Back in 1982, I was transferred by my employer from Chicago out to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in a consolidation of the marketing department. That situation lasted about eight months before the EVP in charge of the division decided the VP of Marketing was not contributing much in the way of actionable return on investment. So they canned the whole bunch of us.
They gave me a severance check in April and I moved back to Chicago in May. The economy was not exactly booming three years into the reign of Reagan in 1983, so I used that summer to focus on getting better as a runner.
That fall I won a race called Run for the Money. It earned me attention from a running store that was forming a sponsored team. They gave me racing and training shoes and equipment, and I started working part-time at the store. But otherwise I ran morning noon and night.
It was an admittedly self-indulgent period of life. Beyond the running, I chased girls in the city even while I was dating the woman that I would later marry. She lived out in the suburbs. I was also selfish about my interests and habits, spending entire days writing or painting in our two-flat Chicago apartment overlooking Lincoln Park. But I completed my first book and sold quite a few paintings. So it wasn’t wasted time. Mostly my hormones were the big distraction.
In 1984 I won a bunch of road races and that would turn out to be the peak of my career. By 1985 I was still running well but the obligations of life were staring me in the face, including the birth of our first child. I made a conscious decision that next October in 1986, the month he was born, to cease racing seriously and focus my energies on becoming a good father and provider.
I did not necessarily achieve those two goals in a perfect sense. There were times when I was distant emotionally. Mostly that was a product of my first awareness of anxiety and depression. Despite those vexing emotional hurdles, I did push into marketing and promotions. By the time I was 32 years old, along came a second child, a daughter this time. And from there life became a series of commitments to support their activities and education.
Both our children popped out of high school and into college only to have their mother get sick with cancer. She achieved remission multiple times but eight years later she could not hold out any longer and passed away in 2013.
During those eight years I tried my best to be a selfless caregiver. Her illness often required absolute attention. We’d spend long hours sitting in chemo treatment centers, me writing while she either read or watched TV as the chemo dripped through one vein or another. They even pumped huge doses of controlled poison straight into her abdomen. Then it was like they said, “Go ahead, walk it off.” And we’d come back a few weeks later for another round.
It was stressful. I took Lorazepam to help me through the nights. Then I’d wean off it when she got well again.
But it was the side effects that hurt us the most. That required more attention than anything else. I tried my best to be a selfless husband to her then as well. At one point I was trying to help her down some awful liquid she had to drink for a barium test and she hissed at me and said, “Fuck you!” I deserved that.
That first year of her cancer my mother passed away from a combination of cancer and stroke as well. That meant I took over as caregiver for my father as well. That was my other duty all the way through 2015, just over ten years after my mother had died. His needs were many and he could be a demanding patient at times. Fortunately with the help of caregivers he lived a mostly fruitful life all the way through his passing.
These days with the duties of caregiving behind me, I look back and wonder if life would have turned out any differently if all that had not happened. But honestly, I view much of those experiences as a benefit to my soul. I learned better patience, for one thing. And I learned to be less selfish about a ton of things.
But I’ll not say that all that caregiving did not have an emotional price. I’ve coped with the grief in a pretty healthy way. Going on long runs and rides to think it all through always helped. Yet there are moments when I feel the fatigue of caregiving (all those years) catch up with me. And I can’t help wonder what life might have been like without it.
Thinking back to all that supposed freedom in my early 20s doesn’t really help. The severance check they gave me ran out by autumn and I was living hand-to-mouth most of the next year, my big year in running. That’s actually a familiar story to many of us from back in those days. We were willing to sacrifice almost anything to run a little faster or a little longer. Running was an obsession.
I once said to my mother while she was alive that I felt a little regret at being so self-indulgent during those years. Without hesitation she said, “I don’t think so. You burned brightly.” She’d seen me win races with that fiery look on my face and the early signs of balding creeping back my forehead. She knew that you have to take some selfish chances in life when the time is right. The drive to be so obsessed is no longer there.
The writer John Irving was one of my favorite reads back in those days. One of the lead characters in his book Hotel New Hampshire said, “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” He was talking about wrestling, in that context. But we all knew it was a statement about life as well.
It’s hard not to feel a little selfish about my time going forward. I’m sixty-two years old and trying to save my ass off to plan for retirement, but life is rocky sometimes and the ups and downs can trip you up. That said, I’m writing books because there are things I want to say, and I believe the world needs to hear them. Perhaps that is a selfish thing to assume, but that is the core mission of every writer and artist on this earth. Produce or die. Say what you have to say. Show your goddamned cards or shut the fuck up. No one ever said life as an artist or writer is easy. But it’s much harder for those of us with these penchants to not do anything at all. That is anathema.
Power to the pup
It’s even hard for me some days to not be resentful in my new duties as a dog owner. So much of the scheduled routine reminds me of all those caregiving years. Waking up every morning (and sometimes at night) to think, “What do they need today?” has been part of my psyche so long that it feels like a native anxiety. So part of me rebels at the thought of new obligations. I want to feel selfish and not feel guilty about it.
But that’s not really me. It never really has been. Not since I retired from competitive racing anyway. My selfish brain still has selfish thoughts, but then I see the light in the eyes of those I love and that all melts away. After all, it’s time to face another day. I always try to do it the right way. By putting others first.