Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Cruelest Month

"April is the Cruelest Month" - T. S. Elliot

If you'd asked me about this quote 7 years ago, I would have agreed with Mr. Elliot. I grew up in the Northeast and April was the month I often begged for spring, warmth, and sunshine but was more often than not dished up a meal of cold and grey with a random side dish of lake effect snow.

Now comfortably situated in Virginia, I'd argue against his theory and say that February - not April, is the cruelest month. It's dark, it's cold, and well into a winter we often wish was over. The warmth and congeniality of Christmas and New Year's are but a memory, and Easter is a long, long way off. Days are short; the patience for spring is shorter. This February was particularly cruel for me, the runner: it was the month I was rudely awakened from my dream of running this April's Boston Marathon. Running a marathon is often as much about conquering the distance as it is conquering the limits of the human body. But this also assumes that you can actually get to the starting line. In January, as I ramped up my training, the hamstring I so gingerly pampered in the Autumn again reminded me to not think too far ahead, to not be overly presumptuous. Various scans and medical visits confirmed my fears: if I were to be in Boston on Patriots' Weekend, it would be as a spectator.

I committed half-heatedly to my physical therapy and the realization that I was a goal-oriented runner. Without some noble goal, I couldn't seem to drag myself out of bed for the cold, dark morning runs. These runs, for so long, were my own beacon of light in my day: they provided energy, clarity, and a route to focus. But without some greater goal, I was laid bare and felt the basest of hypocrites: did I not love running for running itself? Was my ego and sense of accomplishment too closely tied to a finishers medal? Maybe. Possibly. Maybe I was like so many who preferred to hibernate in the cozy comfort of flannel sheets on the cold winter mornings. Or maybe I was just tired.

I sought for some kind of meaning out of my predicament, but found myself irritable and often times needing to pout. So often in my blogs I speak of relativity and gratitude; I wish I was as ardent a practitioner as a preacher. Like so many very members of this oh-so-human race, my words are easier to write than actually do. Hypocrisy: thy name is mine.

February is the cruelest month.

As a child, I welcomed the month - this month, February, the month of my birth. As an adult, I'm much more aware that this day is really one that parents celebrate. And if we raise our children right, they may eventually think not of themselves, but of those who put them on this earth. On my 46th birthday, I ran and thought so often of my mother and father, and threw out thanks and gratitude to them for their love, patience (LOTS of patience), and the gift of their example. The road I ran was one they had paved for me so many years ago. But as I get older, I find myself not so much dreading as minimizing the date the milestone represents. I joke about now being in "the back 9 of my 40's" and feeling caught somewhere in the purgatory that is youth and old age: I feel far too vibrant to say I'm 'old', but see all too well the history and it's footprint in my face and body to know I'm several years removed from the pinnacle of youth. And if my rational brain doesn't convince me of that, my body is happy to remind me that the fountain of youth is not even close to Richmond, Virginia.

If February has a color, it is red. Despite the darkness and cold and seasonal association with sacrifice and lent, there is still the mid-month celebration of love. I see the representations of the holiday: red roses, red boxes of chocolate, red lips, red hearts. I wonder about those newly twinned with love and the pressure this holiday evokes. I wonder about those whose love has become ambivalent and how the holiday was once something to be revered and treasured but has - somehow - evolved into another item on the 'To Do' list.

I found myself in an airport on February 13th, trying to get to Boston for work. The weather in the northeast caused delays, and I sat on a bar stool with an hour to kill, the battery on my laptop long since depleted. I chatted with a young lady in her 20's. She was from Toronto and was full of the energy and promise I remembered possessing at that age. When I heard the first call for my flight, I asked the waitress for my bill, and offered to pay for hers in a spirit of camaraderie that stranded and delayed travelers so often feel. As I reached for my credit card, I saw a man in army fatigues, and as I handed the card over to the waitress, said I'll pay my tab and hers.... and tipping my head in the direction of the soldier and his. He looked at me, and smiled weakly. Thanks a lot. I appreciate that. The glass of wine had made me magnanimous but there was something in his quiet answer that gave me pause. I thanked him for his service and asked him where he was headed. Paris, he answered. I jumped on his answer It's a beautiful city! How long will you be there? He looked at his beer, then answered quietly, Not too long. It's just a layover until I catch the flight to Iraq. I'll be there 2 months, and then I'm done. I didn't know how to respond; I knew there was nothing I could say that would ease his concern. I asked him where he was from, where his family was. Well, I'm from Tennessee, but my family... well, I don't have any family now. All of a sudden those roses and red hearts ceased to have meaning. His sadness was palpable. Stay safe. It was the only thing I could weakly muster. His quiet, humble way just made me re-think my own frustration at a delayed flight, bad weather. I thought that even if he did make it safely home in 2 months, to what kind of home would he return? I shook his hand, then left. I said a quiet prayer for his safety and peace of spirit. I never learned his name.

