Friday, June 27, 2008

The Walk

It was as if my body and my head went to war, and I won. Don't get me wrong: it was a pitched battle, where both sides gave their all, but in the end, only one of us could win.

And the walk was too important to let my body give up, so if you were placing bets, of course my head won.  Of course.

I can't start this at the end, however. I need to begin where it matters: why I decided to do the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.

Two years ago, my family lost one of its brightest members: my cousin KC Chorak. KC was several years older than I, and impossibly beautiful. As a child, I always felt that she was larger than life. She was, too. The first time she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she beat it. The second time, she didn't.

Strangely, in between KC's two bouts with cancer was my cousin TC's same battle. She went for a much more radical solution than KC had, and I fully believe that it saved her life. That side of the family doesn't have much luck with this terrible disease.

Something funny about death: I just did an internet search to see if I could find a picture of her, but there was only one mention of her at all, a memorial on a website that only listed her name. Strange how there can be so few traces of someone so special. Well, now there's two. Maybe someday KC's daughter Rachel will find this and know how much she was loved.

The year after we lost KC, I was in no shape to do this walk. It was right after I'd moved back to Chicago from New York City, and I'd lost far too much that year. I lost KC and my grandfather, then my sister and my father went through some pretty harrowing illness. Depression didn't even begin to describe what I went through. I dealt with my unhappiness by sitting on my butt and eating ice cream. During that year, I gained forty pounds. Forty. The year before, when I was racked with worry over what was happening to my family, I'd gained twenty. That's sixty pounds in two years.

This is me at my highest weight. Needless to say, I was a hot mess. When I looked in the mirror, I didn't even recognize myself.

Every time I think about that time in my life, I remind myself that I came out of it. Things change. Things always change. I'd been living with my parents for six months as I saved for my condo, and the simple act of moving back into my own house was enough to snap me out of it. I had a party. I saw pictures of myself and thought, no. I can't remain this person.

It took me six months of changing my health and exercise before I felt like, yes.  I can do this.  I'd lost about thirty pounds by that point, and to make it official, I told my trainer.

One thing I've learned about myself: if I tell people I'm going to do it, I'll actually do it.  If I keep my goals to myself, they never materialize.  I realize this is a flaw in my personality, but what can I say?  I'm inherently flawed.

For the next six months I trained like a madman.  It was insane.  I often felt guilty if the day was nice and I hadn't gone training.  During the week, I'd get on the treadmill and walk for an hour at a time.  During the weekend, I'd walk to the path along Lake Michigan and walk for four hours.  I trained a ton.  I lost even more weight: my dress size kept dropping to the point where nothing I owned fit me anymore.  Nothing, however, prepared me for the reality of the walk.

Believe me when I say that this is the hardest thing I've ever done.

It didn't start out too tough. This was what I'd trained for, you see, and the miles melted away under my feet. Six miles in and I felt like I had the energy of a thousand men. An army. My sister's neighbor Jeanette and I met up at the opening ceremony and started out the walk complete strangers. By mile two, we were done with the pleasantries. By mile four, we'd moved on to ex-husbands and boyfriends. By mile ten, insane sex stories. Other women would join in the conversation here and there. We were in high spirits. I could do this. I knew I could do this.

My Aunt Arlene came to cheer me on somewhere around mile twelve. By this point I was flagging a bit. She walked with us for a little while, chatting here and there, but by this point, we were running out of the desire to speak. She kept up with us for a little while but when we hit the next rest stop, we decided to refill water and keep going. As long as I had the energy, I was going to walk.

At mile fifteen, I knew that blisters were forming. I took off my shoes and took care of my feet as well as I could: changed socks, put on the glide stuff, added powder. It was no use, though. My feet were quickly going south.

Er, north.

The last part of the day began to pass in a cloud of mile marker signs. Whereas before a mile seemed like nothing, now it seemed as if some evil gnome had gone along the route and changed the mile signs so that we were walking further and further.

