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My Final Moment With Mom
I’VE TRACKED EVERY STEP I’VE RUN FOR A DECADE. SUDDENLY, THE IDEA MAKES ME SICK.
Until recently I could have rattled off my running plans for the coming days, weeks, and months. Could have recited both the intent of the sessions and the estimated splits, and waxed poetic about the expected mileage that would lead me through an undulating rhythm of fatigue and recovery in pursuit of a personal best.
Then mom’s heart stopped. And in a moment, as her breath went silent and her generous heart grew still, the force behind all of those plans slipped away.
Still, I need to move.
“Wanna go for a run?” My wife invited me the following day, for the first time in nearly a decade.
And so we walked, then jogged. Shuffled, then stopped. We talked about mom, tears rolling past my chin onto my neck without concern. We stopped to breathe in the forest. We stopped again when we were out of breath. I pushed when my heart hurt too much to speak and slowed when my mind grew too frantic to continue.
None of this belonged on Strava.
Usually, I love tracking. The simple joy of stacking small colored boxes to represent work offers the pleasure of telling a story in many tiny chapters. Incremental reflection toward a future date. But now it feels wrong.
After mom died, I took time to move, occasionally for an hour, other times just a quick lap of the park nearby. Intentional exertion seemed to squeeze out a bit of the tension cinching tighter around my chest each day.
The point is the movement, anything that I can muster. Attempting to summarize such healing in a GPS file feels cheap and imprecise. If I manage a run, begun at a shuffle, filled with surges, walk breaks, and labored breathing, does distance or average pace even matter? Any form of digital reflection feels amiss when even clicking my watch takes me away from the momentary relief that I’m working so hard to find. When these strides feel necessary for survival, who gives a shit what they amount to for training?
— — — — — — — — — — — —
“I know this is hard, but I don’t care, you’ve gotta fight!” I implored my mom loudly over the blasting rush of supplemental oxygen inflating her lungs.
Eyes locked into hers from inches away, I sensed the familiar signs of cardiovascular exertion. She was working for every breath. Now was the time for toughness.
This was nowhere to die.
“I’m sorry! I know this isn’t easy!!” I encouraged her with a sick smile, attempting to slightly mock the dire situation to see if I could earn a smirk. She and I thrived on giving each other shit, and I pictured this as maybe the last chance to exchange our love language. “You shit head,” she so often affectionately replied, and in her eyes, I still sensed a glimmer of that spirit. She couldn’t summon words, but her gaze signaled composure, understanding, and effort. My tears dripped onto the gown they’d wrapped around her upon arrival in the ER. The garment’s soft blue a striking contrast from the strong navy and white that she’d sheathed herself in for decades. A white sweater, part of her everyday uniform, lay to the side, having been knifed off in alarm when she entered.
After years of illness, months of treatment, and weeks of worry, the moment for full alarm was now.
The alerts and sensors beeped constantly, creating a cacophony of concern. If she was going to move on from here it was going to take effort and good fortune. I wanted her out. With its piercing light, alarming noises, and sterile workshop arrangement, this room was the wrong place for life to end.
— — — — — — — — — — — —
Two days later, trying and failing to find my stride, I was forced to a halt by a tension stretching from my head, through my pelvis, to my toes. My entire body felt like a bow arching backward under such tightness that it might snap.
But walking was alright. A shuffle was manageable. None of this was running, not in the way that I knew. But I couldn’t sit still. Each hour spent motionless with my thoughts made me want her to call her even more.
Since leaving home for college decades ago the cadence of that sensation has been constant. The feeling when I know that I’m overdue to call. It’d occur to me and I’d snap to action, knowing that if I’ve finally remembered then I’d already waited too long.
“Oh, good of you to call your mom!” She’d greet me in jest. Her mock disgust signaling that she both appreciated the connection and also enjoyed that her son was out busy in the world.
Now that I found myself flooded with support from people of every era of my life, the only person I would kill to call could no longer answer.
I’ve run each day since she died, but can’t yet stomach recording the miles. Moving my feet fast enough to stir fatigue, my lungs force open a ribcage that has grown taut from stress. Though I knew that a digital record of these runs could never be fully accurate, why did I feel so averse to pressing record?
I realized that my disgust for hitting start was actually panic over moving on. If keeping a digital record meant measuring progress toward a later date, it also now meant stepping outside of the moment that I never want to leave. One where I still have her.
My mind screams and clings to the slippery mental images of the final moments in which mom is still here.
Weeks gone by, the phantom pains of having neglected to call her send me lurching for my phone, only to remember that that responsibility is no more.
— — — — — — — — — — — —
After hours of heroic medical work in the ER she was deemed stable enough to move to a more soothing setting in the ICU. Settled in with lights down low, her oxygen level and medications now aiming for comfort, my brother and I were able to be with her peacefully. We hovered closely, sensing that our window together was closing.
The oxygen assistance having left her parched, the nurse suggested he and I try to soothe her with a small sponge to suck on. Clearly relieved, she welcomed the hydration. Would she like more I asked?
“Please,” she answered, her eyes locked on mine. That was her last word.
As I held mom’s body in encouragement, my head buried into the pillow next to hers, I listened closely to her faint breath as it drifted off. I gripped her soft pulse until it could no longer be felt.
Though I experienced her body’s final effort and witnessed as she transitioned to stillness, I still can’t fathom that she’s gone.
If running imparts a single truth most forcefully it’s that time moves forward relentlessly. No amount of effort or longing allows us to rerun the past. And it teaches us that if we keep moving, no matter our emotions, that is enough.
Someday soon I will record a run again. The session might not be fast, and the record may still be incomplete, but having worked up the courage it will signal an important step - that a broken-hearted son has found a way to hang onto his mom as he begins moving forward.