Death has wandered through my life this year. Brushing past my hair, tickling the base of my skull. A few months ago, a colleague and friend passed away after a long illness. He was a great man; a warrior - a man of ironclad beliefs, of great service. He was a shining light in my community, one that will be deeply missed. But there was another death just a few days before that I no doubt will turn over in my mind for the rest of my life.
Sunday, May 19th, 2019. Cleveland, Ohio.
I was nearly to the finish line of the Cleveland Half Marathon. Cleveland, you say? But aren’t you from New York? Yes, Kristen and I pay a mortgage in the Bronx, but in order to pay said mortgage this year, we were lucky enough to live our Actor lives together, doing a production of Million Dollar Quartet at the Great Lakes Theatre on Playhouse Square. It goes without saying that Jake, our 20 month-old, had come with us, and we were a happy migrant worker family, doing shows, enjoying the opportunity…and I was running.
I try to do races wherever I land. It’s a wonderful way to feel the tenor of a community, get to meet people not ‘in the biz’. And running a city or town is the best way to learn that place - so after setting up my entry from NYC before we left, I bought a new pair of running shoes, and headed off to complete my Half training in the Land of Cleves. Ah, ‘big mile' training in Cleveland, where we had a wonderful gig, great people to hang with…and SHITTY weather. It had been cold, wet and rainy all spring in Northeast Ohio - I’m talkin’ 50s and spitting, running into stiff headwinds blowing off of Lake Erie. Lovely. But for some macabre reason, the morning of May 19th broke at 78° and 50% humidity - and both numbers climbed all through the morning and into the race. No one was ready for the heat and humidity – and I was doing a full show schedule at night, with a toddler getting up near dawn every morning… But as I said on my Instagram story at dawn on race day, for me, racing just isn’t about going fast anymore. It’s about the experience.
I would later learn that the number of runners who required medical attention that day was 60 to 70, mostly cramps and heat exhaustion - but people were dropping like flies. All along the route. Even the well trained runners were having a tough day. And the Cleveland Marathon medical staff was fantastic, first-rate – they were all over the course. I was very impressed.
Despite the fact that I was having a rough race, hot and undertrained, I was enjoying the route and the ‘story’ of the day. You see, every distance race you run is a story, and many times it unspools like a three act play, usually with the climactic event being crossing the finish line. I loved that this course wended its way through downtown Cleveland, out along the water by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame; into The Flats, a former industrial District now blossoming with lofts, breweries, and dance clubs; and then up into the Ohio City neighborhood - another up-and-coming area full of craft stops and cool hangs. As is my usual wont, I got excited at the start and went out too fast, then paid for it near mid-race, slowing and struggling. Then I rallied a little after the rough middle miles, and in the last couple tried to bear down and finish strong.
Last mile and a half of the race is a stretch along Detroit Avenue and up and over the Veterans Bridge, which spans the Cuyahoga River. Yes, that’s the river that famously caught fire on June 22nd, 1969, helping to spur the American environmental movement. From the peak of the bridge, you can see the finish line about a mile away. By then I was completely in an altered state. And as I made my way down the bridge, something caught my eye. Something not in my usual story, my typical unspooling of road race. Something…very different.
Movement - outside the flow of runners - on the ground. A crowd. I looked to my left and saw a young woman lying prone, face up, on the concrete of the bridge. Scratch that - I saw her face. In an extreme close-up. From quite a few yards away. This cinematic moment was definitely fueled by 12+ miles of very hot, humid pounding, and even though there was a whirlwind of activity around this girl, it was all out of focus; smoke around her features.
And her features… were blue. Bluish-white. Less of a human face, and more like one made of wax.
And a voice, clear as a bell, rang through my mind: “That woman is dead.”
The picture irised out as the smoky edges came into focus… a paramedic, doing CPR. He was really laying into it – her chest was heaving, ribs probably breaking. From EMT training that I’ve taken I know that some heart attack patients, if they survive, actually survive with broken ribs from CPR. But her face…was motionless, moving only slightly with the rhythm of the compressions into her chest. My view irised out further: I saw the ambulance, another EMT unloading a crash cart.
And I kept running.
I was a running machine. My body knew where the finish line was, and that was pretty much it. Running had become what I did. I wasn’t processing visual stimuli - I was Record Only, putting one foot in front of the other, seemingly forever.
