On Sunday, I ran what must have been my seventh or eighth half marathon. I did it for a lot of reasons, including the fact that the last year has been more intense than I anticipated it would be and I wanted to process what that means for me now, what it means for the future. Whenever I come to a point of pivotal change like this, there’s nothing like running more miles than most people consider normal to help me sort things out and come back to myself.
Whenever I run a race, I think about why I started running in the first place. I always come back to the fact that my mother’s insanity made me run for my life until I discovered that what I really needed to do was chase down my own sanity. We always need more than that, of course, but this was the core of what I felt I needed when I became a runner.
Marguerite had both bipolar and borderline personality disorders. She was officially diagnosed when I was in my twenties. She tried medication briefly when I was in my thirties, just a few years before she died from cervical cancer, but said it interfered with her relationship with God, so that was that.
I was an adult when I was told for the first time that my mother was bipolar, but I always knew, the way you can tell from the sound in someone’s voice when they are hurt or in love or enamored. Marguerite was a meteor hitched to emotion, bright candor and love exploding and ascending, her voice high, arms spread, warmth around me, a million words effusively scribbled beautifully with a deep ballpoint press on reams and reams of notebook paper from her oft-abandoned community college endeavors. She lit up darkness and she made the foundation of a thing rock with ease and joy, however temporary, however artificial. This is how I learned how to move in the world. Riding the crest of her waves of emotion, trying not to worry about the crashing to earth, the unfurling of furious waves.
You are brilliant.
Everything you touch turns to gold.
You are a miracle.
The words of a mother who loves her daughter with language are gifts that last forever. They are the royal blue film over the lens of life, making lovely everything that was before just mediocre. To believe you are cherished and special by the one who gave birth to you is believe in your ability to be immortal, to be a superhero. To fly even when you are pinned to earth.
When she was down life was hell, a pit of seething anger, sad tears in her voice but not on her face because she said her tear ducts had stopped working. My mother’s sadness clipped my wings, made me a girl-Icarus who flew too close to the heat to ever soar for long with comfort or confidence.
I was the subject of all her shame as I had been for all her glory.
She hated me, she told me so, she repeated it to me and as a girl it played with the kind of steady repetition of a march. Left, left, left right left. I hate you I hate you I wish I never had you I hate you. This was the undoing of my belief in myself for quite a long time. My survival became more about rugged stubborn tendencies and less about reinforcing the belief of my delightful mother when she was up. I was never sure which version of me I wanted to save but I was more terrified of dying most of the time so the only other option was to try to make my life into something as dreamy as my mother’s mania.
I wanted to always get her back to loving me with her words, instead of hating me with them.
So from the beginning of my life until the end of hers, I grappled with how to cope with the invisible ghost that was her unique brand of crazy. I tried wrapping my arms around it, then avoiding it before I realized there was no way to deal with it but trudging through.
Along the way, I learned that the folks we call crazy have been broken in places where most of us are confident we are capable of bending. They embody the potential of pain and heartbreak to warp a soul and murder the spirit. To encounter them intimately is to be singed by a fire that cannot be extinguished.
Running would be my salvation, a mechanism for avoiding the flames, in the end, even when I thought it was too late to start, even before I knew what my heart was leaning toward for me by doing it.
I was born more than a year after the death of my brother Jose, who was killed by a Philadelphia bus when he was 12. I moved through the world as a little girl like an actress commanded to replace the lead star the day before opening night. I was lanky and clumsy. I did not speak, sometimes not even when spoken to. I was skinny as a rail until I went to college and ate regularly enough that my slowed metabolism delivered to me, at last, the womanly frame that runs in my family.
Youth was not wasted on me so much as I was wasted on it; I did not frolic freely with the group of boys who tumbled about on our street after school because they were so rough that it was only a matter of time before a parent came scurrying out of one of the neat doorways, brows furrowed and Band-Aids in hand for scraped, bloody knees to cure the carnage. I was sure that would not be my fate.
I was 4 or 5 when there was an incident involving my mother and a straightening comb. I cannot remember whether she placed it on my arm or if the arrow-shaped wound was an accident. I only remember the terror of the hot comb — a searing iron thing torching my skin — as a brief branding, an initiation, a touch of fire. I screamed louder than I thought my voice could ever reach into space.
