Out of the morning mist, on my drive home from my favorite dog park, I noticed a man out for a run that caught my attention. This runner made a small gesture that reminded me of my father, and for a moment, it took my breath away. This man was carrying a small towel and was wiping the sweat off of his brow as he ran. Even his running gait felt oddly familiar to me. It amazed me, the power of such a small gesture, and its ability to grab a hold of a memory of my father doing the same thing. My heartbeat started to quicken. I admit, I felt compelled to take a closer look at this man. Could I see any other recognizable traits of my father? For a split second, this runner, he became my father. As I slowed down to take a closer look, I knew in my heart that it wasn’t my father, but I looked nonetheless.
My father used to run 6 miles every day like clockwork and in any kind of weather for 25+ years. His running credo was akin to the postal creed, "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night ….” There was indeed, a well worn 6 mile loop from his front doorstep around Fountain Lake and back home. A beautiful run, the perfect amount of miles to run daily and in any season. My father used to carry a small towel while he ran to wipe the sweat off his brow and face while he ran. A flood of memories started to pour into my thoughts. I used to be an avid runner and I often ran this course with my father whenever I visited my hometown. At this moment, I was missing both my father and running.
The freedom that running can bring to the mind and fitness to the body is quite astounding and never ceases to amaze me. Running was a catalyst that helped forge a stronger bond between my father and I. I have many memories of running with my father, my husband, my children, friends and my sisters. My father and I ran countless 5K’s, 10K’s, 5 milers, 25K’s and two marathons together. My father passed away on June 17, 2014 at the age of 87. This man out running on this beautiful day was not my father. But it stirred up some fond recollections and nostalgic times shared with my father from an earlier time in our lives. One minute gesture from a passing stranger out running and unbeknownst to him, opened up strong feelings that had laid dormant within me for a number of years.
Up until my father's 56th birthday, he had smoked most of his life. He was from Northern Ireland and smoking was prevalent in his childhood environment and in his life. Everyone around him smoked. I used to tease him and say, “Do they hand out cartons of cigarettes at birth in Ireland or what?” Many of us in my family, with the exception of my mother and one sister, at one time or another, had tried smoking. It never stuck with me. I am incredibly grateful that I never became addicted to cigarettes. It was just a distraction for a while, something to occupy my hands and my mind while I was avoiding reading my economics textbook or writing term papers in college. It is so silly now, but perhaps, at the time of my youth, I felt it made me look wildly mature.
My first job out of college I worked at an advertising agency. I would sometimes meet a coworker for a smoke and a chat down the hall from my office. There was no smoking in our office. We would sneak away from the stressful daily deadlines and conversations with publishers from around the country and smoke. I had learned smoking as a stress reliever from my father. I would occasionally smoke when I was stressed out and then the lightbulb went off...I am stressed out and I am doing something that harms me? What part of this makes sense? Absolutely none of it. It also hurt my lungs. I thank God that my body was smarter than my mind at the time and it sent me messages of rejection for cigarettes and I listened... when my habitual mind sometimes had other plans.
My sister Kristy smoked quite a lot. When she was finally able to quit smoking, it inspired my father to also quit. He thought if she could quit, he could quit. He was able to quit smoking by going, "cold turkey." At around the same time, my oldest sister, Kerry, was running a lot and training for marathons. She purchased a pair of running shoes for dad for his 56th birthday and it was the greatest gift I think he was ever given. He started running and never looked back. Running offered him a freedom he had never known before.
My sister’s daily running dedication inspired many of us to start running, too. My oldest brother ran track and cross country in high school. He held the fastest record for running the mile in my high school. When I graduated 12 years after he had graduated...he still held the record. He ran in high school and college. He was an incredibly gifted runner, but he gave it up and pursued other disciplines when many of the rest of us picked it up. The benefits that running brought to my family were many. It gave us a healthy outlet and activity to share together when we all went home for weekend visits to my parent's home. My father became a new man from running and quitting smoking. He ran his first marathon at the age of 65 years of age. Running and embracing a healthier lifestyle irrevocably changed him in the very best ways possible. Truly remarkable.
I always thought running made him a kinder and gentler person. I know without a doubt, that running was integral and beneficial to our relationship and what it had become for me as an adult. We shared conversations and quality time together. Time and attention like this I rarely, if ever, received from him as a child. There were too many of us and he had not been introduced to running, yet. I know running for me as a young mother helped me immensely. I was a better mother because I cared for myself in addition to caring for my family. Running helps alleviate stress. It builds strength in bones, muscles and burns calories. I know that when I made time in the morning to run, it had the power to make the rest of the day go smoother. I was a happier person and I felt like I could accomplish anything.
He truly was able to change his life and he was able to show us a different side to him. Running gave him pride, purpose, fitness and a healthy release from the pressures that can build in a person’s life and mind. Running is a wonderful activity that can bring peace, harmony, and health. I highly recommend running for anyone at any age. It is relatively inexpensive and it is a gift you can give to yourself and share it with your family and friends. It certainly helped all of the family grow together in closeness and offered the opportunity to run races together. He ran well into his late 70’s early 80’s. When he could no longer run he walked daily and continued to lift weights and he even tried yoga. Running, eating healthy, and exercise saved his life in more ways than one. Once you open your mind and heart to healing ways you have an insatiable curiosity. You keep searching for activities that fit into your lifestyle that can assist in bringing harmony, health and balance.
Dad had an aortic aneurysm and had to have surgery at St. Mary’s Hospital, part of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, to have it repaired. According to Web.md, “An aortic aneurysm is a bulge in your aorta, the main blood vessel that carries blood from your heart to the rest of your body.” His parents both died from similar health issues back in Ireland. He was determined to not live and die in the same vein. There were several patients having surgeries similar to my father’s.
Do you remember when you used to be able to go to the hospital and wait for your loved ones while they had surgery? Pre Covid. The invitation was always available to visit with and meet other people waiting for their family members who were having the same surgery. I remember sitting there putting puzzles together with virtual strangers. The surgery took several hours so we had lots of time to get to know each other. All of the other patients were current smokers. None of the other patients did as well with the surgery or recovered as fast as my father and some had even experienced having one or more heart attacks.
After the surgery, dad was intubated and in the recovery room. I am extremely sensitive and faint when I am in discomfort or when I have witnessed others in pain. It took me a while to muster up the courage to go into recovery to visit my father. I had never seen him sick before let alone him being a patient in a hospital recovery room. I went in and he tried to take off the apparatus and talk to me to assuage my fears. Once a father, always a father. We are always stronger than we think. It may have taken me all day to go into visit him, but visit him I did and I am proud to say, I did not faint.
His ability to quit smoking and to start running saved his life. He was asked by the surgeon to be a patient advocate for health and talk to patients about changing their habits from smoking and having sedentary lifestyles to quit smoking and to start walking, running and moving their bodies to the best of their abilities. He loved that he could influence others by being a living example of a healthy lifestyle change.
It makes me chuckle at how intolerant former smokers become around smokers. My father was definitely one of those. He was very opinionated in life and especially towards smokers. I think he forgot how many years he smoked. I am sure that he meant well, but his delivery sometimes left something to be desired.
I encourage anyone and everyone who reads this to consider quitting smoking if you do smoke and to give running, walking, yoga, biking, swimming, dancing, anything and everything you can think of to move your body daily. I promise you, you will never regret being healthy. There is an incredible freedom to being able to breathe deeply, walk, and move on your own. I promise you, you will enjoy your life so much more and never regret it. The body and breath are gifts to not be squandered. Life is to be enjoyed.