Growing up, I’d never been really religious. Even through most of my 20’s, I flirted with different belief systems, but nothing ever really “stuck.” I was agnostic, not sure what I believed, but pretty much feeling like I was on my own.
That is, until I was in my early 30’s a single mother of two, and my life was on the rocks. I was so broke that I had times I had to look for spare change in my truck in order to fill up the tank to get to work. It was the recession and I was a junior engineer, so I wasn’t making a ton of money and there wasn’t child support coming in. There were times I went hungry so that my children could eat…and that wasn’t even the worst of it. In the same summer, my grandfather passed away, my brother was stricken with his second bout of cancer, this time in his kidneys. By the time they found it, it was already stage 3 and it was an aggressive form.
At this time, I was living in Jacksonville, Florida, a thousand miles from my family in Illinois. I was so broke that I couldn’t come home for my Grandfather’s funeral. He was my last grandparent and the whole family always looked up to him and went to him for advice. I felt adrift and I felt like a bad daughter, unable to comfort my parents either with the loss of my Grandpa or as they faced my brother’s illness.
To cope with the stress from work and the phone calls from home, I went on runs. A girlfriend who was also divorced who lived in the apartment next door was kind enough to watch my kids. I would lace up my shoes and run until I felt the stress leave my body with the sweat. Some days, I’d run twice, once in the morning so that I could face my coworkers without breaking down into tears and once in the evening so that I could have the patience and upbeat attitude my toddlers needed from me. It took more and more miles to reach that place of peace, more and more sweat to let out the unspoken screams inside me.
Then, I got the call that my brother was Stage 4. There is no Stage 5 to cancer.
I felt numb, but on my next run, on a hot, sticky day in August, I felt like my chest was being ripped apart. I had so much pain and anger and fear I’d been holding in. As I ran, I didn’t care if anyone was around…I began crying, my tears mixing with the sweat dripping down my face. The pain of the loss of my Grandfather and the pain and fear of losing my big brother tore into me and I realized that I could run forever and never outrun it.
First, I silently cried out to my Grandpa, wondering if he could still hear me.
“Grandpa, I don’t know what to do…help me!”
I was three miles into my run and I fell to my knees in front of a bridge in a scrubby little patch of woods along that part of the road, which ran near a highway. My knees hurt from the rocks sticking into them and I was panting for air, crying and sweating. It didn’t matter that another runner or cyclist could come along at any moment. I knew it was a popular route for other people getting exercise. I was down there, in the dust, a mess of tears, hair coming out of my ponytail in frizzy puffs, trying not to just howl and sob.
Without thinking, I spoke aloud, the words just pouring out of me from someplace deep within me.
“G-d, please,” I hitched in my breath, like I did when I was little and crying so hard I might hyperventilate, “I can’t do this alone. Please…help me…just…please.”
There was no lightning bolt, no animal that came out of the woods or angel that picked me back up. I cried some more, but somehow felt a little better and I sheepishly got up out of the dirt and finished my run, wondering if I was losing my mind. Besides the rote prayers I’d memorized and recited as a child, I’d never actually prayed or tried to talk to G-d. I wouldn’t even admit I was sure He existed.
It wasn’t long after that I met a man. He was not my type and I wasn’t looking to date anyone. Long story short, that man eventually became my husband and it was from him that I learned much of what I know about faith, G-d, and Judaism. My help did come, not from the mountains, but from a man who reached out to me in his own grief at the loss of his sister to meet me in mine as my brother died.
To me, that’s too much of a coincidence not to believe that G-d listened to me that day and sent the help I needed so that I didn’t have to keep trying to go through everything alone.
I still have my best talks with G-d when I run or when I ride my motorcycle. Alone with my breath, I find my mind calmer and more open and it’s easier to pour out my heart. When my life turns upside down, like it has again this year, I find myself returning to the comfort of those still moments when it’s just Him, me, and the road.