I know what I will see in the moments before I die. I may not be in that place physically, or maybe I will, but I am absolutely certain about the image that will come before me at that time. Strange as it may seem, I know I will see one particular metal exit door of a tiny indoor track of a local university, and I will burst through it, running toward whatever it is that’s coming next. And since I’m being scarily honest, I do have some idea about what that might look like, too.
My history and experience with this track is unlikely for many reasons. Primarily, the idea of my running at all in my lifetime was extraordinarily unlikely; I always said the only reason I would ever run is if someone was chasing me. The last time I remember running as a kid was the required mile in high school gym class. I was never an athlete. People still tell stories about my childhood softball experience, the catching equipment too heavy on my small frame, and how I would walk back slowly to collect each missed pitch. My kids could out-run me by the time they were five or so, and I was fine with that. Of all the identities I had gathered by that time; wife, mother, teacher, singer, friend…it never occurred to me that I could be an athlete, or physically strong, or enjoy sweating.
Ironically, it was my mother who made me do it. In life, she was even more sedentary than I, and it hurt her. Diagnosed with COPD, emphysema, and then ovarian cancer, her lack of physical strength made tough recoveries from surgery and chemotherapy even more difficult on her, and those days made an impression on my sisters and I. We wanted to be healthier and stronger, and when my sister, Molly, proposed we all run in a 5K race to support ovarian cancer research and support, I found myself saying yes.
When I started the couch-to-5K training program which increases your stamina with walking and running intervals, I literally could not run for thirty seconds straight, and it was embarrassing to run outside on the college campus near my home. Eventually, I found the indoor track, and it was less daunting, more contained, sometimes populated with university employees walking their way through their lunch hour, all skirts and pantyhose and sneakers, and I was less intimidated. I found running an unlikely release as I mourned my mother, tears mixing with sweat as I made my way around the eighth-mile track and working out regrets and the pain of her loss. I found music that helped, and I “painted” the words of the Mumford and Sons songs I listened to on the walls as I approached them. I felt these words were encouraging me forward, keeping me going. I felt my mother, who never ran a day in her life, was cheering me on, running just a little ahead.
As time went on, and I became stronger, I continued to be amazed at the spiritual role running could play in my life. I used the time to work out worry and leave problems behind me with every step. Running brought a new, surprising clarity to my thinking, and I often gained new insights or revelations on that little track. One day in the very early morning, the track was dark, and the motion-activated lights turned on only as I ran beneath them. I started thinking of those lights as symbolizing divine guidance, and remembered to be patient and accepting of help as it is sometimes given only when it’s most needed. I saw elements of the track: electrical outlets, fans, windows, even trash receptacles, as symbols for the things I needed…power, refreshment, light, the ability to let things go.
One morning, on a run, my phone buzzed with a text over the loud sound of my music and it was a message I had dreaded:
Is it true what I’m hearing about Julie?
I looked down and saw the message flash across my screen, and knew that my friend, who had endured multiple bouts with cancer, who was a young wife and mother, a beloved friend and inspiration to many, had died. I stopped abruptly and audibly called out ‘no’ to the empty room. My friend was gone, it wasn’t fair, and there was nothing more to be said.
In the days that followed, I used my run to help process my emotions about the loss of my friend, and I found my mother and Julie to be inextricably linked somehow, there on that track, encouraging me forward. One day, I felt Julie dancing just ahead of me, my Mom smiling and applauding me with her particular kind of clap.
On one bend of the track, I noticed two lights above an exit door and I somehow understood them to symbolize these two important women in my life, lighting my path, motivating me onward. It became my favorite of the four corners after that day; for some inexplicable reason, I just knew they were there, happy, dancing, clapping, for me.
Weeks later, I was running toward that corner on that unexpected holy ground, and I saw it. In my mind’s eye, I felt myself bursting through that exit door and onto my street. Sprinting up a slight hill, on a beautiful Spring day, toward my house, which was the finish line of my life’s race. The ribbon was purple, the favorite color of both Julie and my mother, and they were behind it, jumping, cheering and dancing. It was a clear a vision as I’ve ever had, and I know it to be true. It’s what I will see in the moments before I die, and it may be tomorrow or forty years from now. But it helps me to remember that my life is a race that I want to run well, that I’ll be given everything I need as I go, that I can do things that seem impossible, that I’m not alone. The lights and the fans always come on when I need them.