentle soul peacefully escaping the wasted shell to which cancer had reduced his body. We all touched his face over and over, in numb disbelief despite knowing this moment was coming. And then we gathered our things and left the hospital, even though the staff told us we could stay as long as we wanted. The truth is, we had been saying goodbye for days; weeks, really. He was no longer there, in that room, in that shell. Not to us.

This is a difficult post to write. I've been trying to start it for a while, but every time I do, I get overwhelmingly sad and have to stop writing. But I know that in my toolbox, the two best tools I have for coping with stress and heartache are writing and, of course, running. And so, as hard as it sometimes is, I continue to do both.
La Route Verte (the Green Route), Sherbrooke QC
In the first few weeks after my dad's diagnosis, I ran almost every day, 5 k on the Route Verte bike trail along the St Francis river from the hospital to my parents' house. Those runs were part jogging, part walking, part crying - but they helped me settle my thoughts and emotions, as jumbled as they were, and I was thankful for that outlet to try to process what was happening. I ran on the day he died, a few hours after we returned from the hospital. I made it about half an hour before breaking down. I sat down on the shore of a little pond on the trails where my dad walked his dog every day and cried in huge, frantic sobs that made my whole body shake, thinking so many things all at once: It happened so fast. He was always so healthy. How can he be gone? I'll miss him so much. I continued to run in the week that followed, venturing into the mountains of the Eastern Townships of Quebec and spending long mornings exploring the rugged trails. Sometimes I cried a little; other times, I realized I went hours without thinking about the fact that he is gone. Such is the beauty of hard mountain running: it requires such a singular focus that it allows me the space to not be sad, for a while. A month later, I am coping but still feeling disoriented; anchorless - but I find that I feel most at peace when I am out on the trails. I sometimes worry that I am running away from my grief, but deep down I know that what I am really doing is running toward healing. One step, one trail, one mountain at a time. 
Pic de l'Ours (Bear Peak), Quebec
The morning my mom called to tell me that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer - June 29th - I was on a hike/run with two of my friends, a loop up Mount Brunswick, across part of the Howe Sound Crest Trail, and up and down Mount Harvey. My phone rang literally the minute I summited Harvey. I sat on a rock on top of a mountain, overlooking the bright blue sound dotted with islands, and listened as mom told me that my dad had maybe two months to live, and that he might go any minute. She sounded exhausted and in shock, but strong, amazingly. I somehow made it down that mountain, although I don't really remember it happening. Two days later, back in Quebec where my dad was now living in the hospital, I showed him a few pictures from that run, and he said, "Wow. How beautiful."
Mt Harvey, BC
My dad has always been my biggest champion in everything I do, including my running. An avid hiker and traveller himself, he loved seeing pictures of my mountain running adventures. In my road running days, my parents came to countless races to support me. They travelled with me to Toronto when I ran the marathon there, and entertained themselves (and me) by riding the subway along the course as I was running and popping up in random locations to cheer me on. My dad once drove me and my mom all the way to southern New Hampshire for a 10k race; it was nearly 6 hours of driving, and I ran for 45 minutes. This past July, after 2 weeks of spending every day at the hospital with him, I took a day to go to Quebec City to run a 25k race up and over Mont Ste. Anne. I finished the race muddy, soaking wet, and exhausted - but also rejuvenated, and calmer than I had been in weeks. I got back in time to visit with my dad that evening. My brother said "That's kind of crazy", and dad said simply, "Not for Tara". He understood me. He was proud of me. And we were so similar in so many ways. I know now that I never fully appreciated what a wonderful gift that was.
Like father, like daughter:
Last fall, independently posing for a picture while holding a maple leaf :)
There are two things about the way this has unfolded that give me a small amount of comfort. I think that I received the news about his diagnosis when I was on top of a mountain - in my happy place - for a reason: to be reminded that even in the midst of all the sadness, and pain, and unfairness of cancer, there is still so much beauty in this world. My dad would have wanted me to see that. The other thing that happened was on the day he died, when I was sitting by that pond, buried in grief: I looked up for a minute and the sunlight suddenly caught the water in such a way that it was filled, absolutely filled, with those little sparkles, millions of them dancing across the surface. It only lasted for a few moments. 

I think peace will slowly come to me like this, in small pieces of beauty that fill my heart until it is repaired. And I think that as long as I am noticing these things, then I am doing ok.

Two days after he died, I was scheduled to be running the Squamish 50k. I had been excited about the race, and had worked hard to get to that start line after coming back from a systemic injury that was, in a complex way, related to my own brush with cancer 2 years ago. I know that I am one of the "lucky" ones, as far as this disease goes - and I am grateful for that, every day. My dad's reaction when he was diagnosed and in the same day admitted to palliative care was not to rail against the unfairness of it all, but instead to reflect on how great his 78 years on earth have been. Gratitude. I learned it from him. And so, I have decided to run a different 50k - Whistler Alpine Meadows - next weekend. On race day it will have been 5 weeks since he left us, and one month since we buried his ashes. The race is going to be extremely challenging, and extremely beautiful, and I'll probably cry my way through parts of it - but I will run every step of it mindfully, to honour my dad in the best way I know how, which is to be the person he taught me to be. Someone who lives life to the fullest, chases goals, doesn't take the easy road, and enjoys the simple things like spending time immersed in natural beauty. 

That's where my dad is now, to me. He is in the way the trees sway in the breeze, the way the rocks glisten when they're wet with rain, the way the water sparkles in the sunlight. He is with me, always, reminding me of where I came from, and where and who I want to be.
"Don't grieve. Everything you lose comes round in another form." - Rumi


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