Monday, May 20, 2013

Charities and Tourniquets

It's been about a month now, long enough for the majority of us to go through several thoughts each day before remembering the tragedies of the Boston marathon, but close enough that the eeriness still lingers and the memories feel more sharp than dull. I wonder if I can't jump into this brief window in time and add some other images that may even rest next to the pictures and stories already so deeply engraved into our minds.

The MGH Pediatric Oncology Marathon Team comes together for a private pasta dinner the night before the big race every year, and for the second year in a row, I got to attend as my Dad's date (he was one of 107 runners this year). It is a night for the runners and their loved ones, but it is especially a night for the little ones they run for who are currently undergoing treatment for childhood cancer, and it's for their parents, and their siblings. It's the sort of night when tears swell your throat the moment you arrive, and you know they are not sad tears or joyful ones, but that they are both.

At every table sits at least one child patient surrounded by family, and you look at the parents, and you haven't the vaguest idea what really they've been through, but you look at them, and they are smiling, and they are laughing, and they are working on motivating signs for the runners and telling their kids to eat their dinner and to stop hitting their brother and they are just like you. And this could happen to anyone, and you know that, but they are experiencing it. You watch the kids and they are happy kids, resilient beyond belief, sneaking desserts, many running around, some sitting because they want to, others sitting because they aren't able to run right now.

This year, two women, both runners, spoke at the event. Both women were also treated for childhood cancer at MGH, and both, so many years later, were running the 26.2 mile race on Patriot's Day. I couldn't help but lean over to 11 year old Stephen, who dad runs for and whom I adore so dearly, and say to him, "That is going to be you someday." I really believe that. And he to me, "I hope so."

The medal ceremony, April 14, 2013
The night embraced the children with warmth and the families with very real hope. The runners, who'd been training for months to run for hours, were never once in the spotlight except when honored with the role of putting medals around their little patient partners who stood proudly on a stage if they were able.

Pre-race breakfast, Marathon Monday, April 15, 2013
At race, looking for snacks and dog-watching
The energy carried, seemingly without pause, straight into the next day, Marathon Monday. Noah, Grace, and I arrived at the 20 mile mark in our matching yellow MGH Marathon shirts and black pants, ate some lunch with other MGH fans, found Aunt Jan (dad's sister), and chose our spot to stand amongst the MGH team supporters. The day, all sun with the slightest breeze, wrapped itself around the fans, the runners. Umbrellas and parents shielded the little warriors who could attend, some with no hair at all, from the sun. But the energy was with everyone. I taught Noah how to cheer ("Go Go Run!" "You're almost there!" "Looking great, keep it up!") and Grace, for once silent, stared wide-eyed at the scene.

I left the kids with Aunt Jan and ran upstream to catch Dad, thinking he'd enjoy the company for a half mile or so. As I walk-jogged along watching for him, I listened to Boston; I heard fans saying to fans, "Hey, you're a really good cheerer" and a man on a microphone gave a shout out to every runner with a name on their shirt. The embarrassing, I've-never-felt-lazier-in-my-life moments where runners raise their arms up, asking the fans to cheer harder... those didn't even happen much this year, because we were already there, cheering freely, loudly loving our runners.

When I saw Dad, I sailed over him with pride, my feet barely touching the ground, eager to be at his side as he steadily (albeit perhaps more slowly than earlier on) made his way to mile 20. Once I figured out I had to slow it down a bit because he had 19.5 miles on me, I talked to him and said helpful things and gruffly (as if I had a right to act like an exhausted runner... but, oh, it was fun for that moment!) asked an enthusiastic Gatorade hander-outer for some Gatorade (for dad, not me) and the man said, "Yes, yes! Do you want two?" And I told Dad, as he kept running towards Heartbreak Hill that he had this, that I promised he was going to finish, that I couldn't even believe what he'd already done.

About 20 minutes later, the optimistic energy so thickly wound between patients and runners and fans alike dissolved into desperation. Nobody needs those moments rehashed; we all lived it in some way. For a few moments that afternoon, as I gripped my phone, white knuckled, waiting for dad's call, I lost all my faith in people; I felt hatred. I knew a person -- or people -- had done this. It is a shameful admission, that I felt that hate, and just as quickly as it came, it did pass and really didn't come back, and hope regained its place. Because that  day, that day. The shirts turned into tourniquets; the finishers who didn't rest but ran again to help save strangers; the sirens, the endless sirens screaming down the road to help save, make it better.

Now, think for a moment about the runners who were on their way towards crossing the finish line after the critical 4 hrs 9 minutes time seen on so much footage from that day. Most of the post-four hour runners would not have qualified by timing standards to run the Boston Marathon. Rather, they were running for charities, for Dana Farber and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and MGH Peds Oncology. They'd spent months raising thousands of dollars and awareness for their causes. They ran with names on their shirts for people they'd lost and people they were honoring and people who still have a chance. Boston made us so proud that day the way it stepped up and gave itself to all in need that particular afternoon. But it's worth remembering that the kindness was always there, the spirit has always run deep, from the front of the pack to the end, from those who finished and then raced to save lives, to those who ran in the first place for just that reason.

Grace in her Marathon MGH "dress"