Seeing Pink

His coach always said, “You make your best strides in sand, not on the track.”

As often as possible, Ben’s training included runs at Pine Island. The area just off the ocean provided him the softest, whitest sun-bleached sand to run on; challenging him with steep, wind-carved dunes that beat any stadium steps. The sand wasn’t easy to run on — well, “in” — since it’s softened dryness swallowed every footstep. His feet sank deep, forcing his weary legs to burn lactic acid as he sought to yank them free for another step.

It wasn’t just the great workouts that Pine Island provided. The location gave him the solitude he needed ever since his mother had died. Breast cancer. Amy’s struggle to fight the disease for nearly a year had both tortured and inspired Ben. His mother had been his training partner and coach after he’d left college to take up ultra-distance racing. He watched her retch in agony as chemicals decimated her athletic body. Heard her softly crying at night, in her recliner, blanket wrapped tightly about a body that was crumbling under the weight of treatments, lost income, and ebbing hope.

That was the torture.

The inspiration was gleaned from those rare days when she pulled on her pink running shoes, refusing to allow cancer to steal every instance of good from her life, and ran beside him. They knew those short loops, at a pace microseconds faster than a walk, meant nothing to Ben’s training. But those runs filled him with a resolve, to be as good … no better … than what Amy dreamed for him. She never set outlandish goals for him, nor criticized race results, and not even once did a negative word emerge from her mouth. She filled him with positive reality.

So after Amy had died, Ben took her pink running shoes with him to every workout. If he set out from home, they sat neatly paired on his front steps. When his training took him from home, the brilliant pink shoes hung, or sat, in a spot he knew he would be passing, or returning to. Those months running the Blue Ridge Mountains, the shoes hung from a tree somewhere along his circuitous routes. And in the last two months, as he trained on the sands of Pine Island, the shoes hung on the weathered snow fence. In most cases, no matter where he was – the steep white dunes or sprinting the shoreline – he could see the shoes.

Those pink shoes were a beacon of strength and confidence for Ben. Every time he reached the pinnacle of another dune, he would turn to the shoes and raise his arms in triumph. If he felt his resolve waning, his body growing painfully weary, he would peek at the shoes and mutter in between gulps of sea air, “Okay Mom, I can do more.”

It wasn’t that he needed those shoes to go on, to feel motivation. His mother’s death had certainly hurt, and he thought of her often. But she had stressed, during numerous talks they’d had traveling to and from races, “Ben, I don’t have to be here, beside you, to be with you.”

At times, Ben just shook his head at the simplicity of her rationale. Yeah, I know, Mom,” he mumbled once.

“Ben!” his mother snapped. “When you are out there on the race course, miles from the start or finish line, am I beside you? Huh? Am I?”

“Well no,” he said, “but I know you’re back there, waiting for me to come back.”

“But I’m not there telling you to keep going, to dismiss the negativity, or even to get your butt moving,” she stated. “So if this cancer gets me – and it probably will – I won’t be there.

“But I’ll be here,” she said poking at his head and chest. “There’s nothing I haven’t told you or said to you that’ll need to be said the day after I die. Nothing!”

“You are you because of you,” she added. “You know all I’ve taught you, but you’re great because of you and your strength. Be you and you will succeed.”

The shoes reminded him of that conversation; of his mother’s will to live; her gift of confidence and inspiration. So they went with him; a subtle reminder.

As he stood atop that hill of sand, grinning, he looked toward the fence where brilliant pink flashed in the late-day sun. “Yeah Mom. I’m moving my butt.”

Birthday Bummer

I have a love-hate relationship with my birthday.

Don’t take that the wrong way. I don’t mind that each year, on a specified date, my age gets bumped up by 1. Getting older doesn’t bother me. I feel pretty good for my age. I have all my basic faculties. I have pretty much everything a man could want. So no, I am not opposed to getting older.

What I do not like about my birthday is the perception that it needs to be special. Again, don’t take that wrong. I am more than glad I was born. I am overjoyed my parents took the steps necessary to produce me. I have no reason to wish I had not been born. What I dislike about my birthday is the perception forwarded by others that it is “special.”

That perception was perpetuated and heightened throughout my younger days by birthday parties. I am a parent, and quick to point out I spent many years — still do it — making my children, and now grandchildren, feel special on their birthdays. But children, by the fact that they are held up in the spotlight on their birthdays, grow up with the idea that their birthday is a very special moment in their lives. And in all honesty, I see no reason to consider it anything other but that.

The birth of all three of my children, and all four of my grandchildren, have all been special and will continue to be so forever.

But once I reached adulthood, especially after the first time I was married, I began to feel uncomfortable about celebrating my birthday. I suppose it’s partly due to the fact that the woman I initially married celebrated her birthday the day after mine. That wasn’t her fault — we met, liked each other, fell in love, and got married. It just happened that her birthday was the day after mine. I never complained … after all, it was a sure-fire guarantee I’d never forget her birthday. But because our birthdays were back-to-back, we usually combined the celebrations. And more times than not, those combo-celebrations were held on her special day simply because of my nature to want to make others’ birthdays feel special.

So I think as time went on, my view of my birthday began to erode. Again, not her’s or anyone else’s fault; it’s just what got into my head and stuck.

Contributing to my idea that my birthday is not special is the fact that, even though I can be a “performer” who likes drawing attention to myself, the attention I get because of my birthday actually embarrasses me. I truly hate it when someone points out my birthday.

“Hey, we’ve got a person with a birthday among us!”

“It’s Kevin’s birthday … ‘Happy birthday to you ….'”

“Hey there birthday boy!”

I just want to holler, “Let’s not!”

It’s not really a matter of not wanting to have it known it’s my birthday, but more of a desire to observe it rather than celebrate it. And I really want that observance to be quiet and private. I smile big when my current wife wakes me with a kiss and a singsongy, “Happy Birthday!” And I do enjoy the “Happy Birthday” texts from my children and stepchildren. And there’s no better feeling than hearing a young grandchild babbling into the phone their unique and unintelligible version of “Happy Birthday, Grandpa.” I really like that. Family gatherings to celebrate birthdays are truly wonderful. Quiet, intimate dinners with my wife are delightful. I’m even okay with Facebook birthday greetings, although I do cringe at the first few because then I know the cascade of well-wishes will come flooding onto my page as my “friends” read those birthday posts and follow suit (I do not list my birthday on my page).

I tolerate familial recognition of my birthday because, well, fair is fair. I make a big deal about their birthdays, so if they feel inclined, I should allow them reciprocation.

I’m sure psychologists would have a field day analyzing and ripping to shreds my birthday attitude. I suppose they would find all sorts of deep-seeded reasons for my disdain of my birthday. Honestly, I couldn’t care less what they’d think. I fully take ownership of my negative attitude concerning my birthday. Whatever reasons they decide upon, it won’t matter to me. In fact, I have tried figuring out why it is I have such a negative attitude — and have come up with some interesting, and quite possibly close-to-the-truth theories.

Maybe as I progress into the twilight years of my life, my attitude will change. Perhaps the proximity to the end of my life will give me pause to reflect and make a shift in my attitude. But for now, I will continue with a love-hate relationship with my birthday. And that’s the way it will be. To quote the song line, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.”KevinCake2-13-15