Of all the members of his close knit Ukrainian family, Jeff Swain most uncannily resembles his Uncle Albie, who was also a runner.
I’ve been away these last few weeks, sequestered really, holed up in my study pounding out drafts of the manuscript that would become my dissertation. It’s in the hands of my committee now. I find out their verdict when my final defense takes place later this month. If all goes well I will become the second member of my family to earn a degree from Penn State. My cousin Marianne was the first. We were following in the footsteps of our Uncle Albie, first-born son to a first generation immigrant from the Ukraine.
Everyone probably has someone from their family who they most resemble. For me it’s my Uncle Albie. Someone I never met and who I only know through family memories. Physically the resemblance is uncanny. My face is Albie’s face. It’s wide with a strong nose, square jaw and fine hair that kind of did its own thing. Features that reflect the melting pot of the Ukraine where Asian and European traders and travelers traversed and mixed. Hairdressers will often remark to my mom that she has Asian hair.
Albie was the first born of John and Anna Shopa, my grandparents. He attended Central High School in Philadelphia, at the time the premiere public school in the city where he ran cross country. This past weekend my mom gave me the varsity letter Albie earned. A letter he never got to wear.
It was the summer of his senior year at Central. And, turning eighteen he had to go register for the draft. It was the x-ray from his physical where the abnormality was spotted. A shadow on the lung. Later to be diagnosed as cancer.
Albie had earned a scholarship to run track at Penn State. He would have been the first member of our family to attend college. Instead he spent the next two years in and out of hospitals, mostly bedridden, until he became the first occupant of the family plot instead. Since then others have joined him. First was his father, my grandfather, who succumbed to cancer in the early seventies. Later that decade, my cousin Honey Bee joined them. She was murdered by her boyfriend. In the nineties her brother, Moosie, joined them. Moosie’s real name was Albert after our uncle. Cancer took him just as it did his namesake. Early in the new millenium my grandmother died of natural causes in the house of her son. Later my cousin Sharon would join them. Sharon and I were the same age. She was the sister of Moosie and Honey Bee. We went to elementary school together for first and second grade. Drugs wore her heart out. A few years ago, Aunt Dolores, Albie’s sister and Marianne’s mother joined them. She died suddenly in Michigan while visiting her daughter Marianne’s family. She was my godmother. Over the years the ground in St. Basil’s cemetery has grown deep with the bodies of our family.
According to everyone who knew him, Albie loved to run. And run. And run. To be in motion was his nature. By all accounts running was when Albie was most comfortable in his own skin. A notion I can relate to.
Running is where I feel most at home with myself. In motion is where everything aligns for me. When running, my mind becomes clear and my senses attune. It’s as if I’m in the world and am the world at the same time. It’s the closest I come to experiencing the divine. And the only time I’ve ever gotten the sense of the spiritual. I cannot imagine not being able to run. These last two weeks have been rough. I’ve been sitting at my desk hunched over my keyboard for ten to twelve hours a day in a final and frantic dash to the finish. I remember the Easter at my sister’s house where I told my family I was quitting my job. That we were quitting our jobs, selling our house and moving halfway across the state. My Aunt Dolores— her nickname was Bo Peep, after the girl in the nursery rhyme—grabbed me in a bear hug and said, “My nephew is going to be a doctor.” The journey has taken longer than expected, mostly due to my own failings and self-sabotage but the end is near.
I’ve run twenty-six miles and now only the last three hundred and eighty-five yards remain. Ask any marathoner, they are the longest yards you’ll ever run. Physically, the body has exhausted all its resources and has begun to cannibalize itself. To continue on, your mind must make the body do what it is rebelling against. To live, for me means to run. I must be moving toward something, even if that something defies all logic and reason. As I get closer, as I see the end, I cannot help but think those last two years must have been a hell on Earth for Albie.
Image credit: israeltourism/Flickr