So, today would've been Abby's 45th birthday (my sister). I think it is only fitting that I post my essay about the marathon journey that she and I embarked on and completed together in 2005. The essay can be found in The 27th Mile, which is "an anthology for runners by runners," and all of the proceeds from the sale of the anthology went to help support the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. Thank you for taking the time to read the essay...
By Jason Fisk
I remember hiking a mountain with my sister Abby and looking out over the city of Tucson from the top, absorbing the dry desert beauty.
Growing up, Abby became my best friend by default. We never lived in one house for more than three years; she was someone who was always there for me. The fact that she was a tomboy made it that much easier for me to relate to her.
She had such an adventurous spirit. She was super competitive too. One time, when all of the neighbor kids had gathered around our front stoop to watch me eat a live worm, she stole my thunder by popping one into her mouth and eating it before I had even worked up the nerve to put it anywhere near my lips. I eventually stopped playing board games with her because she was so competitive.
The trip down the mountain path went twice as fast as the hike to the top had taken. I loved how the pull of gravity forced my mind to act quickly, sending messages to my feet: jump, quick, turn, slow down, speed up, turn, jump, catch yourself. Near the bottom, Abby turned to me and said, “Isn’t this a rush?”
“It is,” I said, “but do you wanna know what’s an even bigger rush?”
“What,” she said, dabbing the sweat from her forehead.
“Running a marathon, and finally crossing the finish line.”
I had just run the Chicago Marathon two months before. I told Abby about running over that last incline, rounding the final corner, and seeing the finish line right there before you. I told her about the beauty of complete strangers cheering for you, acknowledging all the hard work you had put into the training, cheering for all of the miles you had logged in over the past four months. And I told her about the strange combination of exhilaration, exhaustion, and adrenalin that coursed through my being as they draped the Mylar blanket over my shoulders, cut the timing chip from my shoe, and handed me the heavy finishers’ medal.
“So, how about it?” I asked her at the foot of the trail.
“You want to run a marathon with me?” she asked.
“Yes. It’s ten times the rush this was. Come on.”
Eventually, she acquiesced, and we began our long distance training together. She was in Tucson, and I was in Chicago. We called each other before, and after, our long runs. We encouraged each other daily with emails and phone calls. We ran through the pain and complained about the whole process together. We questioned the sanity of the long runs, and were in awe at how much time training was taking form everything else in our lives, specifically our spouses. It felt like the training had taken over my life, and the race would never happen. It wasn’t until I picked her up at the airport that I realized we would be running the marathon in just a matter of days.
Race morning came, and I remember standing there with Abby in the middle of tens of thousands of people, feeling their energy, sharing the moment. The music was being pumped from loudspeakers everywhere. There was a helicopter flying above the crowd, filming for the news. Then there was an announcement, and then the BANG of the start gun. As we looked out over the crowd, we saw hundreds of warm-up shirts being tossed to the side of the road, and we jogged in place as we waited for our turn to get to the start line.
We ran. We absorbed Chicago as we ran through the neighborhoods. We ran Boys’ Town and China Town, among other neighborhoods. We didn’t talk a lot. Occasionally, we’d point to this or that, and nod, or ask, “Isn’t this cool?” It was at mile marker 23 that we both began to run out of fuel, or hit the wall, as they say. We had been out of sync for most of the run, trying to find the other’s pace, and we were now paying for the distance in our training. At one point we stopped to walk, and a stocky man came up behind me and pushed me forward. “Keep going,” he said. We ran again, and eventually, slowly, covered the last three miles. We came up over the hill, rounded the corner, and ran toward the finish line. It was like we were in slow motion, heavy feet plodding toward our goal. We crossed the finish line together, hugged, and then we both started crying.
I found myself crying in her presence again six years later; only the circumstances were not nearly as pleasant. I walked into the hospital room and saw her sitting in the bed with her bony knees covered by sterile white blankets. I saw how her face had sunk into itself, and her collarbones and shoulders were more pronounced, exaggerated, from all of her weight loss, and I had to turn away to collect myself and wipe away the tears.
To sum up her three-year battle with Ulcerative Colitis, she lost her colon, lost her daughter in utero, and was now struggling with a horribly painful abscess surrounding the area where the ileostomy emptied waste into a plastic bag hanging from her side. She was having a difficult time eating, let alone processing food. She was only 36 years old, much too young to be dealing with any of this. Instantly, I thought of Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” and I wanted her to, “Rage, rage against the dying of the night.”
Shortly after I arrived, Abby complained of a headache, the nurse gave her a painkiller, and she fell asleep. I relieved my brother-in-law from his bedside watch, and gave him a much-needed break. He went back to the hotel to take a nap. I sat by her side and read for three hours while she passed away. Her headache had not been a migraine, but a stroke. Abby never woke up again.
I have run 1,714 miles since her death. I know this because I started keeping track the day I came back home from Rochester. I would get out there on the forest preserve paths and run and run. I saw her in the shadows as I ran through the woods. I would see her in my peripheral vision as I rounded corners. I loved running there because I felt close to her. I still love running there, and feel as if I’ve made a sort of supernatural bond with the woods. I think my sister visits me there, and follows me as I run.
I had many questions that I needed answers to as I ran and ran and ran. One of the biggest was, did she “Rage against the dying of the night?” She had such a difficult time eating food and…I wondered, on occasion, if there was a point where she had just given up the fight. There were phone calls where we had talked, and she had expressed a dejected, almost fatalistic attitude toward the whole process. Add to that the fact that she was hardly eating near the end, and she had withered away physically, and it raised questions for me. There were times when the doctors had to prescribe intravenous nutrition to give her the nourishment she needed to stay alive. I questioned whether or not she had given up. It was eating at my heart and soul. I had so wanted her to RAGE! and wasn’t convinced that she had.
One day, after she had passed away, her husband called, and I shared with him my doubts about her fighting, and asked out loud if he thought she had given up or not. I needed reassurance that she had not gone without a fight. He then told me that she had taken her Chicago Marathon medal with her to the Mayo Clinic and had it sitting next to her on the bedside stand the whole time she was there. At that moment, I knew that she had worked as hard to stay alive as she and I had worked to run those 26.2 miles. And on my run that day, in the woods, I felt her there, and knew that the third time I cried in her presence was a celebration of her and the fight she had put up against Ulcerative Colitis. She had most certainly raged against the dying of the light.