50 Years of Running: Cataclysmic convergence

Oil and Water, Acrylic painting by Christopher Cudworth

My competitive instincts had not abated much in my early forties, but one quickly learns as a caregiver that being competitive is not the answer to every problem. In fact, it constitutes an answer to few problems. It doesn’t help to be competitive while sitting in a waiting room while your wife is getting treatment and consultation for ovarian cancer. That demands patience, not competitive fire. The same holds true in caregiving for a father beset by the effects of a stroke, who can’t talk or communicate other than with “Yeahhh” or “Nooohhh” for answers. That takes patience too.

Nor was it helpful to be competitive in guiding my mother through her fears over her own health, which in 2005 was taking turns toward more difficulty than she imagined. Her lymphoma was manifesting in mouth sores and other signs of increasing impact. Knowing that things were changing in her life, she asked me to meet her at the bank to sign on as the executor for all their financial matters.

But at work, I still needed to be competitive in order to handle the demands of a job in marketing and community relations covering five separate counties and ninety different communities large and small. I traveled from office to office seeking to leverage the small budgets accorded to each regional manager the biggest results we could find. Every area had different demands and opportunities. In Lake County, we partnered with a radio station to provide news in exchange for daily mentions of our product. In DuPage County, our goals were spread over a series of major events, festivals, and the like, and also partnering with high schools for editorial exposure tied to theater programs. In the Tri-Cities, we worked through area Chambers and partnerships. In the Elgin market, we sponsored large-scale bike races and a collaborative relationship with the Hemmens Auditorium. All these disparate aims required attention, and I did my best to keep all the balls juggling at once. Truth be told, I was just beginning to realize that my brain lacked some critical aspects of corporate performance, particularly executive functions. I sometimes joked that I had what I called Creative ADD. What I’ve realized later in life is that I have full-blown ADHD.

Occasionally, sometimes more than that, a ball would drop. But I apologized to fellow managers and worked back around to pick it up again. On top of all that the Big Ticket Reading Project was growing by 20% every year, reaching more than 100,000 families. Then I launched the West Suburban Theater Connection and our editorial coverage deepened in that important segment.

Running commentary

I’d go for daily runs or rides thinking all this through, all while trying to balance my wife’s concerns as we waited for surgery that would remove as much cancer as possible from her abdominal cavity. The gynecologist that did the original laparoscopic surgery broke the tumor, which released cancer cells into the body, and when the gynecological oncologist finally got in to examine and extract cancerous indications, he described its impact on the body walls as feeling “like sandpaper.” That was not good news. Still, he was such a pro that he felt like the prognosis was good after her operation.

Then came chemotherapy a month later. She recuperated from surgery well even though the impact on her body was profound. But we had hurdles to jump with health insurance because the HMO demanded that we do chemo at a different hospital than the Advocate General location where our GO was based.

That meant traveling to a Rush Medical Center location in Aurora where we met a new doctor and scheduled a series of chemotherapy treatments. There would be eight total with Cisplatin and Taxotere, both toxic drug mixes that enter the body intravenously and kill the “most active” cancer cells, which are the fastest-growing cells in the body. Basically, chemotherapy kills the body slowly, and when the world-class cyclist Lance Armstrong challenged his doctor during treatment for testicular cancer to “give me all you got, you can’t kill me,” the doctor replied, “Oh, yes I can.

At first, the chemo didn’t hit her that hard. Her cheeks grew flush and her hands tingled. But as the treatments accumulated with pursuant fatigue and nausea, the risk of infection increased and her mental state deteriorated. Still, she kept on teaching at the preschool where she worked. Her fellow teachers were immensely supportive, especially her close friend and the school’s director, a woman named Linda who promised us that we would be there for her all along. She’d called to tell me, “Listen, we know this is going to be hard. So we’re going to let you in the Girl’s Club. But the Girl’s Club has One Rule. You have to tell us everything that’s going on. Otherwise, you’re out of the Girl’s Club. Can you work with that?”

I told her, “Absolutely. I’m in.” And from that point on there was hardly a moment where I feared not having support. For that, I am eternally grateful and mean that in the most profound sense of the word. Vulnerability is the greatest tool for cancer survival.

But some types of vulnerability are also devastating. After my wife endured eight rounds of traditional chemo, we received a recommendation to partake in a renewed practice calling for the introduction of chemo drugs straight into the abdomen. Intraperitoneal chemotherapy, it was called. So they installed a port in her belly and dumped the chemo straight inside her body. The unstated goal was to kill off cancer cells lining her belly walls. It all went well until it didn’t. Somehow the nurses let chemo leak out the port and it burned the skin all down the outside of her belly. We wound up calling the hospital on a holiday to drive her there for emergency treatment. The medical oncologist showed up and it was clear that he feared there was potential litigation afoot. The situation had medical malpractice written all over it. But we liked the doctor and told him, “Listen. We know this is bad, but we’re not here to cause trouble or sue. Let’s fix this and move ahead.”

The stress of that day was awful. The nurses felt awful about it because we had a good rapport with them all. We knew it wasn’t carelessness that led to the problem. They were diligent in everything they did otherwise. Sometimes bad things just happen.

360 Degree Review

All that medical stuff might all have been enough for me to handle were it not for the fact that my immediate boss at the Daily Herald decided that year to send out surveys to conduct a 360 Degree Review on my performance at the newspaper. Word came back that I was dropping a few more balls. Some of the reviews were harsh. I felt betrayed. Yet clearly, I couldn’t handle things the way that I’d done up to that point in time. After being named the 2003 Administrative Associate of the Year, I was falling behind in my job on some fronts. With so many cataclysmic events taking place, I was a bit overwhelmed.

