In late October 2005 I worked for a newspaper and had gone to the office early to make some phone calls and get ready for a sales appointment that morning. Sitting at a desk outside the photo department, I could hear the police scanner barking a strange yet familiar address over the crackling speaker. It was my mother’s house.
The EMTs had already arrived and were carrying my mother out the front door on a gurney when I showed up at her house. My father was inside looking worried, but there was little else he could do as a stroke victim confined to a wheelchair. The caregiver who lived with my parents to care for my father came to the door and told me, with greatest sympathy: “We had to call, she can’t walk.”
I knew it was the chemotherapy she’d had the day before. My 80-year-old mother Emily Nichols Cudworth was not up to the task of fighting the pancreatic cancer that had snuck in behind the oral chemotherapy she’d been taking for lymphoma. Mom was dying, I knew, and this trip to the hospital would likely be her last.
She stayed a few days to recover, but never regained her strength to walk. We brought her home to be with family a few days, and spent a happy Sunday afternoon listening to my daughter Emily, her namesake, play music on the violin we’d just purchased for her. My mother was a lifelong musician whose own violin had been the instrument on which my daughter learned to play. That impromptu concert would be the last music my mother heard.
She collapsed into an irreversible stroke the next morning and died on November 7, 2005, leaving behind her husband Stewart, now 86 and still living in the family home, and her four sons James, Gary, Christopher and Greg, as well as daughter’s-in-law and grandchildren.
It’s okay. I was there with her.
This is not some “Mama’s Boy” lament that my mother is gone. Being with her when she died was an act of closure that I have explained to many people over the years was a true gift. I wish it could be true for everyone. But I knew how my mother thought about death because she told me how she felt about life, and she did not want to tarry on with some sort of compromised existence, either lost in mind or physical imprisonment. She was a devout Unitarian (no oxymoron) who believed in the beauty of life. We can only presume what anyone knows in a life beyond.
The best fan in the world
I also know this: Emily Nichols Cudworth loved her son’s participation in sports, attending literally hundreds of soccer, basketball and baseball games, and countless more cross country and track meets. I could hear her voice during many a race, a short, sharp burst of a mother’s intense fandom: “C’mon, Chrissy!”
Ha! She called me Chrissy all my life. Not exactly the macho form of moral support, but I knew what it meant. “Do your best. You’re my son.” Although I know she wanted a daughter at some point. I was to be Christine Annette Cudworth if born a girl. Sorry, mom.
She especially liked cross country meets and road races. These were special occasions for my mother, who was not a social butterfly by any means, but did love a good conversation in the bright sunshine. She made many friends as a result. The queue of parents lined up together at a cross country meet on a bright fall morning is one of the most inspiring thing any athlete can see. There they stand, together, the parents of your best friends, chatting and talking and keeping an eye on the attitude of each and every one of us. Their eyes would brighten if you nervously threw them a sweatshirt to hold, or a pair of flats to guard while you raced. A small part of the ritual, yes, but a big part of the success, in the end.
Making a mark
During my early 20s I set out to prove to myself–and the world in a way– that I could be a highly competitive road runner, I embarked on a two-summer attempt to win as many races as possible. One of these victories was the Community Classic 10K, a large (1500 people) local road run that started and ended in Geneva, Illinois.
My mother and father and my wife were present for the event, which proved to be one of the most difficult yet rewarding wins of my racing career. A runner from South Dakota showed up and pushed me to a course record 31:52 on a 10k course that climbs approximately 70 vertical feet from the 5K point to the finish. The course was also measured by numerous local runners and found to be nearly 200 meters long. In other words, it was a tough course on which to run and win.
As a prolific writer, my mother decided the experience of watching her son race on a number of similar occasions was worthy of poetic tribute. This is the poem she wrote as a result. She did not always write using colloquialisms but in this case she felt they fit.
I watched as you stretched and started
moving slowly, eyes inward, thoughts on self.
Sensing the morning’s chill, noting the wind
a muscle twitching here and there–
(“Will it last?” he wonders, “will it last?)