I got to a point where I was going to take a picture of every mile marker just to prove to myself that I'd walked that far. However, after mile 21, I was so tired that I wasn't going to even look for my camera phone when I saw new ones. I decided to rely on my memory. I started texting friends in hopes of getting encouraging responses. I was desperate for anything that could help convince me to continue to put one foot in front of the other.

At one point, I remember, we passed an ice cream stand and sat down at a table with a woman and her kids. "You're crazy," she told us. "God love you both."

Jeannette called her ex-husband Matt and told him where to meet us. She kept going on about his good qualities. I couldn't wait to meet him.

Finally we hit the 26 mile marker. Matt was about half a block further. He started walking with us. Such a nice guy, too. I couldn't see why she'd left him, because he was clearly still in love with her.

Of course, I noticed all of this as if through a haze. In the end, I didn't care about Matt and Jeannette. All I cared about was the park I could see ahead of me, and the banner that marked the end of my travail.

Jeannette went home, promising to meet up with me the next morning. I went to the dinner tent and watched the fireside show as if in a fog. All around me, people were laughing, chatting. I could barely lift my fork.

They told us that all we had to do was find our number and our bags and tents would be waiting for us. If the tents weren't set up, there would be boy scouts to help us. I headed to the fields where they had the tents set up and had a hard time finding my section. Rows and rows of tents greeted me. I found my row and looked for my number: O80. Yes, of course you guessed it. My tent wasn't there. Neither was my bag. I looked around for the boy scouts and saw nobody, just rows and rows of tents, so I did what any self-respecting girl would do: I sat down in the empty spot where my tent should be and cried.

That's when nice tent lady (I never learned her name) found me. She told me that the boy scouts had gone home and walkers were to get their own gear. I looked where she pointed to the trucks and thought they looked impossibly far. I'll just sit here a while longer, I told her. I seriously couldn't move if you paid me right now.

She took pity on me, found my gear and my tent, and helped me set it up. I climbed inside, saw the Avon tower rising above me like a giant phallus, and took a picture.

The rest of the evening passed in a fog of waiting for the shower and trying to find a bathroom, but then I finally crawled into my sleeping bed and slept the sleep of the dead.  "To sleep, perchance to dream ..."

The second day was worse than the first.  
When I woke up in the morning, I couldn't walk.

I'm not kidding.  I really couldn't walk.  I couldn't put on my shoes at all.  I got out of bed, hobbled to the bathroom in my bare feet (thank god for dew -- it acted like a natural ice pack), and went to stand in line for the podiatrist.

They'd had them along the route the previous day, but of course I hadn't taken advantage of them.  Instead I had to wait two hours for someone to see me.  When they finally did see me, they had to drain blisters in places where I didn't know it was possible to blister.  But it was all good.  I was going to walk no matter what.  

I got on the road and started hobbling along.  My friend Jeannette from the previous day texted me and said she couldn't get herself out of bed, so I was on my own.  It was fine, though.  After about a half an hour of walking alone, a nice woman named Chris asked if she could walk with me.  Her story was like so many: she was walking because she'd lost someone, her mother.  She was funny.  She had cats.

I was so slow that morning, and knew I wasn't going to make the next marker.  I shouldn't worry, she told me, if I didn't hit the rest stops by the appointed time, they'd take care of me.

What she didn't tell me was that the bus drivers were crazy.

I was, indeed, late to the next rest stop and the choice of continuing was taken away from me:  I was going to be swept whether I wanted it or not.  They were going to take me ahead to the next stop and I could continue my walk from there.

So okay.  I got on the bus and there was a crotchety old lady bus driver.  Behind her was the bus volunteer.  Her job was to navigate us to the next rest stop.  The only problem was, she had no idea how to get there.  "I wish they'd have told me before I signed on for this duty that you should really know the streets of Chicago," she said.  "I'm from Wheaton, for crying out loud.  The most I know about Chicago is what I see out my window when my husband takes me out to dinner."