Both Mom and I cried, but our fears were different: I thought I might die from confusion and the pain of the comb; my mother was certainly afraid the neighbors would hear and they did. Then, for a year before kindergarten, I was sent to foster care. I learned that year that the worst thing that could happen when you lose solid ground is that everything keeps moving, even you.
Nothing was impossible: It was a calming and terrifying thought.
Nothing is impossible. I was reminded of this again the first time I started to run. After living in family shelters and welfare hotels, we started life over in the Bronx. Cruel kids who smelled the scent of poverty on the hand-me-down trousers and Salvation Army button-down shirts I wore tried to kick or punch lack right out of me. I had book smarts in spades but street smarts were never in my toolkit.
To them, I was weak. Because my mother preyed on me as much as she prayed for me, I also was a weakling. I had no idea how to get stronger.
I needed a harbor, a place to recharge, some safe haven with a foundation beneath it to hold me. The whole of my childhood, I was terrified the world would break me if I reached too far, or I would break myself and no one would be there to put me back together.
Breaking did not have negative connotations where I grew up in the Bronx, during the hip-hop era. It meant you knew how to dance without anyone teaching you how. You knew how to break if you paid attention to the ones who did it well.
Dancing is one of the few ways I saw my mother learn how to adapt to the ground moving beneath her feet. She would shuffle them, side to side to Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” shrugging her shoulders in a semi-stiff, Tin Man-like motion that made me smile. But otherwise, my broken mother Marguerite was there and not there.
I learned how to watch her, the dancers, the bullies and the world unobtrusively, to practice being there and not there. This may be why I tried to convince several therapists between eighth grade and graduate school that I was really crazy, as crazy as my mother, if not more so. This was pure logic. I had learned to view the world through the eyes of a madwoman, so therefore I must be mad, too.
You are not your mother, they said, one right after the other.
Marguerite’s crazy was our open secret. She could be crazy in a way that was fun, with her maniacal laughter and her loud singing and her general dismissal of other people’s thoughts about life.
We spent all the money she got from working one secretarial gig after another before she got fired, from welfare, from the settlement with the city of Philadelphia after Jose’s death on delicious, overpriced Chinese takeout, beautiful jet black curly wigs that made her look like Tina Turner when she donned them and Greyhound tickets to Atlantic City so she could go win more money. (She usually lost.)
Marguerite was sporadically present in the flesh, smothering me when she remembered with her overwrought affection.
She wrote me four page letters in her beautiful handwriting almost daily when I was old enough to read, only to repeat everything that was in them when she woke me up early in the morning to mark her departure. When she lurched this way and that, the faint chime of nickel Catholic medals pinned inside her bra on a large safety pin helped me measure the distance between us as if they were tracking devices.
Because her mind, her spirit, was scattered, somewhere else, I wrestled daily with what she said about herself and her dreams and the reality she thought we both lived and what I saw, which was that Marguerite was the visible collection of all her wrongs: Unpaid bills. Eviction notices. Disappearing lovers.
What the eye couldn’t see was more dangerous and dark. I didn’t fight back against the part of her that raged like a needy demon in the night, her Hulk-like tantrums ruining my nervous system and driving me from our empty apartment the night she threatened to kill me and I knew that it was more than just an empty threat. Her mania had emerged in the past with brutal beatings that included broom handles and belts or just her hands, punching my small back until she was satisfied, choking me until it seemed to be enough to keep me quiet.
I thought I found solid ground, a sturdy footing, when I met my father at my high school graduation. Victor was a large, towering figure, a quiet mountain of a man with watchful, small eyes. He kept me at the same emotional remove as he kept everyone else, so that by the time he died by suicide the year I turned 32, the shock of it mingled with the assessment of my therapist at the time, who wondered aloud if my Dad had Asperger’s. He was, after all, the one who said when I told him that I was born to write that no one is born to do anything.
But Victor is also the one who drove me to meet my grandmother, who had just found out about me, a love/replacement child between Marguerite, who had been grieving her 12-year-old boy and Victor, who was grieving the end of his only marriage.
He is the one who told me when I left the East Coast to become a journalist that the ATM was closed.
