I woke up this morning wondering why I do these things to myself.
It is a beautiful Saturday and I have a fairly open schedule today; sleeping in and a leisurely start to the day were definitely possible. But no, not for me. I decided to sign up for a 4.2 mile “fun run” in honor of the Pat Tillman Foundation. People, I am six weeks away from a college reunion and I need to kick my fitness game into high gear. So with that in mind, when I heard about this event, I registered.
Today was race day and I was apprehensive. Did I really have it in me? Could I go this distance -which for me was not insignificant - without running out of gas? There was only one way to find out.
I arrived to find the typical pre race activity. Music playing, tents from different sponsors spread around, people stretching and warming up. I felt the feelings I typically feel at these events: I don’t belong here. These other runners look strong and I don’t look or feel strong. But. I’m here. So let’s do this.
The race began and I worked to find my position in the pack and keep my own pace. I had my music and I found my rhythm. Many of the other runners were obviously active or formerly active military. There was a lot of evident patriotism and camaraderie. I began to think about Pat Tillman, the man in whose honor we were running.
Pat Tillman is a hero. He was football star for Arizona State University and went on to a successful career in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Mr. Tillman sacrificed his career to enlist in the military and trained to become an Army Rangers. He served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before he was tragically killed April 22, 2004. Posthumously, he received the Silver Star and Purple Heart medals.
I have always admired Pat Tillman’s story. While many of us watched in open mouthed horror the worst terrorist attack on American soil and felt helpless, Pat took action. He left a life that he worked hard to earn, but provided him wealth and fame, and chose to fight for our nation and defeat Al-Qaeda. Brave seems too small a word for his story.
His mantra, “Never Stop” was emblazoned on all the runners T-shirts around me. The mantra represented his belief that carried him through two a days in football training camp and basic training when he enlisted. His number, 42, just like Jackie Robinson, has been retired by ASU and the Arizona Cardinals and is why today’s race, and the ones like it around the country, are 4.2 miles.
So I ran thinking about things like bravery and sacrifice and fear and choice and I remembered someone I’d met yesterday at Northside Hospital.
Yesterday, like so many days, I was called to Northside Hospital to speak with a family about hospice and palliative care. Not their best day, to be sure. As I walked to the elevator in the parking garage, I noticed him, next to the “YOU ARE ON P2” sign.
Let me explain this: the hospital is under construction. It is always under construction. When one arrives, you enter the parking garage on P4, but typically need to go to P2 or P1 before you can find a spot. Then you need to take the elevator to P5 to get to the main floor of the hospital which is ‘G’, not 1. How could anyone possibly be confused?
So when I saw him in front of the “YOU ARE ON P2” sign, holding a bright pink terry cloth duffle bag, and looking like he’d missed the chance to comb his hair that day, my spidey senses told me he was going to need some help. We got on the elevator together and my instincts were proven correct when he got off on P4, looked around and said, “this CAN’T be right” to no one, in particular.
“Are you lost?” I said (a really loaded question, in hindsight…)
“They said she was on 4, but…”
“Right. We have to get to the hospital first. I’ll show you. I’m going there.”
My new friend got back on the elevator with me and the doors shut in front of us.
“425,” he said.
“OK,” I said.
We got off on P5 and began to walk towards the main hospital elevators. And then without any question from me, he said just one word.
“Leukemia,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
We walked some more in silence (it’s quite a trek) and then my friend seemed to awaken for a moment and he asked me if I was here to see someone or did I work at the hospital. When I started to explain to him that I’m a nurse that works with a hospice organization he recoiled as if I had opened my purse and pulled out a snake. I attempted to recover by explaining what an excellent hospital Northside is. As we arrived at the elevator bank, I happened to see his face as he looked at the directory on the wall and realized the fourth floor, where he would find room 425, was the medical intensive care unit. My new friend stiffened. His wife, the owner of the duffle bag he dutifully carried, was in a battle.
As we stepped on the elevator, I thought what a perfect place hospital elevators would be for a basket full of puppies because the tension can be thick. People wordlessly come on and off and ride up and down awaiting their deployment when the doors open and they are back in the fight.
We stopped at the third floor and I explained it was my stop. I turned and touched my friend on the arm and wished him good luck. We made eye contact for just a second and I saw the look with which I’ve become awfully familiar.
It says I’m going to need more than luck. I’m scared. I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t feel strong. I don’t have a choice.
“KEEP GOING!!” “YOU’VE GOT THIS!” “YOU’RE AWESOME!”
I’m snapped back into my race as the volunteers who awoke today equally early, just to cheer us, provide the needed and appreciated encouragement for us runners. So very grateful for them. I kept running.
As I ran, I thought about Pat Tillman and my friend in room 425 at Northside and about all of us.
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, Pat Tillman awoke just like the rest of us- blissfully unaware of the horrors the day would hold. He was a remarkable competitive athlete, but he was just a man. But as an American, he was attacked that day, through no fault of his own, and nothing would ever be the same for him again. When he went to bed on September 10th, Pat Tillman had no idea he would be in Iraq or Afghanistan within a year and he certainly didn’t think he would be dead in the next three. September 11th he was called to battle, brought to unknown places and asked to be braver than he probably ever thought he could be. As he saw it, he didn’t have a choice.
My friend I met yesterday isn’t all that different. His wife’s leukemia diagnosis was his September 11th and Northside Hospital is his Afghanistan. He, and his wife, are in a battle they didn’t ask for and they have to be braver than they ever thought they could be. And while my friend appeared somewhat disheveled at our encounter, who’s to say he isn’t the Pat Tillman of his field? Maybe he’s a captain of industry, maybe he’s an accomplished musician or published author. I have no idea what he used to be, but I promise you that up until recently, he didn’t picture himself wandering lost in a hospital parking garage carrying a pink terry cloth duffle bag.
And what about the rest of us? What battles do we face day in and day out that may not be as dramatic as a terror attack or a devastating diagnosis, but tax us nonetheless? Whether it be challenges you face in your relationship, at your workplace, as a parent, don’t we all find ourselves lost on the battlefield of life at times, wondering if we’ve got what it takes to keep going.
Never Stop. Just like Pat Tillman said. And repeated. And reminded. Never Stop.
He also said, “Somewhere inside, we hear a voice. It leads us in the direction of who we wish to become. But it is up to us whether or not to follow.”
For Pat, the voice led him to fight for our country and he paid with his life. His everlasting legacy is legendary bravery. For my friend at Northside, I think the voice was leading him to do his very best to put one foot in front of the other, show up for his loved one, and take the hit. It’s really no less brave.
And for me, today, the voice led me across the finish line. I did have it in me.