Ok, Mom,” I said out loud. “This is for you.”
I stood sweating and pale-faced in front of the hotel breakfast buffet on the morning of my first marathon. It was 3:30 a.m. and my stomach felt like it was full of sand. I’ve never been a morning person—an indisputable fact that I’ve always blamed on my mother, who was also the reason I was standing at the buffet in the first place.
Deciding to run a marathon is one of those things that seem like a good idea at the time. I was doing it for my mom. It gave me a way to talk about her after she died, something to do for her when there was nothing else left to be done. I signed up for a charity event to raise money for the Arthritis Society and travel to Costa Rica with 70 other runners to do something that would make a difference.I tried to remember these things as I gawked at the spread of unfamiliar food in the hotel lobby searching for something that wouldn’t roll around my insides like marbles.
My mother didn’t like to cook. I was raised on formula from cans and baby food from jars, but in my own mind my life didn’t start until I turned five, when I refused to eat breakfast.
Like my stomach, my mother was not built for mornings. She wanted nothing more than for me to learn how to pour the right amount of cornflakes into a bowl and add milk.
“I’m not hungry, I don’t want cornflakes,” I told her.
“I don’t care if you’re not hungry,” she said. “You’re not going to school on an empty stomach.”
“Can I have a cookie?” I asked.
“You’re not eating cookies for breakfast,” she said. But her resolve to send me to school was stronger than her will to feed me real food. She gave in and passed the Oreos.
This conversation happened every morning for two years. In Grade 1, she spent the year trying to feed me cereal, substituting the cornflakes with Rice Crispies then sliding into Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs and other flavours that came in Kellogg’s eight-pack single serving, eat-out-of-the-box variety sets. Every morning I told her, I don’t like cereal. I stirred the coloured sugar around in circles until she went to the bathroom then poured the milk down the kitchen sink, burying the mushy residue in the bottom of the garbage can.
Grade 2 was the Year of Toast: toast with peanut butter, toast with jam, whole-wheat toast, toasted English muffins, toasted malt bread, cinnamon toast. That year, I discovered I could flush toast down the toilet— a cunning trick until I tried to flush two slices at once.
My mother died in 2011, three days before the 9.0 magnitude tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster in Japan. When I first saw the headlines, I was sulking in a North Bay motel room with uneven floors that reeked like stale carpet freshener, wondering how to drag my mother’s furniture through the snow.
A boxy TV set flashed images of endless devastation: whole villages erased from Earth like errant pencil markings leaving nothing but a trail of dirty smudge marks. My loss seemed insignificant. I wondered if that’s how my mother felt before she died. I had never wondered anything like that before.
I thought about this while I gawked at the buffet table. I reached for a slice of bread.
I don’t have arthritis. This fact tops the list of “Ways I’m Not Like My Mother.”
My mother didn’t finish high school and stayed at home caring for me until I turned 15. When I was still in grade school, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She was barely 30. Her joints swelled so much that she couldn’t open a jar of peanut butter, but she didn’t complain much, so I didn’t ask a lot of questions. While she struggled with her weight and her meds, I turned myself into an honour student who was destined to go places.
She left her job as a dollar store cashier just before I graduated from university. She never spoke much about her pain, so I thought her decision to stop working was a cop out. It was her doctor’s idea, she said.
When she was in her early fifties, she had her annual appointment with the rheumatologist. Her arthritis made her fingers stick out from her knuckles in the wrong direction.
“I don’t think I can get another job,” my mom told the doctor.
“Have you thought about applying for disability benefits?” the doctor asked.
“No,” said my mother. “I’m not disabled. Am I?”
“You are if I say you are,” the doctor said.
And so he did. From that moment on, there was just math: how much was a disability pension worth and where could she afford to live. She would probably need to leave Toronto..
I didn’t care. I didn’t live there anymore either and in my mind her life was over the minute the doctor gave her permission to stop trying to live it.
By the time she died, she hardly ever left her apartment and the only thing she hated more than cooking was exercise. After her first heart attack in 2004, she even had her groceries delivered.
“Don’t worry,” she told me. “I still try to get out of the building at least once a week.”
