It’s been grayish and cool for a few days—an eternity for Santa Fe’s climate—and so when I woke this morning to see the sky scrubbed clear of clouds and cornflower blue, I knew there was only one thing I wanted to do: go for a run. The clarity was a gift; often I feel so torn between motherhood, writing, and adventure that I can’t decide how to spend the free time I have. Am I an athlete today, or a mother or a writer? Should I be working, playing, or hovering around the house with the babysitter, to compensate for all the times I do leave? I miss the predictable rhythms my days used to have before the girls were born, when activities fit in neat little boxes. First you work, then you run, or vice versa. Multitasking was something that harried mothers with spit-up on their shirts and food in their teeth had to do. Now I’m that mother, and figuring out how to fit it all in is its own task, a time-suck I can’t afford.
So I was psyched this morning to be able to so clearly visualize my day. First I run, then I write, then I mother. My heart and mind knew exactly what to do. But my body didn’t. The minute I stepped out of the car at the trailhead and slid my toes into my Vibrams, I knew something was up. The soles of my feet protested the thin layer of rubber beneath them. I was the Princess and the Pea—I felt every pebble in the parking lot pricking at my heels. I’ve spent the last six months running in my five-finger shoes, building up thick calluses on my soles. But today everything hurt: the long, reptilian crack in my right heel, exacerbated by four days on the river. The sometimes-tender spot between my big toe and its neighbor. My right Achilles.
But I ran anyway, limping through the first downhill, with the awkward gait of a just-born foal, my limbs moving in opposition to each other, my feet reluctant to fully settle on the ground. I thought if I could get through the first descent and start climbing, my body would know what to do. But even after my gait eventually normalized, I still felt like I was running on knives. I couldn’t figure out why I felt so sticky and sore, my body fighting itself and the normal paces I put it through, the very thing that usually brings me such strength and joy.
Then I came out of my myopic little pain cave and remembered.
A year ago today, my father learned he had kidney cancer. I don’t know how he got the news that day; I never did ask him. But as I hobbled along, I could sense his shock, the stoicism and disbelief that would follow, the dread at having to acknowledge this truth, the private way he must have held it at first, this knowledge of how little time might remain and the tasks that lay before him. His wife would have been top of mind. And his farm. And his unfinished work. And then, when the news settled a bit, how to make the necessary phone calls, to make it real, to set this new paradigm loose on the world, on us, his daughters.
He called me two days later. It was a Sunday, hot and sunny, summer still clinging hard to us, and vice versa. We decided to go rafting on the Rio Grande with some friends and their son. I knew it would be the last raft trip of the summer. I didn’t know that it would be the last raft trip before my father died.
My phone rang just as we were about to drive into the Rio Grande Gorge. A minute later, and we’d be swallowed up by the canyon walls, with no service for the rest of the day, but he caught us on the cusp. “Hi, Katie, it’s Dad.” His voice always used to rise on that last syllable, audible excitement mixed with golly-gee surprise that I picked up the phone.
“Hi, Dad,” I said. “We’re going rafting. We’re about to go into the Gorge. I’m probably going to lose you. Is everything OK?”
“No, not really.” Those words, a body slam to the chest.
I don’t recall my response, just that I lamely assured him that I’d call him as soon as we got off the river and out of the gorge. I felt the blood rush to my head and looked up as we passed the gas station and the fruit stand and the creepy abandoned motel-looking adobe and the glazed pottery shop and met the Rio Grande on our left and saw that it was still clear and flowing and that we would have a good float, regardless of the words I had just heard but had not yet uttered or dared to make real.
The canyon was the threshold between knowing and not knowing, between life as it was and life as I didn’t care to imagine, ever. I didn’t know the details, but I knew. Uncertainty rippled over me in waves, and dread sat down to stay. It was bad, I knew.
We floated the Rio Grande that day. The river was low but still passable, the day warm and gorgeous. Our friends borrowed our canoe and got excited and accidentally ran it into some willows on the bank, which scratched their son’s cheek. There was some drama, but none compared to the horrific scenarios in my head. I told my friend about the phone call, and she said, “Don’t worry until you have reason to worry. There’s no point,” and her advice sounded good, so sound and rational. I threw myself into it, that sensibility and level-headedness, to no avail. Steve rowed and I held the baby and wrestled the two year old and I worried. I knew.
|the river that day|
The rest of the day was a blur, except for this part: When the gorge spat us out again and I saw that my phone had service, I actually thought about not calling. Fear had me in its clutches, and rather than surrender, I was going to avoid it, ignore it, as long as possible. Fortunately my husband was more sensible. “Just call,” he said. “You never know.”
I did know, but I didn’t know, and then I did. I called and my father told me. Malignant tumor on his kidney. What he didn’t tell me was how long he had, or how big the tumor was, only that he felt relieved to know, relieved that the pain came from an irrefutable source, not just from his head, not from fear. This seemed to give him some comfort, even though it was the worst kind of news to receive, and deliver. “Stay positive,” I said, as much to myself as him, and for a moment I latched onto my own advice, as I had my friend’s. Yes, no reason to panic just yet.
So it began, the season of denial (mine) and despair and dying. When I visited him in Virginia a week and a half later, he said to me, “You know when your body is trying to tell you something. You know when something’s wrong. Listen to it.” I knew he was talking about his stubbornness and fear of going to the doctor, to get his lethargy and lack of appetite checked out. But instead, he’d pushed through for months, out of denial perhaps, or out of an uncanny certitude of what lay ahead. Perhaps he knew but he didn’t want to know, just as I hadn’t wanted to know. Perhaps he thought he could just push through, until he couldn’t anymore.
I didn’t think about all this while I ran this morning. I thought simply about my dad, and of being on the cusp of this season again, and not being ready for it. I thought about stopping, of sitting down on the pine needles and really thinking about what had happened, but instead I kept running. I pushed through. I thought that if I could keep running, I could shed my pain, which was his pain, really, and send it out into the ponderosas and the sky that was clouding over and the air that smelled like fall. I felt like I could push through, and I did.