Saturday, June 25, 2016

Not A Father's Son

People have said I roll well with the punches... I don't know if that's true. I'm not even sure I'm great at getting up when some of life punches take me down. Like much of humanity I struggle with change. It was about 10 years ago in June of 2006 that I first learned I was going to become a father.

In simple frankness, I'd wanted to be a dad and also feared it. While life and my mother were kind enough to give me a great dad early in childhood, I didn't meet my biological father till I was 15. So I didn't know if I had the instincts or the qualities and perhaps no child should have to be put to the test of it. So in fact my childhood sweetheart and wife of 5 years at the time had stated to a small group of friends and our parents that we weren't going to have kids. She was in the middle of graduate school, I was going to go afterwards then we'd be old etc...

But then... a surprise happened when we were 25 and 24 respectively. She had been throwing up (me ever the sensitive husband had noticed but done very little about it). I was out on a Friday night and she was home after some social work group function. She called me and said, "Can you come home?"  In simple honest I said "Come on you knew I was going to be out tonight." In the entire history of our marriage that would have resulted in okay or come home, one of the two of us accepting the change and that being the end of the dialogue. She said okay, I went back to socializing. About half an hour later she called back and said, "I need you to come home." This was the first and only time that this type of call happened twice. I responded with that I needed to say goodbye and then I'd head there but while I'm good at saying goodbye I'm horrible at leaving good company. Almost an hour later, I got a call that said, "I think I'm pregnant." In one of my worst responses in the history of my life I said, "Can I call you back?" and hung up the phone. I stepped back in and said okay I gotta go I think my wife's pregnant and walked out. Apparently I said it with such an astonished look that people didn't know exactly what I'd said or if I was serious.

I got home, tried to bluff like I was ready to become a father, and asked how this could happen since she was on birth control. She was but apparently this thing had like a less than 1% failure rate but despite me being a less than adequate swimmer apparently not all of me was. I stayed up all night, literally all night, trying to figure out how to financially be prepared for a kid. Two weeks later my mom was in town for a conference from her job and we sat her down and she was thrilled. Oddly enough it was actually on father's day we told her, a fact I would not notice for years.

There is an old saying that women become mothers when they realize they're pregnant and men when the baby's born. I dreamed up of how awesome my son would be, how we'd play sports together, how I'd do all the dad/son things that I hadn't had in my early childhood. She was almost 3 months pregnant before she realized it and so it was only in the second appointment where we'd find our daughter's gender. I smiled and then thought... well there goes that idea now I'll live with only women, my wife, my daughter and my dog. So I took on an approach that life as I knew it was soon ending and I might as well enjoy it before the baby was born. I'd be gone multiple weekends before the child's birth, including 5 or 6 in a row for ultimate frisbee tournaments. I had some poker nights, went to more happy hours in those few months than I had probably the rest of my life combined. My wife was at many of those things though not at all since she was well tired and let's just say that type of approach during pregnancy doesn't do a marriage good.

Nonetheless, when Kiana Lys Leon was born, it was amazing. I'm a guy who can't handle bodily fluids but I was there and didn't pass out and cut the umbilical cord. Turned out life wasn't over. I took a paternity leave while  her mother went back to work for a few weeks before becoming a stay at home mom for a while. I read to her all the coolest books that the world had ever known. I played music and danced with her.

I got back to my life too quickly though and my wife and daughter were part of my life, nowhere near high enough priorities and I tried to balance it all not in the right proportion. Four years later, I'd be diagnosed with cancer and frankly took some of it similar to fatherhood, trying to figure out the bills. I went on a goodbye tour to all my friends in Texas and California thinking life as I knew it was ending the day of brain surgery. Some things changed and some things stayed the same, there was certainly far more change in circumstances than there were due to Kiana's birth.

I handled the communication even worse in marriage and that ended and somehow I've ended up with primary custody and I'm at almost 5 years of that. There's been stories of how I put off brain surgery to run a marathon and qualified for Boston, there's been stories of how I won one pushing a stroller. But the stories I'm more proud of, the ones that bring more joy are the ones of where I did races right next to her or got my mom to do her first half marathon at age 60, I was right there for. Or the one where my dad did his first 10k at age 70 and several other races but without exception did them all next to my mom, showing his wisdom at racing long before I did mine. There's something about keeping pace with the ones you love and the one whose showing love is the one whose helping you move.