I binged on baby carrots and resolved that I would be different.
While she struggled with her weight and her meds, I turned myself into an honour student who was destined to go places.
I revised my race plan a little: 1) Don’t die. 2) Just finish.
Costa Rica in September is as different from North Bay in March as you can get. The average temperature in Tamarindo Beach is 27C with 88% humidity. 2013 was the seventh year this tiny surf town hosted the Tamarindo Beach International Marathon, Half-Marathon and 30 km. It was also afirst-time destination for the Arthritis Society’s Joints-in-Motion fundraiser. The event web site advertised a course time limit of six hours, with a relatively flat out-and-back route.
To prepare for the heat, I did my training runs every Saturday in the early afternoon when the sun was at its hottest. Ontario had record levels of humidity that summer, so I left for Costa Rica believing I had a fighting chance against the heat. Although my goal for the race was modest—any sane person’s goal for their first marathon is simply to finish it—I secretly harboured ambitions of finishing in less than five hours.
When we arrived at the airport in Costa Rica, the heat enveloped us like a soggy wool blanket and I could already feel my insides melting. I revised my race plan a little: 1) Don’t die. 2) Just finish.
Our driver led us to an air-conditioned van that served as our private ground transportation to Tamarindo Beach about an hour’s drive southwest. As we bounced along rural roads dotted with farms and sprawling Guanacaste trees, I wondered what kind of postcard my mother would have wanted from a place like this. The furthest she had ever travelled was to the American side of Niagara Falls on a day trip from Toronto. That was back when you didn’t need a passport to cross the border. She had never seen an ocean, but she would have thought the trees were pretty.
I often travelled for work, but I also travelled just for the sake of going places. I ran half-marathons in Toronto, Quebec City, and Niagara Falls and I even ran one in eastern Slovakia once. I’m not a fast runner—some people walk faster than I run—but speed isn’t the point. The point was that I did something and I did it more than once a week. By the time my mom died, I had visited 16 different countries and hadn’t sent postcards from most of them.
The night before the race one of the volunteer trainers, Doug, told us about a message he once saw written on a spectator sign.
“The person who finishes the marathon,” it said, “is not the same person who started it.”
I wondered what kind of person I would be at the end of this race and what my mother would think of her.
To beat the mid-day heat, the race started at 5 a.m. In Tamarindo Beach in late September, it’s still dark at that hour so in place of the traditional starter’s pistol, they launched a fireworks show from the beach. As my right foot crossed the official starting line, I looked up to watch the last few sparks float into the darkness.
“Ok, Mom,” I said out loud. “This is for you.”
Dinner in our house also came from a box. Kraft Dinner, Hamburger Helper, and Shake & Bake chicken were weeknight staples. Home cooking meant adding cooked ground beef to a jar of Prego spaghetti sauce. My mother’s signature dish was a pork chop and rice casserole that involved throwing three pork chops, a cup and a half of Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice and a large can of Aylmer’s stewed tomatoes into a glass baking dish and stuffing it into the oven for an hour.
Later in life, my mom relied on bologna sandwiches on white bread and developed a fondness for Michelina frozen dinners. After her first heart attack, she tried to do better. She bought apple juice in tetra packs and single-serving cans of V-8 juice.
Before my mom died, she had a will drawn up and made sure that her life insurance policy would provide enough money for a modest memorial service. Finding the documents was easy. Her apartment was small and any papers worth keeping were always neatly stacked in the bottom drawer of her bedside table. Tucked in with her will, she had also made two lists for me, handwritten in blue pen in perfect script: “Things I Hope You Will Keep” and “Things You Might Consider.”
I wasn’t surprised that the first list included her collection of souvenir spoons. She also wanted me to keep her so-called antique tea wagon, a relic she bought second-hand in 1972 and used in place of a diaper table when I was a baby.A wooden rocking chair she bought when I was five and her wicker sewing basket. I couldn’t imagine finding a place for these things in my posh suburban home. To my horror, the list also included her homemade ceramic gravy boat shaped like a turkey and a small collection of copper butterflies that she knew I hated.
