I thought it was just going to be a little training run—another step toward our fall marathon. It was easy to sell the race to Emily, my daughter and training partner. The 13-mile Colfax Half Marathon would go through the zoo, a fire station and some of Denver's prettiest neighborhoods. It'd be a nice change of scenery from our typical training run. Plus, there'd be medals. You can never have too many of those.
You can see us here in the picture, ready for another fun, fantastic run.
And for the first four miles or so, everything was great. The zoo was fun. The neighborhoods were neat. The weather was almost perfect.
And then Emily started feeling sick.
We walked some. Then some more. Instead of counting the miles, I'd scan the streets for porta-potties. Emily was hurting bad. I could tell by how quiet she was. Normally, she talks the miles away on our training runs. But now, during this run, she wasn't speaking. She was fighting too hard with her body to talk, fighting with every step. I'd fill in the void with some mindless patter, hoping to take her mind off things. But nothing I said made her feel a bit better. And so we walked when we had to and ran when we could, listening to each other's footsteps, the sound of the other breathing.
And by mile seven, neither of us was sure it was smart to keep pushing on.
"I don't want to quit," she told me.
"I know you don't," I said. "I know."
A half-mile later, when we hit the fire station, we decided to call it. I dialed my wife Wendy and asked if she'd be able to pick us up along the way.
She couldn't: The car was in the middle of the race traffic. We were on our own.
But just when I feared things might get really messy, Emily rallied. By mile 10, she was feeling better. By 12, the only things wrong with her was her foot and knee and hip—the normal aches and pains that you sometimes get when you run a ways. And by the time she was collecting all her "free" loot after we crossed the finish line—including the medal—she joked, "this is the best day ever!"
In these little running/religion musings of mine, we've talked about how sometimes both faith and a long run can be a struggle, and that's particularly true of when we're in pain. Our relationship with God can be tricky even the best of times. But when we're suffering or grieving, it can feel nearly impossible. The pain can be overwhelming. We can feel like quitting.
I've done quite a few stories about grieving and suffering over the years, and one central question has been at the center of many of them: How can the rest of us help? If we know someone who's dealing with a crushing loss or battling illness or suffering from indescribable pain, how can we carry a little of that burden? What can we do to ease the discomfort?
The experts always seem to come back to the same, sad fact. Sometimes we can't. We can't always take away the pain. We can't speed up the grieving process. Some things, they just hurt.
But even though we can't take away the pain or speed up the recovery, we can still be there … in body and spirit. We can walk, or run, alongside them. We don't have to talk. Sometimes, it's better if we don't. Just to be with someone—to show them they're not alone—can be a comfort, as small as it might seem.
For one of those stories, I talked with a man who had terminal brain cancer. The man, a lifelong Christian, made a startling omission to me—one so different from the feel-good Christianese that people often wrap themselves in. He said there were times when he prayed that he felt … nothing. God, his great comfort and comforter, was silent.
He added that he's had some incredible times of prayer, too, but him talking about the silence of God struck me. I've felt that same silence sometimes. There are dark nights when God's love seems to cover you like a blanket, but others where the blanket is gone. There is no solace found in that dark, quiet space. No spiritual platitudes to savor, no prayer to serve as salve.
But in those moments, I sometimes think back to an old Lifehouse song called "Breathing." It's a psalm, in a way, that patiently tries to accept those silences, to make sense of them and even embrace them. The chorus goes:
I am hanging on every word you say
And even if you don't want to speak tonight
That's all right, all right with me
'Cause I want nothing more than to sit
Outside heaven's door and listen to you breathing
It's where I want to be.
Emily and I spent a good chunk of the Colfax Half listening to each other breathe. It wasn't fun for either of us (and especially not for Em). But maybe there was something special about those painful few miles, anyway. Emily knew that, run or walk or crawl or stop, I'd be with her no matter what. I felt the strange sense of gratitude of sharing a truly, if painfully, unforgettable time with my daughter—a time beyond smiles and laughter, a time beyond words. It was a time when breathing was as eloquent as it got. And it was enough.