That didn't bode well, but I was so grateful to be sitting down that I decided to hope for the best.  From my seat back in the third row, I heard the calls back and forth on the radio as if from a fog.  "Where?  Sheraton Road?  There's a park there?  We're on Sheraton and there's no park.  Oh, a few blocks in.  From where?  No, we can't turn around, we're on a one-way street."

The bus driver wasn't too happy with her.  "Just tell me the intersection and I'll get us there," she commanded.  The spirit definitely wasn't within this one.  She took command, however, and turned down a street that looked fine, but halfway down had a delivery truck with blinkers on.  She saw it before anyone else did and slammed on the breaks.  I was thrown forward.  "We can't go down that damn street," she shouted at poor Wheaton lady.  She backed up the bus a little (beep, beep), and continued down the road.

We'd gone about two blocks when we were confronted with the next roadblock: a viaduct.  "Damn," she muttered.  "Just how tall is this bus?"  We all shrugged.  The sign on the overpass said 11' clearance.

She grabbed the radio.  "How tall is the bus?" she said.

Crackle.  "What?  Why do you want to know?"

"Just tell me how tall the damn bus is.  This ain't rocket science."

"I dunno.  Let me look it up."

Someone started beeping behind us.  She put on the blinkers.  Five or six cars sped around.  One guy mouthing obscenities.  All I could do was grin.

The radio cracked, "I think it's eleven foot six."

"Damn," she said.  I think it was her favorite word.  "Get out," she told Wheaton lady.  I need you to direct traffic so I can get this bus outta here."

Wheaton lady got out meekly.  I wondered how she'd handle this, this nice lady from the suburbs.  She began shouting at cars, though, and managed to clear a way for us.  I was so proud of Wheaton lady, stepping outside her comfort zone.

The bus started backing up when the radio went off again.  "Why do you want to know the height?"

"Because I was trying to go under a bridge," shouted the bus driver.  She wasn't shouting it into the radio, though, because she was backing up and her hands were too busy turning the wheel to key on the radio.

"Don't try that bridge at Broadway," the disembodied voice warned.  

"Shut up!" she shouted at the radio.

They couldn't hear her, of course.  Her hands were still on the wheel.

She managed to back the bus up enough, however, to get it turned around.  Cars were honking left and right but she ignored them.  Wheaton lady climbed back on, triumphant.  We tooled back down the street to the block we'd tried before, except this time the delivery truck was gone.

"Hey," said the radio.  "I found the manual.  The bus is ten foot six."

"Shut up shut up shut up," she told the radio.  We were negotiating a narrow street that seemed to take forever but finally we were there.  I got off the bus and hobbled toward the rest stop.  The lady told me to take a banana.  I wanted to tell her about the crazy bus driver, but got back on the road instead.

Everybody was crazy, though.  Check out this guy.  He was an EMT working the walk route who stood on top of the piling by the river dancing to some disco soundtrack he had blasting from the ambulance parked behind him.  His partner stood next to the ambulance, arms folded, grinning at his foolishness.  She looked like a mom who was content to let her kid act the fool so long as he wasn't hurting anybody.

It was as if everyone had a license to be foolish.  We were so pleased by their foolishness.  Something that's hard to describe unless you've been through it is how terribly desperate you get for a reason to keep on going.  Oh, look: the cutie pie blonde boy and his dad with the convertible.  Let's walk a little faster so we can wave at him.  Oh, look: the madman EMT.  Let's do a dance step with him.  Cripes, my feet hurt.  Maybe no dancing.  I'll dance in my head.

One of the things that struck me along this walk was how committed SO many people were to this cause. They had a crew of bikers who moved along the walk route and made sure that street crossings were safe. Now, this would be a nice enough thing to do, but on top of that, they were hilarious. A couple were cute enough for us bawdy women to comment about for the next mile, but some were just plain funny. This guy was wearing a dress and decorated himself from head to toe. You could tell that in his real life, based on the bike he had resting at the curb, he'd never be caught dead in anything but leather.