For the first 15 km, my average pace was just under seven minutes and 40 seconds per kilometre. At that rate, I would finish the marathon in about five hours and 20 minutes—less ambitious than I hoped, but acceptable to me given the heat.
After the race course left the main village, volunteers with red flags directed the marathon runners down a gently sloping road with undulating hills and that, in direct defiance of the race literature, was not closed to traffic. The next three kilometres was like doing the cha-cha on a tight rope, a delicate dance along the 12-inch ribbon of asphalt between the sidewalls of old pick-up trucks and a foreboding drop into a steep drainage ditch littered with empty gel packs. The sun had come up by then and the temperature took a vicious spike upward.
By the turn-around point at 21.1 km, there was hardly another runner in sight and my pace had dropped to 7:45. This would still have me finish a hair faster than five and a half hours, but I had to face the grim truth: I now had to run the course in reverse and that once gentle slope loomed like Mount Everest. As the temperature rose, my spirits took a deep dive. I felt a giant blister tear open on the inside of my left big toe and a baby blister was forming on the middle toe of my right foot.
Doug the Trainer picked me up and started the tedious process of scraping my spirits off the steamy asphalt.
“The person who finishes the marathon,” it said, “is not the same person who started it.”
Underneath it, I found the score sheet from our last game. She won.
Of all the things my mom owned, the few things I really wanted to keep weren’t on her list. Like her Scrabble game still housed in its original maroon box held closed with a frayed beige rubber band because the corners of the box had split open. My mother was a great Scrabble player. Not national championship great, but she could double the score of any neighbor we ever had.She also considered my Uncle Henry, a writer and natural wordsmith, to be her only worthy adversary until I finished at the university.
It wasn’t just that she was good at spelling words, which she was, but she knew how to play them, how to look for opportunities to play high value letters like Q and Z on a triple letter score. She knew all the two-letter words in the Official Scrabble Dictionary including the ones that probably shouldn’t be words, like “za” as a short form for pizza. Inside the fragile box, the Scrabble board itself sat atop four wooden tile holders. On the back and bottom of each wooden holder, someone’s name was written, evidence of our family’s Scrabble history. In between the wooden holders lay a deep purple cloth bag with a silky drawstring and the words “Crown Royal” embroidered in yellow on the front, a throwback from the days when a bottle of whiskey came ornately packaged like a gift from Buckingham Palace itself. Underneath it, I found the score sheet from our last game. She won.
Instead of pouring water into paper cups, water station volunteers gave out freezie-style tubes of water that you rip open with your teeth. I didn’t appreciate the genius of these water-tubes until about 22 km when I saw heat-savvy Ticos squirting water down their backs through toothy perforations in the plastic. The first time I tried this, the water was icy cold and the cooling sensation was so intense it made my whole body convulse. It felt amazing and terrifying all at the same time because I realized how overheated I was. I would later read that the humidex that day hit 42C.
By 24 km, I was in trouble. The water stations, which were set up every two kilometres, were starting to disappear. Doug noticed something awry about 300 metres away from what should have been our next oasis in the desert. Sweaty volunteers were dismantling our salvation like a camping tent on Sunday afternoon. The same was true at 26 km. I was suddenly convinced that despite my primary goal, I was going to expire from dehydration on the racecourse.
“I can’t do this,” I told Doug, but he was a few steps ahead and didn’t hear me, so I just kept moving.
When my mother died, she had only two recipe clippings to pass on. Ironically, they were both for desserts, something we rarely ate. The first was for an apple cake, which came from a hand-stapled recipe book I brought home from Black Creek Pioneer Village on a school field trip in Grade 3. My mother liked that it had apples in it without being pie. She didn’t like pie. She also didn’t like to bake cakes. No one had looked at the recipe in more than 35 years. The real family food tradition was Christmas fudge, but the recipe itself was no secret—it was printed on the labels of Eagle Brand condensed milk.
At the next former water station, an embarrassed volunteer scurried away after catching sight of us. He had no water tubes left, but he emerged with a jug full of icy water from the giant cooler the tubes once occupied. He gestured to pour some down our backs. “Si, si,” we said. I shuddered and gasped as the ice cubes slid down my back. My body went rigid as the ice cubes landed in the small of my back, where the water bottle holder cinched around my waist, before they melted into my skin.
