“I’m pulling out. I’m not going to do a fucking marathon in four hours,” the runner muttered as I slowly pulled alongside the pair, about to pass, the next kilometre mark seemingly miles ahead, 30 kilometres behind us.
“It’s not about the clock,” he said in an encouraging voice.
She paused. “Yes it is about the clock,” she finally answered.
He’s right. No, it isn’t.
Almost a month ago, when my iPhone’s call display read “Dad,” a moment of panic set in. He’s the typical Dad and I’m the typical son. We don’t do many phone calls, but the last time dad called when I was in the States, he calmly told me he had heart attack. This time, it wasn’t about him, but it wasn’t him that I was concerned about.
“Are you coming to visit mom today?” he asked. “No, I’m in San Francisco,” I said. “Why?”
I’ve blogged in the past about running in my old neighbourhood. There’s an old path that winds its way around my old elementary school. Back in the day, while in Grade 4 or 5, our Phys-Ed teacher would send us on what seemed like the longest run (“Why couldn’t we just go around the track?”). He’d send us out and we’d be the usual group of grade-school kids: we all went out too fast, some slowed down to a reasonable pace, some struggled to finish the run, while the laggards resorted to run-walking the course. I was a middle of the pack, asthmatic jogger.
A few weeks ago, on a Wednesday afternoon, after returning to my parent’s house from the hospital, I put on my shoes and told my Dad I’d be going for a run. I ran down a massive hill, visited the nearby woods, and did a loop of the old elementary cross-country trail, 2 kilometres, thinking about getting older and how you can’t run away from life.
The long story short is my mom, at the age of 63, was placed into pallative care a few days after he called me, and that’s where she has been since. We’ve been prepared as a family as her decline has been years in the making, but it has been 30 years since I first had a ‘sick’ mom. And now, when my mom should be in her early retirement years in a society when we talk about living to ripe old age, I’m helping my elder dad prepare for her end of life.
My vow was to be there at the end, to spend the final days with family. So my brother, dad and I have been preparing while spending time. We’ve tried to fulfill our everyday lives, which is to say that sleep, work and time with each other take precedence over all else. My running, an activity and passion that I’ve always found refuge in, fell to the sidelines, my new marathon shoes barely broken in.
I knew it at the time, but I had no business racing a marathon that weekend. Every logical look at my preparedness, the lack of long miles, no major long runs since mid August, no ‘time on feet’ and no endurance training. But there was a need. A need to reclaim a bit of myself, to lean on running in times of stress, to do an event i’ve always found life affirming. Or was it to lose myself, to bury my grief into a long run. I confided with a running friend that I was thinking of running, I needed to run it for myself.
These past few years, my mother only had a small recollection of what the present day me was. Four years ago, she was no longer the mom I could have a real conversation with -- strokes, brain injury and and dementia took care of that. With her bedridden, my dad her primary caregiver, our conversations became shorter, us satisfied with every visit that she could recognize us. The truth is, while in words, what she could manage was questions about health, marriage, whether there was enough money in the bank and that we were okay, we were comforted just to hold her hand and see a spark of recognition in her eyes. I was her son and she loved me. It doesn’t take anything more complicated than that.
Long distance running is my only chance sometimes to escape the noise. I realize on many of my long runs that i’m just seeking the loneliness just to get to ‘my place’. I ran the marathon this past weekend fuelled the need for self reflection. I wanted to confront pain in life, I wanted to push myself to exhaustion, I wanted to celebrate a motion that we all take for granted, the ability to move, have joy in just the fact that human beings are so capable of so much -- fall 24 miles from high altitude, run 26.2 miles fuelled on heart and mind (even undertrained). I wanted to show with an act, a morning of movement, to show that you can live life to the purposeful extreme, to remember that living every day while your mind is sound, your body is strong, is to celebrate what you have and what you may one day be without.
Shortly after passing the disappointed four hour marathoner, I entered my own world of hurt. My fitness started to suffer by 32K, a series of cramps started to put a halt to any attempt at pace running. “For mom,” I said in that final hour, picturing the pain she’s gone through. My heart said run as hard as I could but my mind would only allow me to run to the shallow end of pain, recover, and run again. Those last 8 kilometres, done in 800 metre spurts of running followed by stretch breaks to keep the cramps at bay, were the best that I could do. I had no shame of stopping, no cares of passing the 4 hour mark, no need but to make it to the end.
After getting my medal, my 21st marathon, I knew it was the most important one i’ve done. It was for myself but somehow for her. I cried while walking past the post-finish line area, eyes shaded by sunglasses, tears covered by sweat and the bill of my running cap. I thought about how I’d lost the mom others have had for a very long time. I couldn’t share my greatest accomplishments -- work achievements, qualifying for Boston, forging that adult relationship with my parent. I thought about the marathon and how it draws out supporters for runners and how she’d never seen me run.
Later that day, I wore my marathon shirt and went to the hospital, helped feed mom dinner. My legs were burning, my body exhausted. Her right hand was as strong as ever, gripping my hand, her thumb stroking my finger. Four days later, she was gone.
|My mom, Amy Man Yee Yum. I'm the youngest.|
Eulogy, delivered on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012
I want to thank everyone for coming today. I’d like to thank my mom’s sisters, who helped us organize this final goodbye, to friends and cousins of our family who came to our aid and to my brother and dad who brought you all here together today. Mom would have shied away from a gathering like this but I'd like to speak to you about my mother, who today we all mourning, but are also remembering, celebrating and loving.