There was another guy wearing a tutu, and another with a cow costume doing lewd things to his udders.  They were hilarious.

Sometimes along the walk, people would meet up with their families. This little boy found his mother along the route and walked with her for about a mile. Do you see her back? They gave us signs where we could write the names of the people we were walking for. You can't really see this, but her sign says a few names before it says, "For Me." That's the thing that got me. Every time I wanted to break down and stop walking, all I had to do was look around and see all these cancer survivors -- some were even fighting it during the walk itself -- and I'd think, shut up, Cecilia. You're seriously a wimp if you can't keep going.

 Now, if ever you're in Grant Park in Chicago and you want to go to the Field Museum, there's a fun little underpass that will take you on a path right up to the museum.  I was trudging up that path when I realized that somewhere behind me, someone was playing bagpipes.

There's one song in this world that when played, should only be played on the bagpipes.  That's "Minstrel Boy."

The Mistrel Boy to the war has gone
In the ranks of death you will find him
His father's sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him

Those are all the words I know, but they were enough to make me burst into tears.  You see, this is also possibly the saddest song in the universe.  It's about a boy who goes off to war, his harp slung on his back, and dies.  He dies heroically, however, because he doesn't let them take his harp or his song; he rips out the strings with his dying breath and the song dies with him.  That conquering army wasn't going to take his music, no sir.

Yes, of course.  Not much application to this situation, except I truly thought that any moment I might puddle up one the ground and expire.  For these folks, though, I think I'd leave my harp behind me.  The angels might need it.

My best friend Dawn had texted the previous day to tell me that she was going to try to meet me at the finish line. Her son Shawn is my godson, and I knew they'd be waiting. I can't even tell you how much it meant to me that there would be someone there to meet me, to witness what I'd done.

So of course when I rounded the corner and saw that she'd brought a whole cheering section of our friends, I broke into tears again. Shawn even made me a poster, for chrissakes. A poster. Nobody's ever made me a poster before.

They jumped up and hugged me and I hugged them back and then I said, no, I have to finish. So I finished. Dawn took a picture of me after I crossed the finish line. Of course, a man walked into the shot right as she snapped the photo, but whatever. It's a record. I made it.

Anyway, I finally made it to the finish line, my puffy feet making every step agony. And just because, I took a picture of them. Posterity and all that. Nobody's ever had feet uglier than these.

They took about two weeks to heal.

People keep asking me if I'd do this walk again.  The short answer: yes, but not next year.  I met all kinds of people who did the walk every year, but I'm pretty sure I don't have that in me.  

Someday soon, I'll do it again.  

Just not too soon.


Mary said...

Beautiful story. My hero...

Anonymous said...

You did a great job. I am so proud of you. I wish you could have gotten my text of encouragement. Next time I will try and be with you or be there cheering you on.

Sandy Creek Realtor said...

What a touching story. I can't even begin to imagine your pain, and I've been through 22 hours of labor! God bless you and those you walked for and with. If I knew your cell phone number I would have been texting you too!

J said...

With you every step! That second day was a horror! But the sense of accomplishment at two levels--of being tested and meeting the challenge as an individual and of being part of a larger and kinder community--overrode the black toenails, blisters, and fatigue. Congrats! You did it!

UP said...

I laughed; I cried; I wondered how is that novel coming? Take it easy on the bagpipe and harp stuff though, it was a little too weird

Anonymous said...

I finally found the "Go Cis!" sign I'd made and brought to the run, and which I later converted into a "Go Cubs!" one...
of course AFTER the game we went to Tuesday night. (I'm just an inveterate recycler?)
It brought back memories of that day and your awesome determination to finish.
I'll bring it to every Cubs game and think of you. And of KC and the cause the run was all about. You go, girl! So proud of you!
Auntie Arlene

Laurie said...

A Friday morning at work...not feeling like working...I thought, I should read Cissy's Blog. I had to close the door and grab a kleenex. Thanks for sharing and bringing back the memories for me!