“Over my head too,” I enthused and lifted my hat. He obliged by dumping the rest of the jug over the top of me. It cooled my whole being from hair to aching toes. I smiled and mumbled “Gracias” as I felt my body temperature plummet, but as we trudged on again, something felt amiss. My feet were much cooler, but they were squeaky, soaking wet.
“Um, Doug,” I groaned. “I think I just made a big mistake.”
For the next three kilometres, every step I took sounded like a baby frog croaking from the ditch. The skin on my feet shrivelled and I could feel a row of new blisters forming at the junction between my toes and the balls of my feet. At the same time, I felt less woozy and more willing to drag myself to the end. I tried and failed to do some quick math, so I asked Doug. “If we keep walking at this pace, would we still come in under six hours?” I queried. “I’m not saying I want to walk the rest of the way. I’m just asking.”
Doug wouldn’t answer me. Instead, he asked what got me into this race in the first place. I was annoyed at the dodge, but he had stayed with me for a long time to make sure I didn’t quit. I told him about the cocktail of medications my mom used to take and how I didn’t want to live like her. Shortly after, I started a game I used to play when I first started running.
“Let’s run to the next telephone pole,” I said. And so it went for the next while, me picking out landmarks, Doug and I running to them before taking the next walk break, and sometimes continuing to run when we got there.
“You seem to be feeling a lot better,” Doug said. I nodded and pointed at the Visa billboard ahead of us.
“That’s great because at 26 km,” he confessed, “I was sure I was gonna lose you.”
Doug wouldn’t answer me. Instead, he asked what got me into this race in the first place.
Spectators on the side of the road saw me coming in and clapped as I ran past honking cars that clogged the lead up to the finishing chute.
Also missing from my mom’s list was her copy of Stephen King’s novel The Stand, the only book she ever read more than once. At 823 pages, it’s one of the thickest books I’ve even seen, which had dissuaded me from tackling it. That, and well, it was my mom’s favorite book. We both loved to read, but I didn’t read the same stuff she did because we were different, but the cracked spine and the dog-eared pages, every one of which she would have touched, had a certain appeal. I put the book in my “to keep” box alongside the newest edition of the Official Scrabble Dictionary and the fudge recipe.
Near the end of the race, once it was clear I was going to live, Doug went back to pick up the last runner in our “Joints in Motion” tribe whom I had selfishly forgotten was behind us. As I got closer to town, the spaces between my walk breaks got longer and I had more bounce in my stride. Spectators on the side of the road saw me coming in and clapped as I ran past honking cars that clogged the lead up to the finishing chute. In the distance, I saw the whole “Joints in Motion” team in their neon green T-shirts crowded around the finish line cheering madly. I glanced up at the clock: 5:57:30.
“Did you see that?” I yelled. “I came in under six hours!” Some guy stuffed an apple into my hands. I beamed at my finisher’s medal.
The night after the race, I sat on the balcony in my hotel room peeking in between the palm trees to watch the sun plunge into the Pacific Ocean. I thought of the randomness of the debris from Japan that had been washing up on the west coast: one-time treasures that had long since been forgotten, memories displaced to make room to answer more important questions like “Where is my family?”
That’s when Doug’s words came back to me. I started out this journey telling everyone I was doing this for my mom, to honor her memory. Who was I kidding? I was doing it for me, co-opting her memory to help me do it, the same way I leveraged my assessment of her life to navigate my own.
I thought about the handful of items from my mom’s, “Things I Hope You Will Keep” list and the difference between what she wanted me to have and what I really wanted to keep.
Even though the items were different, the purpose was the same: to keep a little piece of history as a reminder of who she was, and therefore who I am, no matter how I try to judge her. I realized that no matter what I chose to keep, it was up to me to sift through the debris of memories and decide which ones really matter at the finish line.
That’s what Doug was talking about. My mom probably knew that all along. After all, she was the better player.
I sat on the balcony in my hotel room peeking in between the palm trees to watch the sun plunge into the Pacific Ocean.