So I recently went to Seattle for my first marathon since Boston of 2015. A year ago I hadn't done a
trail race at all and now I've done one of pretty much every distance (some far more technical than others). This would be my first trail marathon, the Light at the End of the Tunnel. My little brother would come out with his wife, and son and hung out with Kiana while I raced (without exception every race I've traveled for has had at least one of 2 things, somewhere I've never been or somewhere near people I care about, often both). Because it was on a trail that wasn't accessible there were very few spectators so it was really all about being in your head. The tunnel it referred to knocked out the GPS watch from being relevant. I got fortunate enough to where there a few guys fairly close to my speed and the competitive spirit kept me moving. But I think the real reason I got my fastest marathon ever at this race (3:00.09) was one thing and one thing alone. When Kiana and I do our races, I get her water and give it to her a little bit after the water stop (we learned early that her trying to get it from volunteers has led to her getting almost if not knocked over). She had said once long ago that she appreciated that a lot. At mile 16, my little brother, his wife and son were all along the side of the road taking pictures of us. I didn't see Kiana which worried me but then just about a hundred feet forward she was at the water stop. She had asked if she could hand me my water for once. There are almost zero race pictures of me ever smiling but I'm not sure anyone will ever catch a better one because I've never been sure which one of us is raising who but on that point I know who was taking care of who during that race. And that was the moment I kept referring back to when I struggled on the second half of the race.We went straight from there to the Seattle Zoo with my brother which we saw the entire thing which I think makes it be the day I moved the most ever in my life. But there was no way I was asking my support crew during the race to be bored after cheering me and both in spirt and in body, I am beyond certain it helped created a faster recovery.

We'd be back a few days later to do the Spartan race on father's day weekend again. Kiana kept asking if she'd get to do the adult one (something not allowed till kids are 14, an age Kiana magically has turned to twice before). I knew it'd be tougher in a Stadium race where you're far more visible than in the single track of trails. We tried anyway and got to complete it with Kiana destroying obstacles that grown men and women next to her were struggling with. I was with her side by side on some and in a safety spot in others. Expectations had been made clear as before that she had to attempts all the obstacles and do burpees if she failed at them. There was no walking allowed and no complaining. She fulfilled all that and more. Over walls, up ropes, on monkey bars, she learned that life is brighter six feet off the ground. All I can say is that my daughter is more than I could have ever dreamed of.

The next day at Father's Day she gave me the best father's day card I've received yet. Each year oddly enough it's the day I get the most greetings outside of my birthday. It seems from social media a statistical anomaly comes up every father's day that everyone has the best dad ever. I know one person, me, who is called that, it's inaccurate but I do have the best daughter ever no matter what everyone else thinks about their kid ;). Her all but life-size card had reference to many of our in-jokes including mine about how my favorite person is bob (a coming alive of the Bob stroller joke I've kept going for years). My mom was in town for the same conference and perhaps the world has come full circle and complete in that she helped her with the card and the first time I think I've ever received breakfast in bed on my 10th father's day. We also did our annual professional pedicure and hanging up our medals.

Just as meaningful of a moment was her smaller card she had made which now hangs on display at my house. I have no arts and crafts abilities, zero. But Kiana has them and I've continued to get her new things to try out and make. The latest is a tiny paper folding thing that came with ways of making particular objects but now she's been making ones of her own. She made one of me running and as the guy who always runs with music she threw music notes in there. One of those chocolates must have come open with sodium that got in my eyes. In the marathon, I had listened to a song that I heard the last time I was in New York when I went to see Kinky Boots, Not My Father's Son. It stood out to me for many reasons but made me think of having wanted a boy "with the strength of sparta and the patience of Job." Between the actual Spartan and the cards she made, she has shown both of those plus all the charms of a very feminine young lady. I've tried as best as I know how to let her breathe freely as herself in both the ways she's similar and the ways she's very different than me, to be profound enough to always live out loud, to never have to mirror what's not in her. I don't know why the universe has been so kind to me with this daughter but I am grateful.

As I said I'm not really clear as to who is raising who, so I am going to try to continue to learn from her  and hope she's learning from me. A year ago I had never done a trail race when someone tried to get me to go over to a lane. It was a trail race that starts at night and if you do the 30k or the 60k you're going to have to run at night. Immediately, from practicality or fear, I said a guy with spatial orientation absence and a history of seizures, said I'll do the 10k and be done before dark. I did and I won it but never did race a night one on my own. I raced one with Kiana in August and despite a few falls she finished it with conviction (we were always in a  crowd so I felt more safe). A year later I've won some and my fastest marathon is on trail but I still haven't done a night trail race. Well, that will only be true for one more day since I'm doing one tonight, a 30k where I'm guaranteed to be in the dark. I don't have a son and perhaps will never quite be an adequate father's son but I am going to try to learn from some of the fearlessness of my daughter, and that the best part of me is what she brings out to see. Perhaps running from my weaknesses and my fears will keep being further in the past and adapting to them will be where I'm running to.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

For the Run of It

I'm not very good at ceremony. I'm certainly not opposed to ceremonies, I just don't personally like to be part of them. Being the first in my family to graduate from college, I wanted to skip the graduation. My mom vetoed that idea quickly.  I rarely do birthday celebrations (the 3 in my adulthood have been 18, 28 (08/08/08) and 30. Medals on races that I do alone last all of a minute or two on my neck.

