My beloved Dad died six years ago (12/27/11).
For the first two anniversaries, my siblings, their families, my kids, and I gathered at the Lake Goodwin summer home to commemorate. We built a fire in the wood stove (Dad was premier fire builder), and sat awkwardly on the small, carved “butt chairs” he’d made to go around the magnificent coffee table, also hand-crafted by Dad from one giant slab of a madrona tree. We watched the slide show from his memorial, told stories about his passion for projects at the lake, and marveled at the flood of tears that still came. Later, we ate dinner at the 12-person dining room table he also built, seated on chairs that he made as well, missing him terribly but fully embraced by his legacy. Lake Goodwin was so steeped in “Dad’ims”, that it was hard for my siblings and me to even go to the lake for the first couple of years after he passed, other than to celebrate his death.
But time heals grief, and the subsequent four years have seen major improvements and upgrades to the home and property. Several all-out cleaning endeavors removed 50+ years of accumulated STUFF, making room for the present to co-exist with the past.
The lake is once again heavily used in the summertime, just like Dad always loved. His presence there remains strong, but less painful with the passage of years.
This past 12/27 was the fourth anniversary that my siblings and I did not gather at the lake, but instead exchanged remembrances via email or text, and each did our own thing to honor Dad.
This year, my thing was to go on a run.
My relationship with running is as complex as my relationship with my Dad. I loved both with fierce passion, never got enough time with either, and both were taken away from me in (of course, different levels of ) heartbreaking fashion. Dad too early and unexpectedly, even at age 83; running by repeated injuries and surgeries over the last 19 years.
Death brings finality. Dad is with me in memory and spirit everyday, but I know I can’t bring him back. While I miss him tremendously, his passion for life inspires me daily, and I am strong from aspects of him that live in me.
With running, I never felt ready to accept the finality of the relationship, even after things came to a crashing halt in 1999. That was the year I trained for the fourth and last marathon that I never ran…each time, injury occurred, preventing me from making it to the starting line.
In 1999, it was a herniated disc in my back from overtraining that led to a surgery that didn’t go well. I never regained the same ability to run again. I gave up on marathons, and fits and starts characterized any attempts to return to running. My ambitions were further diminished by subsequent foot, ankle and knee surgeries. I struggled to accept that my relationship with running might be dead too.
Then last June, reeling from my Mom’s death on June 1, 2016, I got inspired to try running again. Something about the stress and sadness of losing another parent drew me back to the quickest way I know to bring on endorphins, settle things in my head, and get through extremely difficult times of transition. Resuming running was slow and cumbersome, but I kept at it.
Each time I ran, I took along the memory of my Dad.
Running with Dad
No one in the family can remember exactly when or why Dad started running. My sisters Chris and Kari remember running with him in the mid-1970’s – mid 1980’s, and similarly, I remember running with him in High School (I graduated 1982) and some in young adulthood.
It’s possible Dad ran before he discovered “running with his daughters”. But Chris, Kari and I all remember runs with him, occasionally as a family on Thanksgiving (maybe my brother Brad came, too, I don’t remember), but mostly, each of us alone with Dad. Those running dates with Dad were special times, an opportunity to solve the problems of the world (or at least take a stab at our own) as the miles flew slowly but steadily by.
It was hard to get alone time with Dad, as he worked long hours as an orthopedic surgeon, and had incredible devotion to my Mom. His non-working hours were spent mostly with her, and we all yearned for Dad time. Dad’s workout times, whether running or lifting weights on his patched together home gym, were HIS time. My sisters and I felt honored to grab solo time with him for a run.
And Dad loved it too. He raved about his “daughter runs”. In retrospect, I wish I’d known how important they were to him, and how short in duration his running days would be. I would have run with him more and stressed less about all my own adolescent and young adult problems that kept me, at times, too self-absorbed to care about running with Dad. I assumed he’d run with us forever, the invincible father we all thought him to be.
Sadly, that was not the case. By the time Dad retired (at age 59, in 1987), he was arthritic beyond repair in both ankle joints. He had to give up running, and by age 60, he was fused in both ankles. Post-fusions, he had no ability to flex or extend his ankles, and eventually wore rocker shoes to regain some mobility. My sister Chris remembers one walk with Dad shortly after he got his first rockers, and his excitement about being able to still get out and about for some distance on foot. What I remember is trying to take Dad rock climbing in Joshua Tree in 1989, and the sad realization on both of our parts that he did not have the ankle flexibility to do even an easy climb.
Dad never ran a race, but he DID walk the Daughter’s and Dad’s Dash with me in 2001, a big smile accompanying us on the 5K event I’d organized. A great memory!
Celebrating Dad on the Anniversary Run
With only a couple dozen runs ever done with Dad, why is he always with me when I run? Five things came to mind on my sixth-year anniversary run.
His Passion for the Runner’s High
Dad understood the “Runner’s High”, the feel-good endorphins that are released during intensive exercise. He often referred to a 10-mile run he did in Kobe, Japan, once while on business there. “I felt like I could have run forever!” He’d say, excitedly, in contrast to his normally practical self. “I get why people run, why running is so important to you, Katho, as that runner’s high takes over everything else.” In my struggles to recover from surgery and get back into running, Dad offered me words of caution and understanding. “There are other things you can do that aren’t so hard on the joints,” he’d say, “but I also get why you want to run and I won’t tell you not to.”
