You never call, you never write…Oh, wait, I guess I’m the one who is supposed to be doing that, aren’t I? Sorry, it’s been a busy year for RRG. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down anytime soon. If anyone is still interested in my ramblings, I would love to give y’all an update.
Just this morning, I finished a book I’ve been reading, called The Keeper of Secrets. The cover reads ‘A novel of love, loss and survival’. As I finished reading the story of a family of German Jews, it occurred to me that it was also very much a story of healing. Sound familiar?
Well, here’s my update in the form of a story of love, loss, survival and healing. In order to do so, I need to take you back in time a little bit, so you can see the progression through the Aprils. This might take a while, so bear with me.
6 years ago. The absolute worst month of my entire life. I was stuck, trapped, miserable. On April 1, I knew that as the keeper of many of my own secrets, the only way to move forward was going to be to unlock them, but the very idea was absolutely terrifying. I was dreading where my path would lead me if I opened that door and allowed the things to tumble out that I had kept locked away in a shroud of darkness and pain, some for many years. In the wee hours of April 2, I tapped into what was only the beginning of the nightmare, as I began telling my then husband how unhappy I was in our marriage. And over the next couple of weeks, as the layers got peeled back, it got uglier and uglier, all the secrets of my life revealed, everything from small scrapes to deep gaping wounds. My heart was raw and bleeding. I was on the verge of losing absolutely everything I held dear and I wasn’t sure I had the capacity to carry on. I spent most days that April getting the kids off to school and then hiding under a blanket until I had to go back to get them. Everything I had feared in bringing my shame and my secrets out of the closet, had proven correct. I was being dragged through the mud and threatened to have all of my dearest relationships stripped away from me. I went back and forth between being wracked with grief and feeling numb, which was probably my brain’s way of not allowing more pain than I could handle. On April 30, I was supposed to run the Nashville marathon with a couple of my girlfriends from Chicago. Obviously, with my life falling apart, that had gotten set aside. My friends had decided to run the Christie Clinic marathon instead. I was laying on my couch in the living room, with a blanket over my head to block out the sunshine coming through the windows, that was in such stark contrast of the melancholy that was permeating my being. I could hear the playful voices of my children outside in the back yard. I got a text from my friends saying that they had qualified for the Boston Marathon, which was exactly what we had all been hoping to do that day. How was it that instead, I had gotten to a place where my life had completely fallen apart? How was it that hearing my kids voices outside was very possibly the only thing keeping me alive? I had literally stopped eating, I didn’t care, I didn’t want to be in this world anymore. But somewhere, under that blanket, from the deepest depth of my soul, I said a prayer. My heart cried, “Jesus, be enough.” And if He was enough, I needed him to show me. I needed to believe that even if I lost everything, I would still be ok.
That night, I sat at the dinner table, across from a person I was still legally married to, but the vows were so broken that the relationship was a shell, a mask of what it was supposed to be. I stared at the food on my plate and moved it around, not interested in providing my body with necessary life giving nutrients. My shoulders slumped, my eyes and my heart downcast, my spirit broken. And then there was a conversation. I asked question after question and finally started getting some answers. After that conversation, he left to go pick up the kids from his parents’ house and I stood staring out the window, pondering the information I had just been given. And in that moment, I went from being trapped and ready to give up to finding the will to fight. I was ready to fight for my kids, for my freedom, for my life.
