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This I Believe - Episode 5

GHS author Colleen Ottalagano
Colleen Ottalagano is an English teacher at Guilderland High School. She is the mother of two vivacious little boys, a grateful wife, and an enthusiastic runner. This essay is the product of nearly ten years of growth and reflection.

I Believe There is No Finish Line

By Colleen Ottalagano

When mom died it seemed unnatural to sit in a gigantic church surrounded by strangers with foreign smells whirling about our heads. Unnatural to hear the faint cries echo in the silence. It was impossible to understand in that moment that her life had been cut so short. Even after months that turned into years of battle, it just couldn’t be real that she hadn’t triumphed. She and I lived hundreds of miles apart for so long and she died so very far away, but she was my mother and I would always be from her, a part of her. As I sat there wounded by my uncle’s harsh words, "why aren't you crying more?" I wondered how is this, how is she, how is her life and death now a part of me. Now closer than she ever was, without effort.

I didn't think about all the times we wouldn't get to spend together. I didn't consider the “what if I had dones”. I didn't have guilt. I had a sense that I needed to do something with this; something different. Something beyond grief. What would be the purpose of such a great loss, a 44 year old mother of 4 leaving behind a seven year old magician and three young women about to realize that they were more like her than different, if I couldn't do something with that loss.

It was slow at first; as running always is and probably always should be. It was short too. Not long enough to really consider the “whys” and the “what am I thinkings”. A mile once a week, every other day, a few times a week, a few days in a row.

It's not easy. It doesn't feel rewarding at first. It's hard; burning chest, sore legs, sweat in your eyes, but you come to realize that is the reward. The burn of the sweat in your eyes makes you blink and when the sweat clears, you focus.

And when you can finally focus, the sting disappears.

I would grow to understand nearly 10 years after her death; that with her death life became a little less blurry. The fog of my early twenties was lifting and I literally came through the fog running.

The thing about bounding through the air is that it actually keeps you grounded. It was running that brought me my best friend when I least expected. It was running that gave me purpose when my baby Gray was rushed to surgery. And it is running that keeps me grounded as a helpless spectator to my brother-in law’s fight with brain cancer.

As I approach a crux in my short but fantastically intrinsically rewarding running career, I wonder if my mom hadn’t died would I still have begun this journey. Although I don't always want to drag myself out of bed and sometimes it's a deeper than deep breath before the first step, the last step, the one that brings me back home, let's me open the door on my day, has opened new doors in my life and connects me to people.

Just like running, these thoughts ran laps in my mind until I couldn't still them anymore, until they began racing from my finger tips to this page.

Sometimes I can't remember what I thought about at all or even if I was thinking. Sometimes I catch myself counting my steps, my breath or distracting my brain with calculations. Sometimes it takes me a moment to remember what my route was that day, where I came from. Sometimes I'm not sure where I'm going. Sometimes something happens and the route changes unexpectedly. Sometimes I have no route but know I just need time; when time is up I go home.

Do I always know if I came up with anything? Do I set out to solve a problem? Not usually. Is it my goal to run away? Never. I believe there is no finish line. I believe I am running toward the me I will become.


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