In many ways, all I was trying to do was be honest about the possibilities defined by the changing world of the newspaper industry. The Daily Herald had cut ties with its advertising agency for budgetary reasons, so there were no billboards or radio investments to promote the company. The Allstate Arena still displayed the logo prominently along I-90, one of the busiest corridors in the Chicago area. But one day in a collective management meeting, the Publisher of the newspaper stated, “I don’t really believe in marketing…” and I sat there stunned, realizing that support was certainly not going to come from the top down at that point.

After the results of the 360 Review came back, I was depressed. The criticism hurt, and there was little I could do to defend my performance. “You just have to accept this feedback and change,” my boss told me. I found that ironic. My boss was not a well-regarded manager in his own position. I’d learned that his entire department had resigned or quit before I was asked to come on board in marketing. People pulled me aside and asked, “How can you work for that guy?” On some front, I empathized. He was a former sportswriter whose main interest was working out partnership deals with the pro teams and landing tickets to the best shows at Allstate Arena. He never really liked all the risk and reward stuff of hardline marketing. When I came on board and pushed the envelope on so many fronts, it pissed him off more than anything.

So the 360 Degree Review was an opportunity to foist some frustration on an employee that had shown him up a little. I couldn’t entirely blame him. That’s the nature of corporate competition. It’s quite typically an alternating cycle of pats on the back and backstabbing paybacks. I’d challenged him on many fronts about his managerial style, and this was his turn to shift the narrativve. He had every right to initiate the review, but the timing could not have been worse.

That summer my wife’s health was going downhill due to chemotherapy, as was my mother’s condition. My father was still highly compromised by his stroke. I bounced from caregiving for one person to the other. Then, come September, my mother found she had an underlying case of pancreatic cancer. Not good news. Her physicians recommended a round of chemotherapy but her age worked against her. At eighty years old, her body was slammed by the strength of that toxic treatment. While working at the Tri-Cities office one morning, just two miles away from my parent’s house, I heard the police scanner in the photo room announce that EMTs had just arrived at my parent’s address. I rushed out the door, climbed in my car and drove straight to my folks’ house. There I saw my mother on a gurney being loaded into an ambulance. She looked up at me and said, “I can’t walk. The medicine’s too strong.” They drove her away with the lights flashing.

I tended to my father that day. His in-home Polish caregiver Ivana asked me what happens next. I told her, “I don’t know yet.” I appreciated Ivana, whose patience with my often exasperating father was legendary. Still, she admitted that it got to her sometimes. She once told me, “I have date tonight with Johnny and Jack.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels,” and she laughed.

That weekend, my mother did not improve much. On Sunday morning, I received a call from a doctor at the hospital brusquely informing me that my mother needed to go home. They offered to send an ambulance to make that happen. She couldn’t walk or even sit upright much to get into a wheelchair. I showed up at the hospital to preside over her departure and watched them walk her out the door.

The presiding physician thanked me for coming, then quickly departed, clearly not wanting to talk over the situation much. On my way out the door, I met a physician from the family practice my mom and dad had long trusted. We stood in an open space far from anyone else’s earshot. “Listen,” he kindly told me. “They don’t want your mother to die here, and there’s little else they can do for her. It’s time for hospice. The pancreatic cancer is too far along and she can’t handle any more chemotherapy. She’s better off at home.”

He was right. Many of her friends came by to visit, essentially saying goodbyes. One of her closest buddies was an intelligent Black woman named Phyllis whose company she treasured on many fronts. The racial reference is relevant given the relatively white-bread composition of the community in which my parents lived. That woman was one of the most well-respected community leaders despite the racial composition of St. Charles. My mom always appreciated her proactive ideology and faith in humanity. It meant the world that this woman came to visit her.

By Sunday afternoon my mother seemed relaxed, even happy at having welcomed her friends and grandchildren including my daughter Emily, who played my mother’s violin for her. That instrument was built by her own father in the 1930s. That evening, my mother gave me a big smile as she rested. But overnight, she suffered a stroke that took away her ability to speak or swallow. From that point forward, it was hospice for sure.

Hospice conclusion

My father and mother were in attendance at the Geneva Community Classic in 1984 when I won the race in 31:52 on a long course. The record stood for more than 20 years. She wrote my name on the photograph.

She died on the evening of November 7, 2005, with my father by her side sitting in his wheelchair and holding her hand. That afternoon much of the family had come by, but she seemed to wait until my daughter Emily could make a visit. An hour later she passed away.

It had been an up-and-down year. During her hospice period, I was wracked by guilt the first night when she gestured for water and food, but we could not give it to her. I went home crying and leaned over the kitchen table praying about what to do. My wife was sick in bed from chemo and I felt all alone. At that moment my brothers were driving out to Illinois from back east and called me on the phone. “We were driving through Indiana and saw how clear the stars looked,” they told me. “We thought it would be good to call.”

I confessed my guilt at not being able to help Mom in any way. “There’s no choice in her condition,” they assured me. “We’re all doing the right thing.”

On the evening she died I drove home through a large woods on Route 25. A giant buck deer burst from the forest and ran in front of me through the headlights. Granted, that’s a natural coincidence. But it felt like her spirit was sending me a message that she was going somewhere else. She loved nature in all its forms.

I felt calm upon arriving home that evening. She was at peace now, no more pain or fear or frustration. No more worrying about by dad. That was up to me now, I knew. I also knew I could handle it. I might fail on some fronts, but I was going to see it all through, whatever the cost. In some respects, that was my competitive nature showing through. But there were different kinds of “wins” from crossing the finish line first in a race, or helping a team win a game. This was about winning in life and competing with the challenges it presented. On that front, I knew that I could be a winner no matter what it took.


About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
This entry was posted in 10K, aging, aging is not for the weak of heart, Christopher Cudworth, competition, fear, foregiveness, life and death, running, we run and ride and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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