Adjusting the suit, talking briefly
(Breakfast wasn’t much, couldn’t you know–
Too important, too important a race you see.)
A milling crowd arrived, some garrulous and greedy
for the prize, half-formed decisions in their eyes.
Some there for fun, pure fun, no more
like children looking through a door.
But you were not these people
(“Muscles are trained,” you told me)
There were days and days of running.
In the cold mornings– beard frosty,
stocking cap pulled down
(“You can’t freeze your butt,”) you said
both humorously and morosely,
a Captain of the sleet and snow.
In the Mid-Sumer,smell of sweetness, grasses, ferns
upon the air, joyous birds alight at dawn and calling
(“Saw a line of swallows on a wire.”)
Heat of the sun, tempestuous, burning on the road
tar bubbles going SMACK SMACK
Hot feet, sweat, burning lungs.
Now, cotton-mouthed, you wait.
Lined up first.
(“It’s by your times, you know,
five-minute-milers are the first to go.”)
Crack of a gun, startling the silence
and you’re off.
I did not see you for a while,
I sweated out that first slow mile.
You finally breathed by me, easy,
I didn’t feel so scared, so queasy.
(“Up the slope, a lot will die”
you said, with twinkle in your eye.)
By droves with dirges, played inside the head,
“We’re dead, we’re dead.”
I saw them panting up the hill
the untrained heart will not be still.
You were smoothing out when next you passed.
You heard the timer and you gasped,
slowed down a little, evened out,
the crowd a-watching, gave a shout.
“Look out behind you!
Someone’s coming Someone’s coming
Someone’s passing you a-running.”
You let him go, for you’d already
calculated, taken his measure, breath abated.
Down came a smaller torrent pouring
down to the finish, all adoring.
Finish banners, crackling, flying
arms held high but body sighing
then THERE YOU WERE
your strong legs pumping
Eyes alight! My heart was thumping
“He’s got it still,” I heard one say,
“He’s got his win at least today.”
You’d passed the man ahead
You stalked about, less said than
Thumping of backs and hugs all sweaty
Friends and drinks and world all ready.
But still you looked a little sad
You were back in the world
but were you glad?
You did not say.
Silently, you jogged away.
And I, who did not run the race
It was something to watch
now in its place, dead paper cups
and empty space.
While not her best stretch of poetry by any measure (she wrote many more serious works of great beauty) my mother did capture the tension of a spectator at a race as well as anything I’ve read.
She also responded one time when I was lamenting the amount of time and intensity pushed into running during my early 20s. “It was self indulgent,” I proclaimed, lamenting perhaps that the investment had cost me in terms of career focus.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she corrected me. “I rather liked you when you were so focused.”
Which goes to prove that we do not always know the effects our running and riding might have on others, or ourselves. There is, after all, that inspiring component to all that we do and share.
I am grateful my mother was able to enjoy life in so many ways. But also that she could be there to see her son do his best, even if it was less appreciated than it should be by the very person who ran the race.
Emily Cudworth was a brilliant elementary school teacher who believed in the importance of balance in education. She taught all the newest theories in reading and math as they (inevitably) came along, but she also stuck with using phonics all her career to give kids the basics.
She especially loved reading and encouraged her students (and her sons, and grandchildren) to explore all kinds of literature. Art also played a huge role in her life, and all her sons can paint, draw and write as a result. Those may not be the most practical ventures in the scope of life, but they do help you embrace your existence. And that may be the most important gift of all.
Her legacy as a school teacher lives on in dozens of students who as adults have come up to me upon hearing my last name to ask, “Was your mother a teacher?”
To which I always reply: “Yes she was, and a good one too.” They always agree.
Rest in Peace Mom, you little Unitarian you.
Note: In the header image above runner number 444 is Christopher Cudworth. The primary competitor. In the photo at bottom, showing the race after the gun went off, the primary competitor was #211, seen in the bottom photo of this article, who led the race through a sub-15:00 5K. I won in the time of 31:52, a course record that lasted more than 20 years.