The iris-ing out continued, and suddenly something flipped. It seemed as if I were staring at the world through the wrong end of a telescope. The world went into a tunnel. I felt a - for lack of a better word, an inversion of perception somehow. A sense of … something, that my mind was simply not prepared to process, in addition to everything else.
I ran on. And crossed the finish line.
I crossed, and felt the usual rush of pure relief that accompanies The Stopping. The end of one foot in front of the other, for now. And then: A complete and utter new sensation I had never known in all of the years that I’ve been racing. Because once again I looked to my left, and I saw an older couple standing there. Their faces - they looked like her. And they were looking out at the bridge. And the expressions, their expressions… were they her parents? Could they have been standing there, watching this?
I walked down the chute, gathering my post-race treasures; medal, water, gatorade, recovery snacks. And my mind began to unpack what had just happened. They were serving beer at the finish - I walked into the beer garden and got my free pint. I sat on a curb, and nodded to a pretty redhead next to me. She smiled.
“How’d you do?” she asked. She was beaming.
I couldn’t beam back. Fumbling words, all I could put together was; “Did you see the dead girl?”
Her expression changed to fear, tinged with disgust. Why did THIS guy, of all guys, have to sit next to me and crush my post-race high? She got up and limped away. And I thought back to that moment, that telescoping moment… and suddenly the other image, the other bit that I hadn’t processed as I was passing the Girl Lying on the Bridge - downloaded. An image of a young woman standing on a bridge a few steps away, staring at someone lying on the concrete. Staring…as the EMTs worked on this person. Confused, she looks around. What’s going on? Why have I stopped, why am I standing here? Who is that? Why does she look so much like…me? What’s going on? Just seconds ago, I was running, and I felt something. Something titanic. My knees buckled. Someone caught me, shouted something. And then I was… standing here. Wait - someone’s running right at me I can’t move he just…that man…He just ran…right through me.
Kristen and Jake joined me at the beer garden minutes later. And I told her what I’d seen and felt. For the first time after a race of that magnitude, with all the celebration around me, I felt completely disconnected from it all. We rested for a while and I finished my Great Lakes IPA, which was delicious, and we went back to our housing - we had a show to do that afternoon. And I kept checking Twitter. Nothing…nothing…
Then twenty minutes before the 3pm curtain, a news story:
Taylor. Taylor Ceepo. 22 years old. Soccer star and all around great person… just graduated from college.
When someone dies and they are very old, there’s a feeling of… accomplishment. Of release. Approval, almost. Of, “Yes, we’re sad, but that was a great life.“
But when someone dies young, when there is sickness, accident, tragedy: Death is not an accomplishment. It’s an interruption. It’s a cheat; something’s stolen. Where is the lesson in that? What could it possibly be?
Weeks later, in June, back in New York, Jake got sick. He started coughing through the night, and by the time I got wise to how bad it was, Urgent Care put us both in an ambulance. We spent quite a few days and nights in and out of emergency and isolation rooms at Columbia Children’s Hospital as he battled repeated lung infections and pneumonia. It was awful. No one should have to be in an Emergency room with a pre-verbal toddler. Nobody. Ever.
But I think of Taylor’s parents. They didn’t even get to struggle with her at the hospital - she was gone on the bridge. Taken. My heart breaks, breaks, and breaks again for Taylor, and for her family. What would they rather have done? Be there to help her fight, or stand a hundred yards away and watch her go? Probably neither.
There was, and is, no victory in Taylor’s strange and untimely passing. But that series of moments on the bridge has planted a seed within me, a creation of terror and curiosity, of investigation and thought. When I think of her and then I look at my wife, my son, my family; I know that I am now forced to water carefully that creation and tame it as it grows, in a garden of chaos that I will try desperately to order, over and over again.
So I say that the lesson… is this:
The struggle is all. The mileage. The one foot in front of the other. The Grand Marathon.
For those who don’t get the chance to fight, we do this, every day: We breathe, we push, we keep stepping. We decide, we hope, and we climb through our lives. And whether we reach a summit or not… whether I reach a summit or not; however I go, I will struggle for my end – to be an accomplishment. A victory. Somehow.
Taylor, I apologize for breezing through you as you stood there on the bridge, watching yourself, preparing to cross over… if that’s even what happens. I didn’t know you were there until later. But I thank you for the electric jolt your touch left on my own soul.
Rest in peace, Taylor. May we meet someday, so that I can thank you: You make me want to live my life better, and better, and better.
You make me want The Struggle.