I left school around 4:00 on Tuesday, armed with my hot pink gym bag filled with all my hill run essentials. The workout actually starts at 5:30, but for once I managed to not get sucked into various meetings or project planning or discussions about curriculum, so I decided to get a head start while the sun was still strong. It was almost 50 degrees and almost blindingly sunny, and I hardly felt the sense of impending doom that usually precedes the hill workout as I waded through rivers of snow melt on my way to Porter Square. My foot felt solid, despite having run 18 miles three days prior; a very rainy ordeal, which left me chafed where the wet seams of my shirt rubbed against my sides but thankfully spared me any foot pain. With patches of grass showing among the snow piles for the first time in nearly two months, the world felt decidedly less hostile. Looking to the north, I could see the thinnest strip of deep gray sky on the horizon over Arlington and Medford, but everything looked peachy in the direction of Boston as I headed into the T to go downtown.
My 20 minute trip underground brought me up onto the Boston Common amid a completely different scene than the one I had left in Cambridge. Evidently, during the time that it took to travel underground to the other side of the river, that tiny layer of gray sky had quickly stretched its way over the entire Commonwealth and brought with it a 15-degree drop in temperature and a wind that ripped up Tremont Street and made me struggle to push the door open to exit the subway. I knew that the forecast for Wednesday was a mere 27 degrees, and it seemed as though Canada was on her way in already for a most unwelcome visit. The first drops began to fall only moments after starting my first steps around the Common and Public Garden to warm up, and by the time I reached the bottom of The Hill, I was barely able to open my eyes through the stinging rain.
As I began my repetitions up and down the length of Beacon Hill, head bent down to reduce the sharp bite of the rain on my face, my view was reduced to the toes of my blue sneakers coming in and out of frame with each stride and the glimpsed faces of passing commuters, mostly hidden beneath hoods and umbrellas. With so much of the world shut out, I was mainly left to my own thoughts. Thoughts of work, of my parents who are away in the Middle East. Thoughts of Nathaniel. The wind increased, and I began to think of a Shipley family who recently lost their 13 year old son, Cayman, to suicide. As I pushed my way up the hill, I thought of what they must be feeling at that very moment. Agony, I knew. I remember the first weeks after Nathaniel died, how every second of the day was punctuated by a deep pain in my chest that radiated into my upper back, like the grief was boring a hole right through me. I had never experienced emotional pain so profound that it became physical as well, and it is not something that I will forget. I remember those first moments of each morning, when I was barely coming into consciousness, often out of a regular dream with nonsensical plot lines and familiar faces; where for a few rare moments I had forgotten that he was gone and everything carried on against the familiar backdrop of my life, one that included my brother. And then I would wake up, and in an instant that gaping hole would open up like a vacuum and every emotion, every traumatic memory, every regret would come rushing in to fill the void. Other nights I would dream of his death, and my emotions would follow me right into my sleep. I felt completely and utterly broken. As the rain soaked through my clothes and froze my forearms, I wondered if Cayman's family was feeling anything like I had. I know that he had a sister.
The rain steadied, and then abruptly transformed into pelting hail like someone had thrown a switch. As I let gravity take me down the hill to prepare for another repetition, the little balls of ice rolled ahead of my feet while more pinged both delightfully and somewhat painfully off my body. Trying to catch the little hail stones in my hands, I turned around to head back to the top and was overwhelmed by the thought of why am I doing this? I could run this hill a million times and it would never bring Nathaniel back. I could run marathons for the rest of my life and it would not ease the Naib family's grief for their son, Cayman. The grief for a loved one is as enduring as their death. I know I will always grieve Nathaniel, because I will always love him. So why, why have I felt the need to once again pour myself into training for this one particular race? Squinting my eyes against the stinging ice, I scanned the snowy Common as if the answer lay somewhere nearby.
Not surprisingly, I did not come up with a brilliant response during the 45 minutes I spent going back and forth over the same length of Beacon Hill. I thought about how I am running to support Samaritans and the tireless work they do each day to support those who are feeling desperate, suicidal, or are grieving a loved one. Every time I go into the office to drop off my school bag before a hill run, I hear the volunteers answering countless helpline calls. The admire the volunteers for their calm courage as they tactfully and skillfully navigate whatever comes through the line; just hearing their side of the conversation is enough to make me leave the room as promptly as I can. I could never do what they do. But no, supporting Samaritans is only part of it, and I couldn't seem to put my finger on the rest. Turning to head up the hill for my second-to-last time, my body was beginning to scream. Was I running for the physical challenge, like an attempt to achieve some semblance of solidarity for the those who struggle daily as Nathaniel did? Like if I could will myself up the hill one more time, perhaps someone like Nathaniel would find the strength to hold out a little longer? Yet I had no doubt that my bodily cries paled in comparison to the inner marathon he ran every day. For soon I would be done and sitting on the T to head back home. He was never done.
Heading back up the hill for my ninth and final time, I felt uneasy. The hail had ceased and it was now just bitterly cold and gusty, and I was dressed inadequately. Why couldn't I pinpoint the true reason why I felt driven to do this? Was there no reason at all? Perhaps it was just a distraction from my grief, or a way to feel like I was doing something amid the helplessness of it all; not very empowering reasons, I concluded. Feeling somewhat defeated, I ran the last rep hard, and when I reached the top I doubled over with my hands on my knees, my heart racing out of my chest. The sky remained a deep, mottled gray, but I happened to glance up at the state house to my left and saw one tiny slit of blue sky peeking out from the clouds behind the golden dome. Turning around to go down for the final time, I looked ahead at the massive mirrored side of the John Hancock building in Copley Square and saw that the slim swath of blue sky behind me was magnified and reflected across all 60 stories of Boston's tallest skyscraper, 760 feet of brilliant blue contrasted against the surrounding dark cloud layer. In my mind, I almost word-for-word replayed Meg Ryan's conversation with her mother in Sleepless in Seattle ("It's a sign!" "But you don't believe in signs!"). I admired the oddness and beauty of it the whole way down the hill and by the time I reached the bottom, the building stood tall and gray again, washed out against the stormy backdrop. I couldn't quite figure out the physics of it all, but it somehow brought me comfort. I am indeed doing something small, perhaps nearly insignificant, like one fleeting sliver of clear sky in a massive storm front. But it is beautiful, and who knows; perhaps it will reflect as something huge for someone else, whether it brings them hope or comfort or will to continue. It is big for me. And maybe that is enough.