I had filed for divorce in August of the previous year, it had taken me 3 full months to summon the courage, and we were deep in the process. We were still living under one roof, I had moved to the basement, or the “dungeon” as I called it. I hated being two whole floors away from my kids, but it was necessary for me to have my own space, until we were working on an official custody schedule in separate residences. It was a long, tedious, painful process. I had been in therapy which was imperative to help me get through the yuck. I had started working for Fleet Feet not long after my fight showed up, I needed something of my own. One of my friends at work, Jordan, had put together a team of people to go run an overnight relay of 200 miles through the Smoky Mountains. It sounded amazing and I felt a pull to be a part of this team, the Smokin Aces. Sometime in mid-April, several of us met up to caravan, we were meeting the rest of the team in Bryson City, NC. I drove myself in my Pathfinder, behind a van full of my teammates. At some point along the drive, maybe near Padukah, a couple of them jumped in with me to drive the rest of the way. One of the guys was driving when we entered the forest and I remember staring out the window trying to take in all of the beauty before me. We stayed in an amazing house in the mountains, owned by one of our teammates and headed to the race course the next morning. We were all piled into a huge 15 passenger van, 9 of us with everything we could have possibly needed for a 24 hour period. We took turns running, navigating, driving, prepping food, napping, etc. I will never forget Nathan making me a tortilla with Nutella and sliced bananas, it was seriously the best thing I had ever tasted. Partly, because it came with a realization that someone was willing to do that for me, with no expectation of anything in return. It was a simple as a tortilla, but it meant the world to me. I ran my parts of the race and loved every second, but it was also the quiet moments in between that I hold close to my heart. I ran a part of the course that was 5.5 miles on a gravel road, up hill the whole way in the pitch dark of a forest in the middle of a foggy night. I literally ran up a mountain, and when I got there, my teammates were waiting for me, cheering me on. A while later, I found myself at one of the exchange points, a little church in the middle of nowhere, lying on a sleeping bag looking up at the stars, sharing stories with my teammates while someone tried to boil water with a camping stove to make Ramen noodles. They were only lukewarm and mostly crunchy, but they were perfect. My last leg of that race was up the side of a mountain, along a ridge, a crazy out of control downhill, across a river, through an unmarked trail through the woods where I got lost and trapped in a ravine. Our team had gotten ahead of the race organizers and the trail hadn’t been marked yet, eventually, my friend Ken came into the woods and found me dehydrated and delirious, took me by the hand and dragged me out of the woods. There were times he was actually pushing me up the hill, despite my pleas of I can’t. He never let me stop. In that moment, I had no idea that two and a half years later I would be participating in an Ironman, and that same friend would be running alongside me as I was a just a few miles from the finish, both of us smiling, me knowing that I could. I had battled mountains, fog, getting lost, trapped, and bruised, but I had survived. And I knew I would continue to do so.
It was during that race that I fell in love with the North Carolina mountains, I fell in love with the friends that had taken care of me and taught me so much, and it was there that I realized I was going to be ok, that someday I would heal and I would love again.
Mid-month, the Smokin Aces were headed back to the mountains for an encore. We had taken 2nd place the previous year and we were out for blood. Ok, not really, we just loved our team and the race and we wanted to have a great time again, especially if it meant winning. 😉 Craig and Alamar flew in to St. Louis and we all piled into Ken’s van for the drive to Bryson City. I didn’t drive myself this time, I wanted to be with my teammates. I loved everything about that trip, that race, all of it. We met up with the rest of our teammates in Carolina, got a little lost on the way to the starting line, and when 11 of us situated between 2 vehicles we set out to conquer the course. The race was a couple days after the Boston Marathon bombing, so I had brought armbands for us to wear in honor of the victims. Again, the race was a menagerie of running, eating, napping, laughing and all the trimmings, but there was a different air about it for me a year later. I crushed that same uphill in the middle of the night leg, taking 5 minutes off my time from the year before under a sky full of stars. I was happier, lighter. I had been officially single since September. I had bought a house. I was moving forward. Still struggling, but making progress. Even I could see how much difference a year had made. And then I ran leg 34 again. The uphill part was still hard, but I had a much better idea of where I was going. The downhill didn’t feel as chaotic and out of control, I just enjoyed the momentum. I got to the bridge, that incredible bridge, and my friends were waiting for me, but I smiled at my escorts out of the woods, rather than crying because I couldn’t do it. Again, I was in love with the North Carolina mountains, the peace that they bring to my soul and their fragrant reminder of healing. As we drove out of the mountains the next day on our drive home, I stared out the van window, my eyes filled with tears at leaving, but knowing I would inevitably be back someday.
I don’t recall that we had a team go in 2014 or 2015, but I wouldn’t have been able to make it. April 2015 is when I went back to school. I had been feeling a pull for a career move and after some conversations with my beau who I had been seeing since December of 2013 and some investigating, I was enrolled in a program to become a Medical Assistant. Let the school days begin.
During my Medical Assistant externship, it became obvious to me that I wanted, I *needed* to be able to do more for my patients. So I decided to continue my education in the Practical Nursing Program. In April of last year, I had just finished my first semester of nursing, and school life as a single mom was about to test my limits in a way that I could not have prepared myself for, at least not any better than I already had. I had already conquered an Ironman, I was beginning to understand what I was truly capable of, and I was going forth, fearless in my pursuit of excellence. I knew that the next year of my life was going to be challenging, but I had no idea that those 12 months would put to the test all the strength I had already built and challenge me in a way I had never even dreamed. There would be blood, sweat and tears. Lots of tears! Especially in the moments that I questioned if the strain that this endeavor placed on my precious relationships was worth the quality time it took from my treasures. There was lack of sleep, there was stress upon stress upon stress. There were priorities that became second and third tier and then they were washed away into nothingness because in the grand scheme of life, they no longer mattered as much as they once did. They would have to wait until there was time. But since I was blissfully unaware of how difficult the upcoming 3 semesters of nursing school was going to be, I signed up to run my comeback marathon in December and agreed to raise money for the kids of St. Jude. I agreed to letting my daughter pick up a new sport, Cheer, not realizing how much travel would be involved as I neared the finish line of nursing school. In April of 2016, Brian and I went to Nashville for a weekend during my break between 1st and 2nd semester. And then, for approximately 365 days, my life was turned totally upside down.