He is the one who emailed six years later to say he missed me, to ask what I needed.
He is the one who sent art that I could no longer look at after he died when my best friend moved out and the empty walls reminded me that loneliness would be my new companion.
You are not your father, the therapists said. You are not crazy.
The great struggle in my life has never been seeking parents who would fix the gaps in my heart and inner life that yearned for fences on my emotions, thoughts and behaviors. The great struggle has been wondering about the merits or virtues of that nurturing; a cynicism that my heart tussles with like a caterpillar trying to bust out of its fuzzy stage into brilliant butterfly wings.
I will never know who I could have become with parents who weren’t some kind of crazy. All I know is that I became someone.
I am, in spite of my worst impulses, still here.
When I got older, a few therapists in, my favorite of the bunch told me that I had a vivid inner life. As an ambivert who leans in an introverted direction, the sound of this made me feel at home in my body and mind. Safe. Solid. Understood. Seen.
It felt like she was saying there was a party in my brain and I agreed, sort of. I cultivated that inner life in response to my mother’s illnesses, first the mental, then the physical.
I became one of the most mentally healthy people my therapist friend has said she knows by learning how to move in the world. A lot of what I learned about movement, for women, for black women, I learned by watching television. It was an easy, cheap way to compare and contrast normal ways to be.
I loved watching the Olympics because they reminded me of how much was certainly possible. I marveled at the stretch and leaps of gymnasts and the graceful movements of acrobatic ice skaters but what I adored was watching black girls run.
Running is a lot like writing and it is a lot like surviving hard things. Many people are capable of doing these things. Many people also loathe these things because they are hard. If they were easy everyone would do them. But in each of these there is a quiet liberation, a grace that settles the heart and eases the brain, even for those of us who have wild parties in there.
What I noticed first was the bodies. They were like mine so long ago now: lithe, efficient, leaning into the wind like reeds trying to kiss riverbanks. Jackie Joyner Kersee, Flo Jo, Marion Jones: they were the epitome of the possible. Maybe I wouldn’t go to the Olympics, but I wondered what it would be like to try to be as fast as they looked, how powerful I might feel if I could just grip the ground with my feet and catapult myself around in space.
The only potential problem: I was not good at sports. I did marginally well as a swimmer, by which I mean that I never flailed in the water or feared it like some of my peers. I was an overly analytical dancer with no hips really to shake. My hand eye coordination left so much to be desired that I could barely watch baseball without feeling some level of personal shame for my deficit.
What I knew instinctively was that the distance between them and me was not impossible to bridge. I had the build, the will and the time to learn to plod or launch myself into the future like them. The version of my mother I believed had said so. I tempered her belief and mine, instead of dreaming of being an Olympian, settling for using my body as an instrument to attract freedom.
This did not matter to me very much until high school, that tenuous time of becoming more than what you have ever been and being completely unsure if you shouldn’t be more careful what you wish for as you develop.
I overcompensated for being introverted and shy by doing things like running backwards in a 1600 meter race a few months after joining the track team at my all-girls Catholic high school because I was annoyed by the stupid, mocking t-shirt of a competitor. I broke a school record during the months I was a budding track star, but then I followed my instincts for self-preservation to boarding school and tried rowing instead.
For years, I ran intermittently and for fun. I was skinny and I didn’t care about my weight then. I ran through Central Park most mornings when I was interning at Goldman Sachs one summer — then I started my newspaper career and moved every six months for two years and running seemed impossible in Houston, Beaumont and Seattle. When I settled down in Oakland, I ran again around Lake Merritt as I grew weary of newspapers, but I didn’t run any races with any seriousness until I quit smoking for the second or third time in 2008 — first 5Ks and 10Ks, then half marathons. Next thing I knew, I had made the lottery for the New York Marathon, the same spring when I learned my father had committed suicide.
Both reminded me that nothing was impossible.
It turns out that running 26.2 miles, and training body and soul to do it, is useful for heartbreak. It does not mend anything, your muscles are all broken, and that becomes the point. Everything is weary and strained and exhausted like your heart.
Training for a marathon teaches you emotional endurance. It keeps you on your feet. It doesn’t matter at all after four hours of running if the earth ever moves again – you know that you, at least, can keep going no matter what.
