Running From Death

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

This is true. Every night, the last thing I think before I fall asleep is “There we are. One day closer to death.” My heart skips a beat, settles, and I drift off. Sometimes, I dream that I’m dead and I yell “No!” in my sleep. This is not fun. It just is.

I don’t think I’m obsessed with death; that would mean that I’m constantly picking at it, looking at it, that I’m fascinated by the gruesome and the morbid. I am not. I am repulsed by it. I turn my head from it; from refugee children washed up on beaches, from bodies on the ground. Just yesterday, as a crowd gathered on the shore of the Pond in Central Park, I scurried hard in the other direction. The divers passed me with their board. From a distant vantage, I saw the covering sheet.

I mourn the dead with real tears but I can’t look, dishonorable as this may be. I won’t watch documentaries on serial killers or war criminals; for it is their victims that crawl under my skin. When I think about history, I shiver to think of all those lives lived, gone now, some remembered, most forgotten. What did Anne Boleyn eat for breakfast? Did she get mosquito bites? What were her preferred flowers? All dust now.

Even smaller, more mundane death causes me to grieve. I have a phobia of spiders, but killing them is intolerable. They may be plotting against me, and in their plotting they are alive. The idea that we are ultimately just blocks of flesh animated by spirit, as is a spider, and we are capable of being exterminated at any moment in a number of strange and random ways, as is a spider, is simply too much for me to bear. I think it’s because I know (as opposed to believe) that when you are dead you cease to exist and that is that. Behold, the dead spider in the corner. C’est moi.

Sometimes I imagine my family’s life without me. I am a memory to them, a ghost, as they continue to go through life. The boys, tall and grown, sitting down to dinner, laugh at something Rob says, and share a wistful glance. “We wish mom was here.” This takes my breath away with sadness. For I know, that one day it will be true, if not in this version, then in some other. And I can not bear to think of the reverse- I won’t.

And so, I fight on, wrapped in the cloak willful naivety we all must wear in order to go about our daily business else sink to rack and ruin. I take care of myself against the relentless onslaught of age. I moisturize, I brush my teeth and clean my gums. I go to the doctor regularly. And I run.

It started after my first miscarriage. I was filled with an energy I’d never really had before; a restless, itchy energy, and I had nowhere to put it. It made me waspish and prone to sting for no reason. When both Rob, my husband, and my boss at the time suggested I do something, I got a manicure. But I realized what they meant was that I needed to do something else, something new. And so I took up boxing.

I know it’s not running… but it definitely got me there. For two years, more or less, twice a week, I went to a stinky basement on the north side of Madison Square, filled with sweaty, focussed people, men mostly, with a smattering of women, and older guys on stools barking at them. My trainer, Willi, was a twenty-something Golden Gloves contender in the super heavyweight division, with a face like a ten year old. He was six foot four, weighed well over two hundred pounds, lived on a diet of bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches, and often ran from his place Bronx over the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey and back for fun on the weekends. He had a crazy ex and an autistic son, whom he adored and for whom he was fighting for full custody. He sometimes didn’t show up to our sessions, because he’d overslept. He did not care in the slightest that I was a five- foot-almost-two female and made no accommodations for size, gender, or fitness level. We trained together as equals.

Now, if you have a scratchy, itchy, angry unwringable sort of energy flowing through you from your toes to your split ends, there is no better solution than spending an hour in a fury of sweat and punching. Crashing your fists into the heavy bag. Screaming with frustration at having to do yet more burpees. Loathing the mile you will run in under ten minutes on a treadmill as warm up. Punching your trainer in the side, in the chest, in the face. You will drink a liter of water, minimum. You will almost throw up from the exertion. You will be furious at always having to do more, more, more (in that way it’s a good preparation for motherhood.) And when it is over, and you are in the shower, an hour later, you will be so euphoric that almost nothing in your life, save for holding a small child’s hand in yours, or being in love with someone kind who is in love with you, or eating the most delicious meal of your life when you are very hungry, will feel as good. And, you may vey well cry. Because you will feel, very, very, very alive.

Bon jour endorphins.

I had to give it up for the only good reason to give it up, which was I became pregnant with Edward, and hyperemetic. My last session, before the vomit kicked in in earnest, was one of my best ever. I could feel the flow of my combinations and hear my feet tap-tapping in the ring. I was floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Bam, Willie, bam.

After Edward’s long first winter, I began looking for a way to get my endorphins back. My body was jonesing, as they say. The energy was back too, though it was no longer waspish. Just yearning to move, and hard. My new office (for I had not just given birth but acquired a new job) was two blocks from my old punching grounds. I could feel the pull of the gym. But I was missing something critical; time. Not one extra moment was there for me to spend an hour and a half at a boxing gym even once a week- heaven forfend twice. Add in travel time, even just to get home, and that’s two full hours away from either my family or my job. What? Impossible!

When I had an angry, itchy energy, boxing was the right man for the job. But now I had a happy, peaceful energy, that simply wanted to move. Running, which had never appealed to me in my life before (see turkey wedge), was now a fantasy. Me, a long beautiful country road, the wind in my hair, no gear but my sneakers and a sports bra. It was attractive. And so I did it. I started really, really, really slow, doing a mile, simply up the road and back. It was as if I had run the New York Marathon. I was bent over and sweaty, heaving for air, and while I ran I cursed the spirit that had moved me to do it, shaking my fist at the crows and the cloud filled sky. But when i got home, there they were, my old friends, the endorphins, and I was a nice person all day.

And so now, I run. I run when I’m grumpy. I run when I’m happy. I prefer to run long, winding country roads. I more frequently run crowded city paths and lanes, dodging bikers and speeding up to pass speed-walkers and strollers. I like the Reservoir; the iconic backdrop of New York City suits my thirst for immortality. I play Carly Simon in my head as I go. I’m closer to Hudson River Park, and there I go too, stutter-stepping along the river, dodging my fellow humans walking, running, biking, weaving in and out. As I run, I still fear death, especially with those bikers bearing down upon me, but I feel in those moments, in my body as I push to go a little further, and a littler further and now a little more further, that I am the most alive.

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

It also helps me sleep.

*by Emily Dickinson, of course.

(Photo of Warhol & Basquiat by Michael Halsband)