It’s only an estimate, but I’ve done the math. My father died while I was in a run-down hotel lobby in Newburgh, NY, picking up my race number for a half marathon that would begin in just under an hour.
Dad, at 62, was still an impressively healthy athlete. He swam a mile a day, rode his bike twice daily and played volleyball every weekend. One of the big regrets of his life was that he could not persuade me to take an interest in the game, despite the fact that I “had the shoulders for it.” That Saturday morning last June, while I was driving north from New York City to Newburgh, he went out riding along the marshes in our hometown of Galveston, TX. The woman who lives in the old Victorian house along this secluded road saw Dad standing next to his bike just before 7 a.m., kickstand down, staring out into the marsh. Weeks later, when she met with my mother and me, she repeated several times, “It’s such a peaceful place to go.” A few minutes after 7, a kayaker was driving toward the boat ramp just beyond the old Victorian house where he saw Dad laid out in the street beside his upright bike. Dad had suffered a massive heart attack. We have been told he may have been dead before he hit the ground.
While local EMTs were trying to resuscitate him in the street, I was going about my meditative pre-race rituals: applying sunscreen and chafing stick, organizing my gel packs and water bottles. I sat in a parking lot and wrote a race blessing on the tops of my feet in sharpie. It was an Edmund Hillary quote I use for all long races: “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Dad was in transport to the hospital when I lined up with the other runners. We complained about the heat, the race was supposed to start 15 minutes ago. Who’s in charge here? After more grumbling the air horn sounded and we inched forward.
My father was pronounced dead painfully close to the moment I crossed the start line. And then I ran for two and a half hours.
As I ran in New York, phone calls shot around town in Texas. A cousin on the police force heard the radio and thought, “That sounds like Joe Murphy.” The woman who lives in the old Victorian house called her friend Mona who called a friend who is married to a woman whose dad knew my father. Was it really Joe Murphy? Who knows his wife? I watched boats sail up the Hudson River. I noted several dream homes. I was annoyed at the lack of water stations along the route.
An hour into the race, I took a walk break and called my mom, just for a few minutes of distraction. She talked to me cheerfully about nothing at all. Had I heard about the old army surplus store closing after 40 years? Where were my friends and I going to eat after the race? After a little more pleasant nothingness she said, “This is a race. Stop chatting and start running.” I obeyed. Less than two minutes after our phone call ended, police showed up at my mother’s door. And I kept running.
The young police officers didn’t tell her that Dad was dead. They can’t, legally. So they asked her, did she know where her husband was? And then, what was he wearing when he left with his bike? Mom answered dutifully and the officers shared a look between them. They said Dad had been “found” and Mom would need to go to the hospital immediately. They would be happy to give her a ride. My mother, forever a cool customer, drove herself. The nice young policeman offered to bring the bike back to the house; later, my mother told me she “just knew.”
As I ran through the Hudson Valley, my right hip started to ache, and I became increasingly worried about sunburn. There was no cloud cover or shade, and the sun was brutal. When I started to overheat I poured water over my head, which filled my eyes with sunscreen, all adding to the burdensome surprise that the race organizers hadn’t closed the streets to traffic. I was in the 10th mile when my brother and mother identified my dad’s body.
On their way out of the hospital, my brother pulled out his cell phone to start making calls. My mother refused. “I’m not doing this on a cell phone. I’m going home. We’re doing this at home.” When she arrived, cars were already parked in her driveway. She had told no one, but it became apparent that many many people had known before she did.
In the 12th mile, I bottomed out. The heat. The badly paved roads. The hills. My fucking hip. The unbearable sun. Those stupid dream homes. Fucking cars everywhere. I was cooked. I thought about calling my mom but my battery was almost toast and I needed the GPS to track the race.
It was at this point that I heard a male voice yell from behind me, “Hey you. RUN. Let’s go. This is a race. Are you kidding me, walking in the 12th mile? Let’s go!” I turned and a wiry middle-aged man was yelling at me. “Just fake it. Let’s go. Run. Run with me.” I am a feminist but have always responded to strict authoritative males. So I ran. We ran. The entire rest of the race, I ran side by side with this stranger, our feet in perfect sync. We didn’t speak a word all the way to the finish line. Once we crossed I thanked him. He told me his name was Victor and we parted ways. In Texas, a plane ticket had just been bought on my behalf to leave LaGuardia at 6 that evening.
I met up with my friends and we drove over to Beacon, NY to have brunch. I pulled out my phone and it was dead. We ate a beautifully extravagant meal: beer, sausage, cheese fries. Triumph. Our bodies were trashed, every ache and grimace a trophy.
At this point, my mother had been trying to reach me for two hours. Finally, in an unbelievable moment of clarity, she realized that in the cell phone she never uses, she had the number of one of my racing friends. How on such a day she could remember this I will never know. Just as we were paying for our meal, and I was promising myself not to worry about the cost until tomorrow, my friend’s phone rang, my mother’s name on the caller ID. I answered and then came the simplest string of words and most life-altering sentence I’ve ever heard.
“Molly, your father died this morning.”
The rest of the day is a hysterical blur: racing back to Manhattan, stopping at my apartment for 15 minutes so I could shower while friends threw clothes in a bag. At LaGuardia a ticketing problem arose. A middle-aged gate agent took me under his wing; he changed my flight immediately, gave me a business class ticket, gate passes so my friends could wait with me at the gate, as well as five drink tickets so I could “make some friends” on the plane. Just before I dashed off to security he took my bag and we hugged goodbye.
His name was Victor.
By the time I sat in the family living room in Texas I’d been up almost 24 hours. How did I wake up in New York to run a race and end up in Galveston without a dad? How was I carried along by possibly the only two Victors I’ve met in my entire life? If it were a dream, it would mean something. If it were a dream, the Victors would be a lesson in accepting help, in surrendering to powerlessness, in becoming, somehow, victorious in the end. But the next day and all the days after that would only continue the whirlwind that began in the marsh that June morning.
I long for that race, the one I hated running, with the bad roads and the heat and the sun and the cars and the not enough water stations. Those seemingly miserable 2.5 hours before the world ended. Before I ever met anyone named Victor. The road, when the journey was still linear, when I could put one foot in front of the other and be assured that I was still moving forward.
Molly Beach Murphy is a writer and theatre director originally from Texas and now based in Harlem. She has written some other things, and occasionally submits pitiable tweets. She is the author of a new musical entitled “Molly Murphy & Neil deGrasse Tyson On Our Last Day On Earth” She is training for her first marathon, the Houston Marathon in January 2015.
Photo via TexasBubba/flickr