I made my way to the plane and boarded with the hope of a quiet flight and 90 minutes to read or sleep. I found my seat on the aisle. There was a woman on the window seat; I guessed her age somewhere between mine and 10 years older. She was very blond, a few pounds overweight, and nervously chatty. Her clothing was a bit rumpled and baggy, very 'Earth Mother'. She was reading a book I knew my daughter had read and we had polite conversation about it. The flight took off and I dove into my own book.

About 15 minutes before we were to land I set aside my book, and my row companion struck up a conversation. I don't know how it started. I remember complementing her on some her jewelry: it was interesting but I'll admit I didn't look too closely at it. She said Yes, I have on all my Pagan stuff today. I blinked and thought OK, this is a little weird. I'll admit it: I wasn't being exactly tolerant. Chalk it up to fatigue. I changed the subject, What brings you to Boston? This is usually the safest of questions, the answer almost always Business or Vacation or Family. She looked at me, then looked at her lap and replied I'm here to scatter my son's ashes. I'm a mother and at that moment a giant hand wrapped around my throat. For the second time that day, I knew there was nothing I could say that would help the wound heal. I'm so sorry. I'm a mother too, I'm so so sorry... I looked her in the eyes and saw nothing but the deepest regret. He died 14 months ago. He was 22... I was raised to not ask too many questions in situations like this, and she didn't offer an others with respect to her son's death. She did talk about her 2 daughters who both lived in Texas. She didn't mention a spouse, so I concluded there wasn't one. There were tears in her eyes. I reached over and held her hand I know there is nothing I can say. I'm so sorry for your loss. I hope that this trip helps you in some way... my voice trailed off. Thanks, she quietly said. I've been dreading this trip but I know it'll help. She stopped, then laughed and said I have his ashes in my carry-on bag. I was ready to put up a fight if they gave me a hard time at the security screening... She smiled and I weakly smiled back. We sat in silence and I held her hand until the plane landed. As I got off the plane, I turned to her and said Take care, be well. I thought that was the last I'd see of her. But I ran into her at Baggage Claim. She seemed hyper and a bit wired; I think she realized she was that much closer to letting go of her boy. She chatted on and I grabbed my bag to go. She looked at me, and I put my bag down and hugged her, one mother to another. She held on to me tightly and I whispered to her I know you'll never forget him. I let go of her. She looked at me and said Thanks. When I tell most people about his death, they change the subject. I smiled and said the same thing I'd said to the soldier: Stay safe.

I walked out of Logan Airport toward the Rental Car Courtesy Shuttle, and couldn't shake the last couple of hours, what I had seen in the eyes of these people whose paths randomly crossed mine. I thought about the nasty weather and travel delays and my griping about a hamstring and a missed race and balanced them against the soldier and this woman. The scales were most definitely tipped and not in their favor. I was the lucky one. My worries were nothing that wouldn't pass with time. In a couple of hourse I'd have forgotten about the hassles of travel. In a few months, I'd be ready to try and qualify for Boston. It would all be gone, forgotten. The soldier, however: would he return? I'll never know and I hope I remember him and the payment exacted from him for his service. And this mother, travelling to Boston to let go of her son on Valentine's day, the day of love. For her, it was, I imagine, a day of limitless sorrow. I sat in the dim light of the courtesy shuttle and thought how providence can shine one day and be absent the next, and we could never be certain what is around the next corner. I thought about the next day and the significance of the holiday. There would be people celebrating love. For these two people, they would be perhaps regretting it, missing it; They would have their memories and little else. I looked at my hands and turned them over - they'd shaken the hand of the soldier and held the mother of a dead son. They looked very small.

February is the cruelest month. But not for me, at least not this year.