When I ran that first marathon in the city where I had endured so much with my mother, it was like retracing my steps looking for parts of myself that I didn’t realize I’d lost. I had only shifted slightly, but the city I loved and loathed was still basically the same. I ran from sunrise until after sunset, almost 6 hours with a short break to walk after mile 21. It hurt and at the end, the only thing behind me was an NYPD cruiser that was closing the course.
I ran another marathon in Lake Placid, New York six months later and one more, the last one that I could manage, a month after Marguerite was found emaciated and dehydrated in her Section 8 house in Philadelphia. A doctor had told her she had cancer, so she decided on passive suicide and didn’t answer her phone or come to her door for two weeks.
By the time my older sister got her to open the door, and the paramedics came to take her to an assisted living home, the cancer had progressed rapidly to Stage IV. I barely finished the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco, and when it was all said and done and I celebrated briefly with a friend, then slipped back into depression on and off again for the months that followed.
I last saw Marguerite at her bedside in an assisted living facility in Philadelphia on Christmas Day in 2011. The television was on and my sister and niece were with me and I held my mother’s frail hand. I was beside myself with the weight of her impending departure, but she assured me she was ready to be with Jose in heaven.
My mother died six days before my birthday in 2012. I thought I was ready for her to go, but you are never prepared to lose the woman who gave birth to you. I was still so angry and so sad that she had not lived a life with more glory and comfort and peace in it. She had left me here to work that out on my own, which was just typical. The only thing that kept me from being too hysterical was that I could also see that she was now totally free.
I did not run. I did not run another race or even for fun or relaxation. My brain would not allow it, my heart wanted nothing to do with another mile, another endurance test.
I mostly wrote and slept and read. I walked with my dog. I sometimes ran a mile or two to see if I could get back to where I had been, but I would have to walk. I tried signing up for a race in Big Sur, but I never made it there and training was too mentally taxing.
After losing my crazy parents, I was liberated from a short-lived crazy job. My dog died. My roof started to leak. Like that, I was done with living in Texas.
I was ready to make a big move again. I packed up my things. I moved to D.C.
And suddenly, again, I had the will to run. I joined a church. I started to sing. I was becoming more of myself, now that I had the freedom to do so.
The greatest, heartbreaking gift my parents may have given me was their deaths, one following another like winter follows fall: swift and inevitable, surprising in their natural order and the shock of becoming an official orphan at 34.
While they were alive, I was preoccupied with delusional hope. I put so much on hold. I kept myself in place. Stateside, at home, at work and in love. Steady. Sure. Confined.
My phone was always within reach. In case. Something could happen. Nothing was impossible.
Beyond adolescence, there was no more for them to offer me but an irrational, fundamental change in each of them that in six decades had no reason to shift: no medication, no therapy and no comprehensive intervention. I believed myself both powerless enough to be futile in the face of their history with one another and powerful enough to be a catalyst to transform our collective and individual stories.
When you find solid ground after years of feeling as though the earth has shifted beneath you without end, it makes you feel free. When I step out to run, put my headphones in my ears and take off, this is what I feel first. I forget for that stretch of time that I am an adult orphan. I become a new woman, a girl who loves to chase her life.
There is always some tension at the beginning because I’m so excited to be let loose on the world. I can tell when I’ve started too fast, especially in the bitter cold, because my breath catches in my chest and burns in my nostrils. The muscles in my legs, my calves, feel tight, taut, resisting the internal warmth of resilience.
But just like life, after the initial chaos, the initial insanity, what follows is the grace to follow my footsteps where they lead. The air, the speed, the pace: they keep me sane — even if I was never crazy.
I am now perhaps too comfortable with how liberating grief has changed me, how it has offered me and my feelings and my dreams weighted wings. This is the third time I have come back to the earth, the solid ground beneath my feet. I hope it will be the last time I have to return.
Just like when I was first starting to run, and every now and again on the path, I sense that I might be slow, plodding, and everything I carry with me might be heavy. But a slight breeze on a hot day will fall on my skin and my eyes will soften on a bluff of trees and I will remember that I am on my way to floating somewhere familiar, a place where nothing is impossible.