This of course is an oddity at best because I love being on the other end of things. Many of the races I've gotten to be a part of I've stuck around handing out medals till the last recipient, handing out happiness is what it feels like. There was someone I crashed into a race that came up and remembered that I was the person who handed them a medal at the first marathon they finished. There hasn't been a year since Kiana was born where I haven't thoroughly cheered commenting one more year of life. And in the last 3 days of school alone I was there 3 times as she had her last music share and two performances. I sure like to think I'm raising a princess but at some level I'm a little worried that she landed two of the leads in the 3rd grade drama class and the UIL drama club (they revisited two classics Queen Midas who turns everything into chocolate, very disappointed she didn't practice that at home and Princess Cinderella whose shoe problem was caused by the fact that she was a shoe size 87 1/2). And there might have been a parent who was happier or more proud of their kid than I was but I doubt it ;).

Some might see it as a bit strange to be doing all of this in the middle of MRI appointments and it's
results or perhaps some might see it as a way to distract myself from the suspense of those long 48 hours. I would like to believe that it's strange that cancer interrupts any of those things and believe you me, they weren't there to distract from cancer at all. In fact I would be highly disappointed in myself if cancer had distracted from my full focus on those events.

Still, the MRI happened. I finally got the courage to make a prick joke to a new attendant who found it hilarious. I did listen to the Disturbed version of Sound of Silence before heading there to get injected for blood and then to get reinfected with a medal dye that has all but once made me throw up and then washed out by saline. I sat and tried to think about the things that had gone right in there since cancer, not the seizures, not the surgeries, not the bills (those thoughts must have gotten magnetically pulled in there but I kept dismissing them). I thought of the fact that my parents had never ran a race before all this and thought of the one we had just done. This was one of my favorite races of all. My parents PR streak finally ended on it because my mom's been having a knee injury. My dad, showing the man he is, has never once done a race at his own speed and always done it right next to her. This was no exception. Kiana and I watched them come in and they were lovely. My mom used to try to come for my medical appointments but she has finally accepted that the image of her doing these races is a much bigger factor in the imagining in my head going well during an MRI.

And it wasn't just any race, it was one put on by the Austin Runner's Club. While I gave my mom bib #29, my dad #71, and Kiana #9 cause of their ages (and I took my #8), the race really is in it's 39th year. It had hurt a little with about a 100 participants and it was one my biggest hopes when this board took over that we could bring it back a little. When the race was done we had over 350 registrants. Kiana did manage to continue her 2 plus year streak of PR's. I had my watch set to the wrong settings so I could only tell at the mile markers approximately what pace we were at (didn't tell her that). I was hoping she would break 26 minutes and she ended up breaking 25 with a 24:57. She would also be the top fundraiser of the event with $650 towards Marathon Kids, a program that's just about kids running. Did I mention I'm not big on medal display? Well Daisy had medals this year and like all the ones that I've earned beside Kiana, it hangs in the living room prominently on display.

The results appointment was actually almost immediately after the last school assembly. Kiana got straight A's in 1st grade but missed a couple of days of school. In 2nd grade, she got perfect attendance but had one or 2 B's. In 3rd grade she nailed them both. I sat there and watched her glow at the results knowing well, if nothing else, I hope I've encouraged her that showing up is a good predictor of success and once in a  while you get to nail them both on an upward trajectory. I might have heckled a parent who upon seeing her kid get one of the awards that Kiana got asked, "oooh what did you get for that" I responded immediately with she got to have a chance to learn more. I hope Kiana keeps much of her motivation in the internal reward not just the external one.

So those were the thoughts going through my head during the MRI. When I got to the results appointment, I was in the waiting room looking at the magnet on the table where I was filling out forms: "Treating cancer is caring for people." The doctors I got are great at treating cancer if that's the definition.

I got called in and weighed and pulsed and asked the traditional questions. I honestly didn't remember anyone in the room but they all asked about what races I had done lately. Then I got put in the next waiting room. It was different because it had a window with a  great view of the University of Texas. I don't know if the other ones didn't have windows before or just not much of a view but somehow it just felt right to be looking at a place I'd given speeches to doctors, pre-med students, raced alone, raced with Kiana. It sounds silly but that just was a comfort in its own way that before I got an internal view of what it was inside my skull I got to look down lanes with memories, to be reminded that I got to choose life with a view. 

