Black Box Number 08-060

Posted by on Sep 23, 2009 in Death and renewal | 0 comments

It was a dreary rainy day in a long series of rainy days when the cardboard box showed up on our front porch. It was wrapped loosely in a plastic bag and left there anonymously between the newly painted railing and the cat food bowl. If the door bell rang I never heard it, even though I was up at dawn and working quietly on the computer at my dining room table. My birthday had been the day before, but I was not expecting presents, early or late. I carried the package into the house, removed the damp plastic bag and sat the box on the hall table. There was nothing on it by way of identification but the 08-060 stamped on the return label, but I knew immediately what was inside. Later when my husband woke I mentioned to him casually that his father’s earthy remains were sitting in the foyer. He gave no outward sign of interest. The day went by, and life continued to go on around the preacher’s ashes as they waited, patient and oblivious.

Our daughter arrived late Thursday evening from Arlington. She came in exhausted from her long work day, the dark rainy drive, and the weight of the baby boy that dwells in anticipation inside of her swelling body. Against all reason she has come to run the Richmond half marathon on Saturday. She has somehow involved me in this mad scheme. I had hoped for weeks for a miracle that would stop me from having to participate. Far from doing extra training for the race like I should have, I have been more slack than usual. I really do not want to do this and I am aware that I am stubborn beyond reason. Rather than try to argue with a child who makes me look like a sheep by contrast, I took my best passive aggressive stance, thereby shooting myself in the foot.

Reality kicked in Friday afternoon as we headed out into a cold windy rain to collect our shirts and the timing devices for our shoes. Inside the arena we shook off the cold and got our bearings. Our names are on one of the giant tables on the wall along with our numbers, 12467 and 12468. We follow the maze of paths through the circus of vendors and health gurus. We bought shirts with amusing sayings on them, got bum packs to carry our cell phones and energy shots, and I waited while she got a chair massage. Amid the music and fanfare I pretended I was one of these lean athletic beings in the flush of youth. I have no mirror to tell me I am lying. That comes tomorrow.

Friday night I still hope we will have another day of monsoon rain on Saturday. I practice trying not to sound phony when I tell the girl how disappointed I am about the cancelation. My husband and I go out dancing Friday night for my birthday, dismissing the tut-tut of our daughter that I am breaking training. My new shoes twirl wonderfully well across the floor. A lady in the bathroom line recognizes me. “Oh” she says, “I remember you. You were here a few weeks ago and girl, you can dance! I love watching you.” I laugh and thank her, tell her I practice every week religiously. At 11 the band is ending their second set and my husband insists we need to go home if I’m going to get up early tomorrow. I dance through the parking lot to “Johnny Be Good”.

Saturday the day dawned misty, cool and “perfect for running” according to my girl. I woke when my daughter’s cell went off in the bedroom next door. The clock said 5:37. She was chirping like a canary whose cage cover had just been removed. My stomach hurt as I pulled on my shirt that said, “This seemed like a good idea three months ago.” As I pin on my 12467 bib I note grimly that 08-060 is sitting on the table below the mirror. Eva is already wearing 12468 with the “baby on board” sign she glued on last night. I make coffee for myself and some scrambled eggs for us all. Because he is so supportive of both of the crazy women in his life, my husband drove us downtown and dropped us off as close to 7th and Broad as he could get. Inside my head I keep hearing the echoing tin voice of the Borg mantra, “Resistance is futile.”

We found our way to the starting corral and shivered for a few minutes until a sudden restlessness let us know it had begun. After about a half a mile we were spaced widely enough to start jogging. It was around the mile three mark when I slowed to a walk the first time. My daughter had been waiting for me to warm up enough to pick up the pace. I saw the first hill and somehow thought that if I went real fast on the down hill side the momentum would carry me over the top. Perhaps it would in cartoon world, but not for me, not this day. My feet seemed made of concrete, and the rest of the race is to be spent determining exactly how unprepared I am. Eva encouraged me by telling me bears were chasing me. I thought in my heart that a swift death from tooth and claw might be a blessing, but out loud I just gasp again that I am giving it all I have. Around mile ten I was doing a run/dance to the music of one of the many bands along the route when I heard the siren of the police escort for the man who was winning the full marathon. When he passed us the time clock on the pace car said 2:02. He ran with the same effort I use to attend a cocktail party, as perfec and beautiful a thing as I have ever seen.

I am inspired, and ever so briefly I run again until he has faded into the distance. Then the pain in my right foot and knee tell me I am neither a Kenyan nor am I 22. I slow to a walk again. I make brief stabs at the running every half mile or so as the cameras click and the zero body fat runners roll past with varying degrees of effort. The female winner surges by as I pass the Village on Grace Street, the bar where I used to hang every weekend when I was in my twenties. I wonder briefly why I never did anything like this then, but I remember immediately that my darling daughter had not yet been born. Even with the pain of every step I realize how blessed I am to have her in my life.

Turning the corner we head into the home stretch. Cary street lies before me, an easy gauntlet of screaming crowds, all downhill to the end. My girl and I start to run, ignoring the warnings our bodies are giving us. The crowd roars for someone, perhaps for her, perhaps for me, but I only care that it is almost over. She surges ahead at last, knowing she is safe to leave me, knowing I won’t stop now. I lose sight of her as she speeds away and I push harder, past the man who has paced me for most of the race. Suddenly the orange bar is under my right foot and then my left. The clock is still under three hours when the buzzer rings us past. I try to stop, but I feel my knees buckle. A lady grabs me, holds me up briefly and puts a medallion around my neck. “Keep walking,” she tells me. “Cool down.” I take her advice and walk until I can stand still without toppling over. I find my husband in the crowd and hang on to him across the bars that block off the street.

As we trudge uphill to the car we are exhausted and every step is agony, but we are giddy with the endorphins, laughing and talking the tale into family legend. I tell my girl that the part that inspired me the most was going by the retirement home at Imperial Plaza and seeing the line of wheelchairs parked, the old eyes watching in envy. When we get home the first thing I spy is the box on the table labeled 08-060, my father-in-law’s earthly remains. We take off out numbers and put them on the table beside him. Something about the juxtaposition makes me feel more alive.

The next day I got an email offering a discount for next year’s race. I asked my daughter if she wanted to do it again. She says she does and then, like an idiot, I remind her that she will have a baby then. Her quick retort assures me she is aware she is pregnant and reminds me that I have bought her a jogging stroller that will make her the envy of all the smart set in Arlington. On Monday I was able to walk again, not far and not fast, but the next day it got easier, and the next, and the next. This afternoon I ran three miles of a five mile course, alternating with walking. As the sun warmed me I suddenly realized that I missed the cheering crowds and the children holding out cups of power ade and water. I come into the front hall breathless but in high spirits. The black box sat on the table looking very much like a bear that might be chasing me. I got out my credit card, pulled up the web site, and signed up for next year’s marathon.

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