Growing up, mom always told me when I would start speaking to her home: 'I don't understand English'.
“我不明白英语" She actually did, understand English, but it was her way of making me learn Cantonese the hard way. Today, I’m grateful for that lesson and the many others she taught me. But in the sake of eloquence, I shall stick to English.
When I think of my childhood, I realize my brother and I were a handful -- we didn’t fit into the traditional mold, two kids who were not really interested in following any path set by immigrant parents.
Take our piano lessons. Mom thought it'd be a good idea to buy an upright -- everyone else was -- in the hopes that William and I would take to tickling the ivories. Instead, we took a few years of lessons, then proceeded to mail it in during our three-times-a-week 'practicing' sessions that would involve playing the same tune over and over again. We’d play, then turning the page of some comic book every minute. But mom didn't complain to our obvious lack of interest, she was just happy we were playing some sort of tune.
Music, I must say, was a joy to mom, and in my early years, she was always humming a tune. We grew up in a household that loved The Sound of Music, the soundtrack that played constantly, and I’m thankful for our harpist Nathalie -- sister of my girlfriend -- who has been playing mom’s favourite music today. In these final challenging years, we’d put on the DVD to help my mom remember and it was great comfort to her.
How do sons reflect their mothers. I look at many parts of me and know what an influence my mom has had. Food and family meals were such an important part of her life. Mom enlisted my brother and I on her weekend cooking excursions. I'd be grating radishes to be steamed into turnip cakes, or have a cauldron of bean sprouts that my mom expected me to deroot, every single individual sprout. She challenged our palettes with Ox Tail (which landed in the garbage after I spit it out onto Kleenex) and tripe (of which I loved the snappy rubber-band crunch). Every weekend, we'd be wrapping, cutting, stuffing and baking. She must of thought it meant something to me when she enrolled me in junior chef summer school in Grade 4. I am passionate about food, a love sparked by her.
Many years later, after I'd moved out of home and put together my own kitchen and dabbled in cooking courses, one of my proudest moments was when I prepared my family's Christmas dinner with all the fixings. My mom beamed when she saw the spread and I unofficially took on the title of Yum family cook (Sorry William). She looked as proud as the day I graduated with my journalism degree from Ryerson.
Amy arrived in Canada to attend library studies at Ryerson in 1968. In the Baldwin Chinatown, and among a fledgling immigrant Chinese community, she met my dad. My dad describes the courtship with my mom as follows: She’s the girl next door, and he the guy with a job and a car, a sweet ride. Figures nothing changes. Glamour shots that my dad took in those early courtship years confirm that they travelled widely, a funky young couple.
By 1974, she had me and William, a house in Scarborough and a new occupation at Canada Post. If there is a Canadian Dream -- a life better for your kids than one you had for yourself -- they had it, built by elbow grease and determination.
Last night, I sat down and talked to my dad and brother, and we chatted about what mom meant to us. Fighter, my dad wanted me to tell you. She was a fighter.
Mom was placed into palliative care about three weeks ago, at the age of 63 -- it had been 30 years since I first had a ‘sick’ mom. I was 8 in 1982 when my mom suffered her first stroke, 23 when she spent a summer in a coma and 34 when she faced her latest crisis. She fought cancer, lupus, blood infections and strokes with many near misses.
Every time we tried to slow her down, to get her to do less in her home, she’d only double back and fight for the independence she craved. In those 30 years, many of which saw my mom struggle to recover, relearn words and movements, she was unwavered in one respect. Every time she fought, we knew it was for us. That’s the second thing my dad and others have reminded us. William and I were the centre of her universe, and her love for the two of us was so fierce and pure.
My dad retired 10 years ago in order to spend quality years with my mom. He started to take her around the world and they became professional cruisers: three times to China, to the Mediterranean, Alaska, Mexico and the Caribbean. He wanted to help her experience life and we are thankful for that time.
My dad uses the word miracle to describe my mom’s perseverance. But it was Dad who was in her corner every time, for 41 years alongside her, many times battling for her.
As for me, I am my mother’s son. From her, I inherit an inner drive that makes up so much of me, both in my professional and personal lives. She had big expectations of her sons, and while I wasn’t the typical idea of a success in the early days when one’s worth were judged by grades, she was in the end proud on how I took the best of her -- hard work, respect, caring and loyalty -- and turned them into my own makeup today.
The last year, it has been difficult to communicate with mom. Our conversations were simple, but she had clear-thinking days sometimes and on one visit, before I went left for home, I drew in close and spoke to her, adding a few extra words to my goodbye. Her immediate response surprised me, and she said it back in English. “I love you too,” she said. It was the first time she’d ever say those words in English but I needed no words to know the truth.
Mom fought for far too long, but she left us far too early. Today, with a heavy heart, we are all grateful that she is now in peace. Amy was the strongest among us, a fighter to the end and today, while we say goodbye, I am proud to be here to tell you about her, as her son.