The doctor came in and said my scans showed everything stable. He was wearing one of his signature bowties (bowties are cool!). We went over the scans from this angle and that angle, with contrast and without contrast. He went over realities that in the best case scenario they would have been able to remove all the tumor but that in my case my tumor was most likely dormant and may well wake up (where and when the mystery). But he talked to me about the latest phase of where brain tumor treatment is at Duke (coincidentally I was wearing a Duke jacket) with optimism but with reality that both he and doctors at Duke, Md Anderson had seen phases that got past phase 1 at trials and petered out in phase two or with a larger population. This was and is still only being used experimentally on people who it's aggressively growing but who knows there may come a day when it's able to used on people who have dormant tumors and come out with no tumors.  It was a cautious tone that said don't hold your breath but don't give up hope. Did I mention Dr. Vailiant rocks?

He then caught up about what races I had just done. We did some memory tests (I passed 2 our of 3) and he was impressed that I recognized we were in a different room since my spatial orientation doesn't exist. He thought it was memory but when you've been in enough medical rooms and waiting rooms and realize they have an entrapped feeling, there's no way that window with that view doesn't stick out in your heart of hearts, isn't that where the best memories are forged? He talked to me about running with his kids in a double stroller. It's funny he always tells me about his running and always prefaces it with "I'm a runner, not as good as you." I've never done it but I'm tempted to respond with something witty like "I have a brain, not as good as yours" but I always think of it after the fact not at it. 


I told him that I'd been re-elected as ARC president which led to some jokes about the current state of getting elected president in the US today might not be as tough as it should be (neither of us said who we voted for so far but in case you're wondering, I voted for Pedro). We also talked about how aging is affecting my running, that I'm still hitting my times but recovery is getting harder and for the first time ever in a medical appointment he stated the obvious, that time catches up to all of us with aging and death. It was not a deep philosophical remark but it was somehow refreshing to hear from a guy whose monitoring my life. 

But I got to answer a question which had taken too long to answer. Back in December of 2014, he had talked to me about the New York marathon, knowing my results in advance because he had live tracked them. He said what race do you have next and at the time I didn't really have anything on the calendar. In June of 2015 and in December of 2015, he had asked similar questions and gotten similar answers. Perhaps it's coincidence or perhaps it was subtle encouragement to look further than to the next visit to him but he'd be saying it me for the last 4 MRI's and never had an answer.

It takes a cursory reading of this blog to realize I race and run a lot. I've long said running is my therapy and how much I run and how long I run tells you how much I need therapy. In fact in my public speeches at races, I say "I never know whether I'm running to or from something but I keep running." However, a simple rule in most of our lives is if our words and actions contradict each other, our actions are almost always the ones telling the real truths. I mean I put off brain surgery to run a marathon but that's not where the pattern ended. If you look at November of 2014, May 2015, November 2015 each of them kept being the month that I did more races than I had ever done before. The MRI's feel and have been treated like a game of russian roulette where someone else is spinning the wheel and who knows what is pulling the trigger. So I've ran hard before each of them and then the month immediately after them are the lightest... some might think that's intelligent recovery planning but that's just not true. It was me afraid to make a commitment thinking that it was going to take time to get my affairs in order. I mean I did literally 3 races in 4 days before the last one. 

I did it different this time. The week before the MRI's I registered for multiple races, 4 of them within the next 3 weeks, a 5k, a marathon, a Spartan and my first night race. There was a further one out, the St. George Marathon, where I'm a speaker and originally I had plans to go to the Grand Canyon out there on my own but before stepping into the doctor's appointment I said that I was going to Zion with good company cause the Grand Canyon can wait. I dared to dream for the first time beyond the MRI. Somewhere between now and the next one I hope to get the courage to sign up for a race beyond that one. 

I sat in my car, relieved at the results and breathed thinking about reality, promise, the past, the present the future. And for some reason Emily Dickinson came to mind, I realized death will eventually catch up. However, I was grateful that I hadn't stopped upon becoming so keenly aware of my mortality. I combined the two thoughts with a nod and realized that I had not stopped for death, it has yet to catch up to me. I didn't do any great ceremonial approach upon finding the results. In fact after the last day of school, Kiana and I just went to the playground and then afterwards we did some hill repeats. 

How will life go, probably as well as the races have, some good, some okay, some great, some tough? But what can I say, it took me a long time to learn that the coping mechanism should get me not just to medical appointments but through them. It won't for me ever be primarily for the medals or even the times though I doubt I'll be completely not competitive. So until death do us part, I hope I keep enjoying life and these races for the entire run of it.