The year leading up to April 2017
Being a single parent is hard. Nursing school is hard. But in this equation 1 + 1 does not equal 2. Single parenting + nursing school equals about 65 billion. There is a reason that people get degrees before they get married and have children. But when April arrived, I realized I just had to hold on a little longer. Two semesters of Clinical rotations were completed. 3 semesters of intense studying done. I had traveled to about 10 different states for various things, a trip to both Michigan and New York with my love, travels to Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio for Cheer competitions with my teenager, and a weekend in Memphis to run a marathon. I raised $3000 for St Jude, far surpassing my goal. And there were the countless nights of helping kids with homework, chauffeuring kids to and from practices and games, and just generally keeping things afloat and being a mom.
There was a conversation that occurred with my friend Kim one morning during a long training run. I was reminiscing about the days that I was fast. Back when I could run a sub 4 hour marathon without a second thought, when another race day usually meant a new PR, back when I was within 2 minutes of my Boston qualifying time. Back then, I was a badass…
“Are you kidding?!” Kim said. “You are still a total badass! You are going to nursing school. And you’re a single mom. And you’re training for a marathon! That IS badass! Who cares how fast you run it, you’ve got a lot going on. Give yourself a break. Your badass may not look the same right now, but believe me, you are a badass.”
I can’t tell you how many times I replayed her words in my head to get me through especially those last few months. The stress was sometimes unbearable, sometimes I was an emotional train wreck, other times all I wanted to do was sleep forever. It was exhausting. It’s amazing how using your brain to sit in a classroom and learn can take an extreme physical toll on your body.
On April 1st, I knew I only had 3 weeks to go until graduation. I had survived. My grades were all in good standing and all I had to do was pass my finals. Those three weeks draaaaaaagged like nobody’s business.
Two weeks to go…I had a massive meltdown, to the point that my instructor told me to get out and go home. She knew that I never missed class and I just needed a break from people and from using my brain. She told me to go for a run. I did, and a massage, and margaritas.
A week to go…we had our first exit exam and I kicked its butt. I had finally, over the past couple years, come to the actualization that I am smart, but even I had no expectation of doing as well as I did. I picked off each exam one by one. We had our graduation pictures taken in our whites and the flying nun hats. I only had one exam left but I knew that it didn’t matter, I had passed. I made it. As the weight lifted and the reality set it, I cried with joy. I cried for all the lost moments of quality time with my family. I cried for the lack of sleep and the struggles. I cried because I was so happy it was finally over. And I had done it. I had sometimes clawed my way through the thick of it, but I had made it.
It occurred to me that I had conquered the physical realm in becoming an Ironman and now I had conquered the cognitive realm in becoming a nurse. Braun and brains wrapped up in one, true strength and stamina personified.
After we finished tying up loose ends at school on Friday the 21st, it was finally time for a highly-anticipated road trip. I had a cooler full of food, a suitcase full of hiking gear, and I was ready to show my beau the mountains I had fallen in love with 5 years ago, Bryson City, my bridge. We drove through Gatlinburg and saw the devastation of the recent fires, we visited Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Tennessee and very nearly got blown off the mountain from the wind and then we found ourselves at the most perfect, peaceful cabin we could have imagined. There was a huge porch with rocking chairs that overlooked the mountains and the sound of the river rushing below us. The next couple days were a perfect combination of adventure and relaxation. We hiked in the rain and saw beautiful waterfalls, and we sat on that porch or by the fireplace, drinking coffee, or wine, or moonshine, depending on the time of day and our hearts’ desires.
On our last day of hiking, I was planning to take him to my bridge. We found it with relative ease, thanks to maps and directions from my friend, and former teammate, Michael. As we hiked down the trail, I had twice run up during the Smoky Mountain Relay, I recounted my memories of those runs. I told him about the difference a year had made, how the first time I was a hot mess in every sense, without someone coming to drag me out of the woods I might not have made it. But a year later, I trusted my teammates to not leave me there, I had confidence in my own abilities and I had my smile back. We found my bridge. It was helpful that the trail markers still hung in the trees due to the race only 2 days prior, so we were lead straight there. It was just as beautiful as I remembered it to be. And it was absolutely horrifying to Brian, who is neither a fan of heights nor shaky unstable swinging bridges over the Little Tennessee River, which is not so little. Having the opportunity to take him there, I was glowing. The day could have ended there, and I would have been happy, but it didn’t.
