Friday, July 10, 2009

My Brother Lives on a Hill in a Yellow Submarine

In 2006, I lost my brother, Andy, to AIDS. This year, I'm running in the Chicago Rock 'n' Roll AIDS Half Marathon to honor his memory and it's been a profound experience. Recently the group that I'm training with dedicated one of our long runs to my brother and I wrote to his mother and my half-sister to tell them about it. I thought I'd share with you as well. Here goes:

Dear J and A,

First, I want to thank you for your generous donation to my fundraising efforts. As you can see, I've bee working very hard at hitting that goal and your donation put me over the top.

I also want to tell you about a very special experience I had during my training. As part of our training, we run 2-3 miles twice during the week on our own and then we run longer runs on Saturdays along the lake. Our Saturday route takes us past the hill where we sprinkled Andy's ashes—it's one of the first things I see when I start my long runs, and one of the last things I see as I complete them and return to home base. It's both a signal of a long road ahead and of coming home. I feel powerfully connected to him and to his memory every time I pass the hill and I say a quiet prayer to honor him. Sometimes I cry a little. I've told my pace group about him and about our morning on the hill, when we returned him to a place he felt was sacred, and they frequently join me in saying hello to him when we pass.

One morning, I was running with one of the coaches and he shared with me the reason he became involved with the AIDS Marathon--he lost his uncle to AIDS. I told him that I was doing this for Andy. I told him about us three spreading his ashes on the hill. I told him what a sweet person Andy was and how much we loved and missed him. He told me that the coaches really liked to do dedication runs—to dedicate a long Saturday morning run to a loved one of one of the runners—and he asked me if we could dedicate the following week's run to Andy. Of course, I said yes.

The morning of the run, we gathered in a group of about one hundred, and the coaches did their Saturday morning thing--they read the news bulletin; they gave us a pep talk; and then they turned the floor over to me. Then I told everyone about my brother, the Beatles fan; the chess player; the math whiz; the guy who brought home all the toys and paper crowns from his job at Burger King because he thought I should have more toys than I could play with and crown for every day of the week. I reminded everybody that my pace group is known for singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” on our way into home base. I'm still not sure why we picked that song, but it happened early and it stuck. It started out as a test of our exertion level and quickly became our 'thing'. I told everyone that this time my group would sing 'Yellow Submarine' instead, and that they were invited to do so in solidarity as well. When I finished talking, as we got into our groups to take off, one of my group mates gave me a long hug and he sobbed. I knew he had lost someone he loved to AIDS too. We dried our faces and smiled at each other before joining our group at the start of our 9 mile run.

There are about 10 pace groups that run on Saturday morning, and though we all take off a few minutes apart and run at varying speeds, we often pass each other on the course and when we do, we cheer each other on. On this day, as I passed the other groups, someone from nearly every group said something like, “We're going to sing 'Yellow Submarine' for Andy” or “We ran up and down the hill for Andy”. I was immensely grateful to feel so supported by people I had met only weeks before and to know that Andy's memory was being honored in a way that he would have liked so much. The most moving moments were still to come.

After my group reached the half way point and turned around to head back, we unanimously decided that we would run up the hill and sing 'Yellow Submarine' at the top of the hill in addition to singing it as we finished our run. As we got closer to the end of the run and the hill came into site, I saw that it was dotted with yellow shirts worn by AIDS marathoners who joined me in honoring Andy that morning. From afar, they looked like little yellow balloons, floating up and down the big green hill. As we approached the hill, tired, sweaty and covered in our own salt, we began our ascent. Once we got to the top, we got into an informal circle and started to sing. Soon after the singing started, we began dancing as well, and the energy of our silly, carefree, irreverent singing and dancing mirrored that of my happiest memories of Andy. I hadn't known such an informal tribute would would be so deeply meaningful.

After we were finished singing and dancing, I walked around the top of the hill and gave a nod to the three ghosts of Two Years Ago Us and remembered the peace I felt up there with you two and the beauty of the way Andy's ashes floated in wisps on the wind as we offered them back to the earth. Then we descended the hill, got back on the trail and finished our run. We sang the chorus of 'Yellow Submarine' as we finished our run and were enthusiastically welcomed by the groups that finished before us. It was such a moving experience I felt I had to share it with you two. I wanted you to know how he was honored on that day.

I am so glad you will all be there on race day—that means so much to me. When I read your comment on my fundraising page, I had to close my office door and let more than a few tears fall--both because I had hit my fundraising goal and because you said you two would be there, on race day, with my nephews. This has been a profoundly therapeutic experience for me and I think you will feel likewise on race day. I can't wait to see you all again!

Much love,



Scott said...

That's really a beautiful story, Carla. I'm glad you've found such a wonderful, meaningful way to honor him, and that you had the support of others to honor him as well. You've worked hard building up to this marathon. It's a great thing you're doing. I'm sure he'd incredibly be proud of you, and with good reason. I know I am.

suitablegirl said...

What a beautiful post. I will think of it, the next time I hear that song-- and later tonight, when I run. Thank you for writing this.