Heading into the outdoor track season my sophomore year at Kaneland High School in 1971, I was in a strange position. My father had announced to our family that we would be moving to St. Charles, a city ten miles away from our home in Elburn. That meant I would have to transfer schools at the start of the fall semester. It also meant that I would need to finish out the school year at Kaneland by commuting for the rest of the spring semester with a group of coaches that agreed through my father’s negotiations to pick me up each morning and deliver me to Kaneland so that I could complete my sophomore year without losing eligibility in track.
Every morning a different coach would swing by my house and pick me up for school. We left by 6:30 most mornings so there was little time to waste. However I was used to getting up early because in Elburn I had run a paper route that required me to start at 5:30 a.m. I remember talking with my mother about the fact that I missed the route and felt bad I was not bringing in the money I liked to make. “It’s okay Chrissy (she called me that…) you can take a break for a while.”
But that was not really the point. It wasn’t just the route I missed. It was the life I’d created. To the best of my ability I’d made progress in life out there in the cornfields of Kaneland and that little town of Elburn. We’d only moved there two years before. Leaving my home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania had been a truly painful experience. That was where I had developed steadfast friendships through elementary and middle school. But economics and some work displacement on my father’s part meant he had to go searching for another job. For a combination of reasons that were never fairly explained, we moved all the way out to Illinois.
Frankly I realize my father was just kind of messed up at the time. He’d come from a broken household where his mother died of complications from cancer treatment when he was very young. Then his own father suffered an emotional breakdown over those events, as well as the pursuant crushing loss of his farm and home due to the Depression. My grandfather wound up institutionalized for a while and my father was raised by a set of two aunts and an uncle. It was not the ideal upbringing.
So my dad likely had some unresolved issues going through his head. Perhaps it was a fear that his job loss would result in a similar situation to his father. With four strapping lads under his care, all with forceful egos to boot, my father probably needed some breathing room. So he moved to Illinois and brought us out there once he’d found us a place to live.
Fortunately I made good friends in Illinois, many of whom are still in my life.But at the age of 15, you don’t know how all that’s going to work out.
By the start of my sophomore year I was one of the top runners on the cross country team and actually was elected class president. Ill suited for that job, I did nothing more than help choose the class ring actually. But such are the learning experiences of life. I could lead with my feet but not very well with my responsibility.
Freshman year in cross country I’d made the varsity and we won the sophomore conference meet. Sophomore year I tied with another runner for most individual performance points and we won the Varsity conference meet for the first time in school history.
After a fun basketball season we began track the day after the indoor sports season ended. That meant countless laps run on asphalt around the high school and its parking lots. It was perpetually windy, cold and raw training around that school. Yet it made us tough.
The track itself was cinder in those days, and usually too wet or covered with March snow to do much training on that surface.
So the actual opportunity to go run on the all-weather outdoor track in Rochelle, Illinois one spring day was an excitement to us all. All weather surfaces were still about a 25% proposition across the state.
As I warmed up for the two-mile, I placed my gear amongst the piles of other teammate’s shoes and equipment. Then I ran my two mile race. It was windy and cold, and I probably ran something like a 10:20, shivering all the way, and then returned to the gear camp to put my stuff back on and get warmed before doing the high jump.
I looked around my gear pile and my shoes were gone. They were brand new adidas training flats issued by the school. Blue with white stripes. A privilege given only to athletes with varsity potential. And they were gone.
For the rest of the meet I looked around hoping to find out someone had moved my shoes inadvertently. But no, they had been stolen. Taken from me. The injustice of that loss crept into my head like a parasite. Anger ran through me. Then despair. Embarrassment. And worry. What would the coaches say?
They said nothing, essentially. “Well, that’s too bad,” one of them told me. “Because you’re not getting another pair. It’s not in the budget.”
Not in the budget. That I could understand. I’d treasured those shoes and appreciated what they meant. That I’d earned them to some degree made the loss hurt even more. I’d only just begun running in them. The insides of those shoes was soft and welcoming. The padding far exceeded that of the black gum rubber flats all of us received on signing up for track. But now the shoes were stolen. Some asshole took them. I wanted to kill them.
We experience many kinds of loss in our lives. Of course the lesson in losing material things is that we cannot hold such things in too much value. They are just things after all. In the end, we lose all things. No turning back.
It’s funny how it works the other way around however. When we suddenly find something we thought had been lost there is often joy out of proportion to the value of the thing we’d lost. That is even how grace is described in the Bible (the Prodigal Son) in which the Lord feels great joy in having people return to appreciation and gratitude, humility and love.
When we experience loss beyond a pair of shoes it can be difficult to comprehend the meaning of it. Sometimes it takes years. We may be resting our heads or calming our minds when some thought about loss enters our mind. “That’s what they meant to me,” we say as we come to grips with a lost love or family member that died.
Sometimes there are people who seem to play a role in our lives and it doesn’t make sense why we lose them––at the time–– and then years later we come to realize that while valuable in many respects, the relationship was just not meant to be. These losses can be the most confusing of all.
In our running and riding and swimming we rehearse this process of loss and gain on a daily basis. Some of it is so temporal we almost discard it like a skin. It’s one of the tarsnakes of endurance sports that we court so much loss in order to feel that we have somehow gained.
Yet we credit the ongoing effort to a process of personal growth and improvement. It proves that you can’t really win in the long run without experiencing some loss.
The struggle to understand all this is perhaps the most poignant aspect of the human condition. We seek to avoid emotional pain, yet it also clarifies and refines us. We pray for deliverance from fear and angst, and yet our art and our motivations often emerge from these anxious, waking dreams.
Sometimes in life I’ve felt like I’m the only one who runs around thinking about these things, or in these terms. Yet I know that’s not the case. I think of my dearly loved son and daughter and our family’s losses over the last few years. Their mother and her father. All in the space of a year’s time. That all happened. We’ve healed in many ways and yet the fact of their absence is keenly felt. While life goes on.
My own father has been a stroke victim since the early 2000s. We can’t have a real conversational exchange because he cannot talk. We certainly communicate, but it struck me boldly one day while reviewing a family video to suddenly hear his lucid, passionate voice.
Some of these losses we see coming and yet try to avoid the consequence and pain they mean to us. We maintain hope in the face of such realities by reaching out to friends and those who love us. This sense of hope against loss is most felt in the spring season. For me, this season of renewal is both vital and yet bittersweet. The flowers we pick quickly fade. The rains fall and flow away. The grass emerges and we mow it. Bees buzz. Birds sing. Wintering butterflies stir in their chrysalis cradles. When is the right time to be born again?
And that’s all as it should be. But if you are someone who feels lost because of some sense of loss that seems never to resolve itself, my heart goes out to you. Know that deep in this cosmos of time and eternity, there is this thing called love that really exists. And you are loved. And that is all.
You are invited to read The Right Kind of Pride, my book about survivorship. You can find it here on Amazon.com.