We stopped by Nantahala Outdoor Center, this is where the finish line to the race is staged each year and in 2013 they held the Kayak Championships at the same time. Wow, you ever wanna watch something cool, that’s it. We had packed a picnic and we wanted to find a hike, but since we were in a gorge, we didn’t figure we’d make it very far up the Appalachian Trail on either side of us to get some scenery. We asked for some ideas and the NOC guys sent us up to Wesser Bald, it’s only about 1.5 miles up the Appalachian Trail, and when you get to the top there is an old fire tower you can climb up for 360 degree views. Perfect.
Even the drive up was stunning, waterfalls everywhere we looked, and I never got tired of them. When we got to the trail head, we parked the car and grabbed our jackets since it was sprinkling on us off and on. I threw the backpack of food over my shoulders and we headed up the trail. It was a very cool hike, beautiful views, we even crossed a small waterfall. It was steep and we warmed up quickly. It wasn’t too long and we were at the top. And as promised, there was the tower. He wasn’t too excited about climbing up, but he humored me and did it anyway. When we got to the top, we were greeted with views of a big, giant cloud. On one side, we could see off in the distance for a while until the mountains disappeared into the clouds, but in all other directions, we could see mostly just white. We took pictures of what we could and then I, for whatever reason, was in a hurry to feed him, suggesting that we eat under the tower where it would be drier. But he made me stay for a moment.
I’m not going to share all the details of how the next couple of minutes went, because I’m going to save that for us. But with the mist falling lightly on us, as we stood in a cloud on top of a mountain, just the two of us, he gave me a ring. And I gave him a sandwich.
Immediately after it happened, a hiker climbed the stairs to join us, we had no idea where he had even come from, but he showed up just in time to take our picture. Then he looked around and said, “Well this might clear in 5 minutes or it might take 5 hours.” He didn’t feel like waiting so he left. He seriously came out of nowhere to take our picture and then he was gone.
We ate our sandwiches under the tower, mostly in shocked silence. I know what you’re thinking, RRG, when are you ever silent? But I was speechless, I really had not expected that and I had very few words. We agreed that we would mostly keep it on the down low until we had a chance to tell the kids, but we knew they would all be excited. As we finished our lunch, we could see the light of the sun trying to burn off the clouds, the view was changing. So we climbed back up the fire tower and the scenery was stunning. We had the 360 degree view that went on for miles. It was incredible. The sun was shining, the mountains were spectacular and we were engaged. Who would have thought?
Eventually we made our way back down the mountain and went back to the cabin. We ate leftover grilled pork and potatoes for dinner, and drank moonshine on the porch while we watched the most perfect sunset. And I couldn’t stop smiling.
It was hard to say goodbye to the mountains the following morning as we packed up and made the trip back home, but with more good memories in my pocket, I know I will be back again someday. The Smoky Mountains now have even more of my heart.
But how did April 2017 end? Well, we did tell the kids, and they are excited. We don’t have lots of details to share yet, we are still mostly just enjoying the moment. We’ve never been ones to rush things, so we aren’t rushing this next chapter either.
On Saturday, April 29, the eve of the last day of the month we went to church. In the beginning of the service we sang the old hymn How Great Thou Art. I sat with the words rolling around in my head, “…all I have needed, thy hand has provided” and it struck me how true that was. He really did carry me through the last six years of my life and give me everything I needed, both good and bad, security and growth, joy and pain, sorrow and peace. It was all what I needed to become the person I am. As the service ended and I stood between my daughter, and my fiancé (still weird) I began to sing the words, “Christ is enough for me” but the tears filled my eyes and the words caught in my throat as I thought back to that prayer I said almost exactly 6 years before, “Jesus, be enough…” It may have taken him 6 years, but He gave me everything I asked for, and so much more. He showed me that when I ask him to show up, He will, every time. And when I trust His plan, it is better than I could have imagined.
I know things won’t always be happy and sunshine and rainbows, but I also know that some of the best moments happen in the rain. And eventually, the skies will clear. In the words of the random hiker on Wesser Bald, “it might take 5 minutes or it might take 5 hours” it might even take 6 years, but the clouds will pass and the skies will clear. And you can be very sure that the view will be worth the wait!
Our big moment (Photo courtesy of random hiker guy on Wesser Bald)