His Love of a Body in Motion
In church, I can remember my Dad always jiggling his feet, shifting positions, doing something to keep the body moving. Maybe that’s why he started running, for the steady, rhythmic, predictable action of repetitive movement. In some capacity, Dad always moved.
I am certain that is where my similar love of movement came from. Like Dad, I also move, stretch, wiggle, keep the body in motion. Especially at this time of year, I love that the movement of my body can generate heat against cold conditions, another thing Dad taught me and my siblings about movement. As kids on the ski hill, Dad would have us clapping our hands fiercely to stay warm on the chairlift, jumping up and down waiting in lift lines, and waving our arms in big circles to keep blood flowing.
Now, running in winter (which I have not done in countless years before this), I remember those tactics, and smile when the effort exerted from running causes my core to warm up and my hands to even sweat! And, later, as I watch my feet jiggle while writing this post, I know Dad taught me well the importance of movement.
Celebrating what the Human Body CAN do
Dad loved to see what the body was capable of. I remember once when I was a child, and Dad ran around Lake Goodwin (6.5 miles). That was before we ran, we were just kids, and Kari and I met him at the turn off (where he’d have just 1/2 mile to go) with wild blackberries we’d picked while waiting. He was so spent, he could not eat them, thanking us but saying they might make him sick. I felt sad, even hurt, at the time, that he would reject our kind offer at the (near) end of his run.
But as I grew older, I grasped the reality of going all-out in a workout. Sometimes it feels good to exert to the point of exhaustion, or at least so far as to reject wild blackberries! I remember other times, when Dad did the famed Bellingham Ski to Sea race, the canoeing leg. He’d push SO HARD that he’d nearly throw up, and his legs would be utter jelly trying to help drag the canoe up from the shores of the river. I loved that about him — that he was willing to go that far, see what he was capable of, and his gung-ho attitude inspired me to no end.
Even after he could no longer run, Dad ALWAYS found a way to do something. He walked, biked, or swam, and continued to ski into his mid 70’s. When those things became too challenging, he increased his work-outs on his home gym. That was something he did his whole life, at least as long as I can remember. He performed an elaborate stretching and exercise routine each and every morning, the extensive nature of which became a family joke, especially after his retirement. An overnight stay at the home of origin always found Dad or Grandpa doing his exercises first thing every morning, like his very life depended on it. Maybe it did.
Running, or any Form of Exercise, to Clear the Head
If I had to summarize one thing I know from Dad and about running, it’s that exercise is key to mental health. At least mine. And his.
No matter how busy he was, Dad found a way to work out. Since he was fortunate to retire early, he had a good number of years to explore his passions for activity, even while his body simultaneously was limiting what he could do. He’d exercise early and with urgency, needing the endorphin fix and calming effects that it brought him.
The workouts, outdoor activities, and work projects were his go-to places. There he found the necessary boost to care for my Mom for most of her life. And to be the glue that held the family together. While that wasn’t all on his shoulders, he did bear the primary responsibility for making sure all four kids turned out at least relatively well-adjusted…and all with a strong inclination toward exercise as the ticket to mental health.
Exercise to “Normalize” Life
I can speak for myself about running as a “normalizing” activity, and for Dad, exercise in general as such.
When Mom died, I needed to turn somewhere. My relationship with my Mom was much more emotionally complicated than that with my Dad, and almost on par in the grieving department. I felt depths of unexpected sadness I didn’t know I contained when she died, and I struggled with feeling a loss of control and lack of footing in my life.
I started running again after years of lay-off with the intention of re-grounding. I wanted comfort and familiarity in my doubly altered, parentless world. Running, I knew, had a history of making me feel better. Quickly and predictably. I needed that, and the activity itself brought me unexpectedly back around to my Dad.
With Dad, we all watched him struggle to regain normalcy after an unexpectedly extensive 5-way heart bypass surgery in October 2011. His recovery was ragged at best, in and out of nursing homes and the hospital numerous times with post-surgical complications.
I remember him struggling to lift weights and trying to walk even a half-mile on the treadmill, certain that if he could do that, he would recover. He linked his very survival to being able to get back into motion, something that became nearly impossible when he had to go on oxygen. He hated that he could not breath on his own, and fought that hard and directly. He had us all convinced he would win the battle, as none of us kids or his grandkids thought he would ever die. At least not then. He wasn’t ready and neither were we.
But that’s not what happened. His heart and lungs continued to fail, and by Christmas Day of 2011, he was back in the hospital. After two miserable nights, he took himself off breathing apparatus, a choice we all knew would end his life. He spent his last day on earth surrounded by loved ones.
As I ran this anniversary day, I got that running to celebrate Dad was also a celebration of my life. I knew he would approve of my activity choice, despite all the challenges, and I rose to meet them, step after step, just as he did for his whole life. Thanks for a great run, Dad!