Monday, April 14, 2014

Finishing Strong

February 1, 2014, was race day on Tybee Island. This annual event is made up of five races of varying lengths plus a one-mile Family Run in the afternoon. Together the races add up to a marathon, and scheduling makes that an option.

During the morning of race day there was a storm and, even with rain gear, everyone got soaked. Fortunately the sun came out just as the front-runners were nearing the finish line. I snapped the red leash on Nigel’s matching collar and set out to walk beside the folks still on the course. At the corner where we joined them there were several volunteers ready with any needed assistance. They were also the cheerleaders who called out: “Just a half mile to go! Keep it up! You’re doing great!” We walked on the side of the road part way and then cut over toward the finish line near the beach. At the last turn a lone cheerleader was yelling, “One more block to the beer!” Then we walked halfway down and there was a final volunteer shouting “Finish strong! Finish strong!"

Nigel and I sat down on a nearby bench and I began to clap for these weary, wet, winded latecomers. Just then a family came up the hill from the finish line. The father looked exhausted and was not walking, but shuffling. His attire suggested he was not part of the regular racing community. He was saying to his two young children, “There is no way I can do the family run with you.” The children were whining as their mother arrived, arms full of wet clothes and a cooler. As she passed me she said to no one in particular, “I’m no help. I can’t keep up with them.”

The voice rang out again, “Finish strong!” and suddenly my mind was filled with a question, “What does finishing strong mean if your race is the end of your life?” For the past two months I’ve been living with the question and asking it of others. I am convinced that practicing mindfulness generates spiritual strength, and that “Keep moving!” is an empowering motto for my inner cheerleader. When I’m out walking, I often think, “If I keep doing this. I’ll be able to keep doing it.”

I queried members of my family, and my son Kevin replied that a strong finish would be making your own choices and being at peace with the path your life has taken. Then he added that the folks who arrive at the finish line hours after the rest of the field are the REAL strong finishers. They arrive with no momentum from other runners, no goal of a time to beat, and often with no cheerleaders. They finish with the strength of their own will. My daughter Melissa added to the discussion, “I think staying true to yourself is where the grace is to be found.”

For nearly seven years as a caregiver, my brother David has been sharing his wife Anne’s journey into the fog of Alzheimer’s. He wrote, “I am only able to think that I want to see Anne through as far as I can take her and if she doesn’t ‘finish’ with me, that I will be able to move her where a ‘strong finish’ is available from younger racers.” David celebrated his last birthday playing tennis and added the thought that continuing to play tennis into his nineties would be a good strong finish for him.

Only one person I discussed this with brought up the subject of major incapacitation. She said, “How can you finish strong if you have dementia or major disabilities from a stroke?” In response I told her how much I’ve learned from my sister-in-law. Anne will finish her life strong even if she loses all connection because she has remained present to the gathering night, which began so many years ago. She has laughed at it, written about it, cried over it, and shared whatever thoughts and emotions she could piece together. She has been willing to accept David’s comforting words and find relief for a few minutes. She has written that she is “broken” and needs to be “mended.” I see in her a spark that is whole and believe she is finishing strong.

I found a consensus among all ages that there is strength in making your own decisions and staying true to your sense of self. After thinking about the question for several days, one friend said that it would be an equally strong finish if an individual facing a possibly terminal illness had the courage to opt for every kind of treatment available to extend life, or the courage to choose instead to do nothing. My mother opted for no treatment and made a choice to stop eating to hasten the end. Her spirit, humor, gratitude, and faith remained intact and she recognized the experience of dying as a holy event.

Last month I attended the jubilant celebration of the life of Laurey Clark Masterton, a creative, active Asheville citizen, who finished strong on February 18, 2014. Although I only spent time with her near the end of her remarkable life, I know she finished it as she lived it: sharing with others her wisdom, love, food, joy, personal fulfillment, and spiritual awareness. She had a passion for feeding people through her restaurant and catering business and through her work teaching kids about food and gardening. A committed cyclist, she participated in one cross-country bike ride and many other long rides, mostly fundraiser for causes she believed in (AIDS, cancer research, etc.). Laurey kept on riding her bike as she fought cancer with a series of rugged treatments. In the last year after learning the cancer was considered chronic, she decided to go to Spain to make the walking pilgrimage known as “El Camino de Santiago.” While on active oral chemotherapy treatment, she completed her journey in five weeks. In her last lap of life, she lived up to her motto and did not postpone joy.

In his reply to my e-mail asking for his thoughts on this subject, one friend wrote, “If useful questions are being raised and honest dialog ensues, then maybe that constitutes a strong finish at this age.” Querying my friends has been an expansive experience and I am grateful to all who have joined in what I hope will be an ongoing conversation.

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