I want to leave something behind on this world besides tiny water bottles and shoes—something to say that I was here, in the hope that someone remembers me as kind. The concept of leaving one’s mark on the planet is where university endowments, headstones, and babies came from. John Kennedy Toole became a legend, posthumously, leaving the masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces, stuffed underneath his bed, scrawled on Big Chief tablets. His sweet mother, already puzzled from his tragic suicide, scratched her weary head as she pulled tablet after tablet out from under his bed, trying to make sense of it all—his life, his sadness, and now these ramblings. She had no education; however, she knew enough to take it to a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, who, bothered by this old bat, finally read the scribblings of a mentally ill loner and, recognizing genius, assembled them into the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize. It entertains me each time I even think about the characters.
One of the greatest gifts this life holds for me is any opportunity I have to spend with children. My friends have shared their offspring generously with me, so much so that I have never felt sadness over not having kids of my own. My brothers also have no children, yet my wonderful friends have provided me with six nieces and two nephews. When they call me Uncle, my chest puffs out far beyond the perfection that the gym has caused.
Any time that I am with them is selfishly for me. I eat their little spirits up like caviar, or foie gras. Each smile I earn or hug I steal is pure money.
Last week I asked one of my nieces, who is a beautiful photographer, for tips on improving the pictures of food I snap with my phone for use in my stories. Within minutes, she had my Flintstone brain thinking like a Jetson, showing me photo tricks that have improved my life. As she sat there explaining exposure, contrast and saturation, I found myself looking into her eyes and rushing back in time—seeing the tiny little baby girl who used to open her perfect blue eyes impossibly wide as I told her a story about a blue balloon that carried children to magical lands of adventure. A prideful tear welled up in my eye and tried to sneak out as I realized that now she was explaining something to me. I reached up and caught that visible sign of emotion hopefully in time, and returned my attention to the lesson.
Years ago, I spent a summer in and being marveled by Spain. I was also responsible for a ten-year-old boy, who I had known and loved since he was two. He was a terrific boy, and now has grown into a thoughtful, caring man. That summer we were on the island of Mallorca, outside of Palma, near the stunningly beautiful village of Puigpunyent. This village can take your breath away just standing still, but early each morning I jogged through its winding, craggy streets, wanting the ancient mountain air to course into my lungs and travel to my mind with intention as strong as the lavender established on the hillsides, leaving permanent lovely memories. It worked.
I learned to run in Marine Corps boot camp. A drill instructor forced me to. I showed up on Parris Island never having run more than a few feet, but by day three, handsome Staff Sergeant DeVito taught me how to take five breaths in and five breaths out as I ran, regardless of how many strides I took. Focus on the breath, your feet will fall in place. It was difficult, but soon I was running miles, always counting to five, no matter how illogical it seemed or imbalanced it felt. When I ran, I felt as free and graceful a non-threatened gazelle; however, that might have been going a lot better in my mind.
My young charge asked to run with me in Spain, which might seem a crazy request for a kid. But he was serious, and I respected him. We went into town and found him good shoes, and a little miniature outfit of what I wore—nylon running shorts and a tank top. We woke early, donned our duds, and ate a matching breakfast of dry toast and orange juice. All the proper prep I had learned and applied, mile after mile.
I was fully prepared to stop and turn back if, even after a few feet, he wanted to stop. I taught him the five breaths trick, and saw in him the same struggle that I had when first applying it. There is little traffic in this village, and when someone did drive past us, I am sure they wondered aloud, Crazy Americans, asking the thin mountain air why a grown man was forcing this child to run through their town.
The road was as long, thin, black, crooked and challenging as a horrible jungle python. We stayed on the edge, and I watched him carefully, monitoring and adjusting his strides and breath. The cheeks on his already cute face rapidly ruddied up from the new exercise. We passed a kilometer marker and I suggested we slow our jog to a walk, and call that enough for the first day. He put his hands on his hips as I did, and we walked it off, allowing our breath to now become rapid. I’m sure he felt the same rush of heat move from his feet, up his legs, through his body, and up to his face as soon as we stopped moving. That’s running.
There was another village about ten kilometers away, and we set that as our goal for the summer. We didn’t miss a day, running in the occasional rain and ever-present heat. There were times both of us wanted to stop; I showed him how leaning into a side cramp while still running would alleviate that sharp pain.
Some days our goal was literally in sight, yet seemed so far. We talked about the cows in the field, or the fact that our legs hurt, or that our lungs burned, or wondered how that crumbling stone farmhouse was even still standing, and what the residents did at night for fun.
Distance running can be daunting, but having each other certainly kept me going. On one of the last days, he was struggling. I thought for sure we needed to stop, but he kept forcing his feet out in front of his legs, over and over. His strides got a little shorter, but each shoe still hit the pavement just as his mind told it to, as I had assured him would happen. Combine strong sincere intention with a faithful belief that you can actually take another step, and you get physical results that amaze you.
He kept his eyes ahead but shared a suggestion, between measured breaths: Maybe if we hold hands it would be a little easier. I hadn’t learned that pointer in the Marines, but I gladly took his little already outstretched hand. Together we made it to that next village, pushing through an invisible banner and the finish line, reveling in our accomplishment with no need for descending balloons, or popping champagne bottles.
Smash cut to this summer, fifteen years later, and us having dinner. I don’t remember being ten all that well, but he told me that our summer running had served as the foundation for his physical fitness. I didn’t know that. As we talked about this story, that sneaky tear creeped out of my eye and right down my face, and I didn’t care.
We are the sum of our parts; but we are the parts of our sum. My nieces and nephews are growing into marvelous, responsible people, and friends. In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence says: No man is a failure who has friends.
Mine, dear friends, is a wonderful life.
This was previously published on Eat.Greg.Eat!
Image credit: vishal.jalan/Flickr