by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
This is a story about how love can help you to do extraordinary things—like making it through the finish lines life presents. I share it to inspire and remind us of the circle of life.
It all begins with an athletic goal.
I am a triathlete and was recently named to the National Senior Olympic Games Foundation Board, where I’ll be promoting health and wellness for men and women age 50 and over. I’m also the national spokesperson for the games, to be held in July in 2015. And as the “doc who walks the talk,” I wanted to compete in the games as a triathlete. To do so, I’d have to complete two triathlons in my state, the first of which I’d already accomplished a month earlier. The next and final qualifying race was to take place at “o’dark hundred” (tri-speak for 7 a.m.) on a Sunday morning. Prepped to be up at 4 a.m., I hopped into bed early for the requisite eight hours of pre-race sleep.
Close to midnight, the phone rang. The hospice caregiver was calling to tell my husband that his father had passed away peacefully in his sleep. Knowing that Eliot, one month shy of his 96th birthday, was ill and his health tenuous, we’d tried to prepare ourselves for that inevitable call. But everything came crashing down when the reality hit us smack in our faces. After 95 years of navigating life’s challenges, and having had an esteemed career as an Air Force colonel, my beloved father-in-law had quietly passed through his final finish line.
Eliot left all of us, family and friends, with countless memories of his wit, humor, and extraordinary talent with words. He’d polish off the Sunday crossword puzzle before I’d even started. He repeatedly and mercilessly trounced me at Scrabble, always finishing the game with an impish “I left you in my dust” grin. I’ll always treasure our visit to the National Cryptologic Museum outside of Washington, DC, where he became immersed in displays about the technology he used throughout the war as a senior cryptographer.
I miss him dearly and comfort myself with these memories of the role he played in my life and that of our family. Days prior to his passing, his last words to me and my husband were “I love you,” and I’ll treasure that moment for the rest of my life.
So, here’s where the story takes a twist.
As soon as we’d gotten the call, I told my husband that I would cancel and schedule another triathlon. I wanted to be there to support him and the family. Instead, my husband insisted I go and proposed we dedicate it to his father. After pondering for a while, I finally agreed.
At 4:30 a.m., I drove away, with only three hours of sleep, a PBJ, and a thermos of coffee. But my real fuel was a passion to do a good job for Eliot.
At that hour, it was just a convoy of large rigs and I on the highway. As I drove, my mind wandered, and I kept thinking that the finisher’s medal I hoped to get could be yet another medal for Eliot, the colonel and WWII vet. Funny, as I reached the site, just at sunrise, I felt unusually energized. Fighting back tears as I racked my bike, I mentally transitioned to an acid focus to get the job done.
In a triathlon, it’s imperative to be vigilant during the swim and bike ride, as this is where anything can happen. I tore through the water and hammered on the bike. As soon as I jumped into my sneakers in the final transition from cycling to running, something happened. My mind moved to a different place, from hyper-attention to relief and gratitude. I knew that I could complete the race. All that was left was the run, which took place in a majestic Tolkien-like forest in the park. As I began to pound the pavement, I was startled by a feeling of moisture dripping down my face. Reaching up, I touched tears that were quietly and steadily falling.
It hit me like a ton of bricks that soon I’d be crossing the finish line and that Eliot had just crossed his own, his last one, hours earlier.
As soon as I’d made it across the finish line, I felt overwhelmed by so many emotions—grief, relief, exhaustion, elation, love, sadness. As they placed the medal around my neck along with a much-appreciated cold, wet towel, I realized I’d never once glanced at my watch. Curious, I went to the kiosk to scope out my time and how I placed in my age group. My jaw hit the ground as I found my name next to the number two and discovered I’d receive the second-place medal.
Later, while standing on the podium during the awards ceremony, I gazed at the early-morning summer sky’s golden glow, and gave a royal two thumbs up to Eliot, who racked up another two medals to celebrate his long and incredible life.
On the drive back home, I pondered the infinite number of finish lines every one of us encounters throughout our lives. Challenges abound. Some we create, while others land in our laps or knock us off our feet. The key to success is adapting and adjusting to life’s ever-changing stresses without resorting to self-destructive behavior. It’s believing in ourselves at the core as we slug it out to make it through each and every finish line, transitioning to yet another challenge, then another. And we all know that these finish lines eventually culminate in the final one.
I also marveled at how love can fuel the achievement of small miracles.
That extraordinary day in my life was for Eliot. And so will the Senior Olympics one year from now, when I know he’ll be there with me in spirit. I imagine him sitting on my shoulder; kicking his legs and yelling “Come on! Let’s get this job done. Where’s my medal, already?!”
I can’t guarantee a medal, only my best effort. But once I get to that run, I’m going to be smiling and laughing as I recall wonderful memories. Then, as I hit the finish line, I’ll pump my arms and shout, “Eliot, this one’s for you!”
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. A triathlete and mountaineer, she is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” living what she’s learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. Her current research at the University of Maryland centers on the connection between meditation and overeating. She is the author of many best-selling books, including Fight Fat after Forty. Her new book is the New York Times bestseller The Hunger Fix.