I'm posting this a few days after the NYC marathon and admiring pictures on social media of people crossing the finish line. Though I don't pretend to have that kind of stamina, I can relate to the finish-line moment in a new way.
Two weeks ago, I participated in the 39-mile Avon Breast Cancer walk in New York City. What did it mean to walk across that finish line? It meant a great deal to me, especially because I didn't think I actually would or could. The first 26-mile day of the walk was tough, but doable. A bunch of us ran late after lunch in Brooklyn and they bussed us back over the bridge, which was okay with me. The couple of miles I didn't walk absorbed itself quickly into the accomplishment of the long, hard day. I was just relieved that I did enough training to carry me through. Saturday night, however, proved to be a bigger challenge. As hundreds of walkers slept in pink tents (not made for cold camping) on Randall's Island, it dropped to a windy 38 degrees. The layers, hand warmers, and good sleeping bag I brought wasn't enough.
When I woke up on Sunday morning, shivering in my tent with maybe an hour of sleep behind me, after walking for 12 hours the day before, the thought of walking 13 more miles seemed absurd. It felt like the last possible thing I could ever do. I already did it, I thought to myself. I raised the money, I showed up, I survived yesterday. Why do I need to push myself? Why do I need to finish the walk?
When and why do we need to push ourselves to the finish line? Sometimes the right answer is letting something go. Sometimes the right answer is not finishing and being okay with that. That morning I didn't know what the right answer was. All I can say is that you have to try and listen to yourself, truly and completely, without the noise of other people's judgements. Other people will come in and out of your life, but you have to live with you, forever.
My sister and I hunched over our hot breakfast, now in the freezing outdoor dining tent at 7am, trying to warm ourselves up with little paper cups of coffee. As we watched the better prepared or just heartier women set off for the walk, I resigned myself to boarding the bus that would bring me to the first rest stop and shave off about 4 miles. There, we would walk a bit, and then hop on the bus when we peetered out. This wasn't a race. Other people were doing it that way. I did what I set out to do, didn't I? But I didn't. I wanted to know I could push through something really hard and rally. I wanted to know I was that strong, or at least I wanted to know I really tried. If my mother could get through two rounds of chemo, a mastectomy, and radiation, I could do this. Still, my hands and feet felt numb. The coffee wasn't helping enough.
My sister, Shana Hiranandani, who is also a life coach, saw me looking wistfully over at the walkers. The crowds were starting to thin.
"Look," she said. "We may have to wait a while for the bus. Let's just start and see how we feel. We can take a bus at the next rest stop if we're really miserable."
Suddenly it seemed clear--"Let's just start and see how we feel." I nodded, grateful that I had my sister at that moment to help point me in the direction I needed to go. Usually when we're at a crossroads, we do need someone to help us get where we want to go, whether it's letting go or pushing through. I do that with writing all the time. I certainly don't finish every story or novel I start and I usually consult with a trusted person to help me make my decision. I got my achy self to standing and we started walking, simple as that. We came here to finish something.
When the sun finally hit my face that morning and I was again part of the pink-clad crowd heading down the east side of New York City, I felt joy and energy bubble up through me. Shana and I walked all 13 miles that day. We were greeted proudly by our families at the finish line, who would have been proud no matter what, but my sister and I had made the right decision. Maybe, though, in a different circumstance, getting on the bus that morning and feeling good about what I managed to do would have been the right decision.
This time, knowing I rallied has given me the courage to think about bigger goals and bigger possibilities for myself. But it also showed me where my limits were, and that limits are okay. The trick is knowing if you've hit a real limit or not. If we don't have that hard, quiet moment over a cup of coffee with a trusted person to figure it out, we may not hear ourselves. Rather than coming up with a bigger, newer challenge, doing the walk has ultimately made me want to go deeper into the things I already love, the things I've already chosen to challenge myself with--my writing, my teaching, my parenting, my marriage, and all my important relationships. I want to spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff and a lot less time thinking about what other people think of me.
I don't believe I'll ever run a marathon. And that's okay. There are a lot of things I won't do. I'm at the point in my life where, though I believe in the phrase "it's never too late," I also believe that narrowing things down and truly committing to what I already have, what I already do, with a depth that can only come from more days lived on the planet and a growing awareness of the fragile and fleeting nature of life, is going to be my greatest marathon.
Thanks to everyone who supported me.