I remember the day I lost my pappy. How lost I felt, and how terribly sad the world felt. The only granddaughter to this blue eyed man with an incredible sense of humor, uncanny wit, and a pleasant ability to find pleasantry in just about anything. He loved to work with his hands, staying busy most of the time. Even as he aged, he still worked tirelessly in his huge vegetable garden. He glowed bringing in freshly harvested carrots, peas, tomatoes, and delicious red beets; which would get scrubbed up and proudly served for dinner. Fast -forward a few years, and my grand mothers soul was slipping away with her health. Nanny had lost her souls mate, and never was quite right again. My grandmother died the morning of my birthday. I will never forget the phone call, or the feeling of the cold Vermont morning and the sensation of the wall behind my back as I slid against it to the floor in tears listening to my fathers voice crying on the other end that she had been taken home. As I walked up to her casket before it was lowered into the ground next to my grandfather, my stomach wretched, and my heart thumped hard and painfully into my throat. I tossed sunflowers into the hole. One for each of us, and then cried hard as I thought of their bodies lying deep beneath the earth.
A few days later, I awoke and gazed into Lake Champlain. I lubed up my bicycle, aired up the tires, and decided I would head out for a long ride among the back rural roads of St. Albans, VT. Mile after mile I cried in sadness.. until I spotted my shadow.
Gazing upon the shadow I remembered that the same hands that were holding my handlebars contained all of my grandparents, and therefore my shadow reminded me that we would always be together. That summer I rode more miles than I had ever ridden in an entire summer, hundreds each week. Each time I road I fell more in love with my shadow, and more in love with my family that would forever be with me.
Since the cycling trauma, I have fallen away from cycling purely because of the fear. Perhaps my fear is without blame, as my shadow almost joined them in heaven. I have found my breath again through running.. a sport that I quite simply always hated. “I’m only running so I can do triathlons”, I would always say… “Running hurts..”, was my normal statement. Struggling with an auto-immune disorder and a Chiari made everything hurt when I pounded pavement, but the more I told myself I hated running “BECAUSE”, the more it would define itself to be a chore… instead of a gift, and something I could love.
Then came that day. The day I finally walked again. I walked from one side of the rehab center with my therapist Robyn, who held my wound vac in one hand, my catheter bag in her pocket, my heart rate monitor in her other pocket, and managed to maintain my wheel chair behind me as I slowly inched steps across the floor with my walker. My back wounds seeped from underneath my dressings onto the floor and my head became faint.. I was about to faint. Down I went, back into my wheel chair, blood pressure cuff quickly wrapped around my arm, and a tender voice saying “You did it Colleen.. it is ok, we got you.. you did it.. all the way across the room!”. I slept the remainder of the day, with the exception of wound changes.. and I dreamt of running.. running with a shadow.
A year later, when I was finally able to try and walk fast without a walker I decided.. “Forget walking, Im going to run”. I dreamed of running. Weird considering how much I hated it before. Across the first finish line in New Haven I ran.. Averaging about 13 minute pace for a 5k.. Full of gratitude, I hugged the doctor at the Yale Orthopedic medicine tent. “I had my pelvis SCREWED back together! Just one year ago! I still have a huge hole in my butt! I still have a giant 18 inch wound on my leg, and a hole in my abdomen, but I JUST RAN! HOW COOL IS RUNNING?”. That was it. Suddenly, I loved to run.
For the first time I felt pain unlike I ever felt it in my life. Lupus is painful. Chiari is painful, brain surgery is painful, fracturing your foot is painful, Cryoglobulenemia is painful.. Add a 30 ton freight truck running over me worth of new injuries and I was in for more pain than I ever thought the human body could handle.. and all I wanted to do was run.
Running was scary, Running was uncertain. With running came balance, my head had been shaken, my gate was off, and my legs were weak. Every step of a jog felt like landing a 300 pound body.. I needed someone to run with me. Along came the love of my friends, my husband, and more friends.. willing to run beside me.. willing to remind me that it was ok that I was struggling with my breath, I wasn’t dying again.. not this time.. I was simply exercising. Since the trauma almost 19 months ago, I have completed over 20 finish lines. All of these finish lines have been with someone beside me, until today.
During St. Patricks weekend my brother said to me that he would be my shadow running beside me, because his body wasn’t ready to run. He ruptured his Achilles and it also ruptured a bit of his heart and soul. I could never imagine his journey as he laid there unable to provide for his family. Thinking of him being in my shadow brought me back to my grandparents. “Sis, when you look down at the road, know I am running alongside of you”. That St. Patricks Day I ran a half marathon in NYC. The weather was cold, I had absolutely no pain management.. and I was struggling. Panic began to take over my body as the pain had set in and then the sun cast its warm rays upon me and I saw my shadow. “There you are nanny, pappy, and Erin”.
Today I found myself back at another starting line, only this time I knew I could not run an entire half marathon. Yesterday I found myself in the ER after episodes of vomiting due to scar tissue build up in my stomach, and an enlarged kidney. Even though I was struggling in so much pain, my desire to run fueled me to ask the doctors if I could at least run the 5k portion of the race. They said yes, and I never gave a second thought to the fact that I would need someone running beside me.
Standing in the starting pen with hundreds upon hundreds of runners, I noticed all of the Sandy Hook Tshirts around me- honoring the many children and teachers that were killed fifteen minutes from where we stood. I gazed down at my shadow and thought, “Ok Erin, nanny, pap, and all of you angels.. let’s run this 5k”. Running with the shadows. As I ran along the 3.1 miles I breathed in the air around me, and looked down at not only my shadow but all of the shadows of everyone running around me. We are never alone. We are always running with the shadows.
To my grandparents. Thank you for teaching us love and strength.
To my brother, you will always be my first hero. I love you dearly.