If you ask an ultra runner why they do what they do–well, don’t bother; they’ll probably tell you as soon as they mention that they run ultras, and they’ll tell you that within about a minute’s acquaintance. I know this because, you see, I, too, run ultras. Why, you (don’t actually) ask? Well, I’ll tell you. Yes, there’s that feeling of invincible badassery that comes from pushing your body harder and farther than you ever thought possible. Paradoxically, though, there’s also the flip side: running really long distances has given me perspective on the body’s vulnerability. It’s a perspective I’ve found helpful as my parents move into their final days on earth.
My rip-roaring spring break has entailed grading papers in my parents’ condo, where they, both in their 90s now, totter around, fall asleep in chairs, and yell at each other, in part because of hearing loss and in part because they are frequently crabby with each other, which, after nearly 60 years of marriage, they are entitled to. No spring chicken myself, this is about as much spring break partying as I’d ever expect anyway. Once a day I’ll get out for a run, gasping and trudging over Pacific Northwest hills which seem like mountain ranges to these flatlander legs of mine. Given how far away I live from them, and given Covid, a potentially impending world war, and who knows what else, every time I’ve seen them in the past few years has felt like it could be the last. My father in particular is looking very frail; he’s 93 and it’s doubtful he’ll get to 94.
That’s a long life, and it has been a full one. But his time isn’t up just yet; there are still hours to fill, and ever fewer ways to fill them. He can’t walk far or well, his eyesight and hearing aren’t great, and some of his medication has unpleasant side effects. He was mortified when he started experiencing bladder control problems, but adult incontinence undergarments felt too much like wearing diapers so he started using maxipads instead. Hey, whatever works for you. Extreme athlete types know all about bladder control issues; as one Ironman put it, “There are two kinds of triathletes: the ones who pee in their pants during a race and the ones who lie about it.” It is not undignified. It is human. Every single one of us moves through the world in a lumpy sack of meat and bones and a whole lot of water–sometimes a bit too much water, and it ain’t gonna be Pamplemousse La Croix when it’s jettisoned.
There has been a lot of talk (though still not nearly enough) about body shaming. That talk very much needs to extend to old bodies, in my opinion. Worn-out bodies are difficult to deal with, but they are not inherently shameful–not any more than very new bodies are. The full-circle return of the body and mind in advanced age to a more childlike existence is a well-known phenomenon, and who doesn’t on occasion long for a return to childhood? Storytelling, naptime, snacks–sign me up! Actually, snack-wise, my parents were fairly strict about food throughout my childhood; we did not eat junk, not fast food, not sodas, neither the fried and salty nor the sugary sweet. Well, my father’s new favorite thing is the Burger King Whopper, and my mother has been pushing popcorn, chips, and ice cream bars at me all week. I wanted to cook them a nice dinner, so I got some beautiful salmon filets and baked them with lemon and garlic and fresh herbs. My father doused his filet in a great glob of tartar sauce from a squeeze bottle, and my mother for some reason decided she wanted to put canned peaches on hers. I had to avert my eyes, I’ll admit, but bottom line, we all enjoyed our meal.
When their bodies fail them, when my father has food dribbling from his chin, when my mother keeps repeating the same story over and over because it’s on her mind and she doesn’t realize she already said it two minutes ago, I am not overwhelmed with sadness. They do not appear undignified or demeaned to me, even now. That they experience constant pain and a shrinking of their world saddens me, of course, and yet–did I mention I’m an ultra runner?–what is running 30 or 50 or 100 miles but life reduced to a single-minded pursuit fraught with pain? Hey, I’m not saying it’s smart, only that I think I can be OK with it.
One of the first things my father said to me when I arrived at the condo was, “Hey, check out my office. There’s a surprise.”
“You been redecorating?” I asked, making my way down the hall. He grinned and nodded.
On his desk, next to the small TV where he watches Jeopardy every evening (“I used to get so many more of them, but my mind just doesn’t work well anymore,” he said yesterday, still managing to beat me soundly in the military history category), stood a small artificial Christmas tree, twinkling with colored lights. “We put it up in December and it looked so nice and cheerful, I decided to keep it up.”
A small, lovely thing that keeps you going. We all look for that, children, runners, and aging parents alike.