[[Today on the Running Through It series, Danielle, a #motherrunner of two, explains how she found running during one of the most stressful times of her life—and crossed her first finish line weeks after her husband died.]]
I was never what you would call athletic growing up. The only medals and ribbons I had were from reading and spelling challenges. A stab at volleyball in elementary school and then again in high school showed me that while I loved the camaraderie of team sports, I was incredibly uncoordinated. Physical fitness tests were torture, especially the mile. I was usually near last, and spent my time talking to whatever girlfriend was walking next to me.
Fast forward to my early twenties. I got married to my first real love, Cantrell, who I met online in 2000, before meeting online was de rigeur. We dated long distance for a year and a half before he moved from DC to be with me in Chicago, where I was in college. He moved a month after September 11th; time seemed so precious and life seemed uncertain and all we knew was that we needed to be together.
In a post 9/11 Chicago, jobs were hard to come by for him, so I left my high-priced private fashion college and we packed up everything we hadn’t sold into my parents’ minivan and moved down to Florida to live with his mom until we were able to find jobs and get on our feet.
He was from Florida so moving back meant he was surrounded by family and friends. We both found jobs within a few months and planned to save up the money we needed in order for us to move back to Chicago. We weren’t there long before I ended up pregnant with our son, Aevn. It was a wonderful surprise and we were young and in love and didn’t know a thing about having kids but that didn’t stop us!
In 2004, two years after we’d been married, I planned a trip for Aevn and me to Illinois for a few days to visit my family. Cantrell couldn’t come because he had to work. The night before I was due to return, I got the clichéd phone call that no one wants to receive. Cantrell’s aunt called to tell me that he had been in a car accident. He was in ICU and they did not know if he was going to make it through the night. We got on the next flight home.
I do not exaggerate when I say those were the worst twelve hours of my life.
When we arrived at the hospital, I rushed in to see my husband. He was in a coma and hooked to a variety of machines. He was bruised, bloodied, and swollen. My heart broke that day.
He had broken four vertebrae in his neck which left him paralyzed from the neck down, and also shattered his skull in three places when he was ejected from the car: Traumatic Brain Injury. They put his chance at living at slim to none.
If he did live, he would be a vegetable. They wanted me to pull the plug on the respirator that was breathing for him. I refused to do so and told them that I had faith in God and in my husband and I would give him more than a day to fight.
Over the course of eight years, he would regain the ability to talk, eat, and breathe on his own. He would also go through rigorous courses of physical therapy that allowed him to shrug his shoulders and move his arms a bit—things that he was told he would never do. He could feel the touch of my hand on his feet, despite that a quadraplegic should not be able to do so.
As Aevn got a bit older, I brought him on visits and they would interact with each other. He would bring toys to show his dad and my husband would laugh and just enjoy their time together. (He lived in nursing homes and hospitals because he required around the clock care.)
The daily stress that sat on my shoulders was massive. I had numerous jobs over the years but the main one was teaching preschool. I was often working forty-plus hour workweeks. I already got migraines because my father got them, but they had morphed into these evil tyrants that felt like my head would explode. I felt like I was having panic attacks and my heart felt like I was having a stroke.
I had been comforting myself for years the best way I knew how: by eating. I had so little time after work to grab something to eat before we had to head out to see Cantrell so it was always fast food. I needed cheap and quick food that we could eat on the road.
Somewhere in the back of my head there was a random thought that I wanted to run a 5k. To this day I have no idea where it came from! So, a few weeks before I turned 31, I downloaded the Couch 2 5K app, went up to my apartment’s dilapidated gym, and got on the treadmill. I couldn’t even run a minute without stopping. But I persisted. It took a couple tries, but I kept going.
Running gave me something to focus on, something outside of my husband’s health, outside of money concerns, outside of everything else that weighed me down. My brain could just empty.
I went online and signed up for a Color in Motion 5K December 29th, 2012. I was doing longer runs now and could finally run 20 minutes without stopping. I felt strong! I hesitated to tell my family because I was a little embarrassed and didn’t want to make a big deal of it until I knew I was going to stick with it.
As I was finding my running groove, I got another phone call. My husband had been rushed to the hospital because he had become unresponsive. I called his family and rushed to the hospital. By the time I got there, he had already passed away. He had fought for eight long years when he was in so much pain so that we could have that time with him. While I was happy he was no longer in pain, I was deeply and to my core, crushed.
He died six weeks before my race. I didn’t think I would be able to run it. But I knew that he would be with me the whole time. I picked up my race packet and shirt and on the back of it in black Sharpie, I wrote his initials inside a heart with the date of his death. I ran that race, walking at some points because I was crying so hard.
During that 5K, I have never felt prouder of myself. And never have I felt surer that he was right there next to me.
It’s been over six years since Cantrell passed I have run countless 5ks, one 10k, and two half marathons. (I’m currently using the Train Like a Mother Amazing Heart Rate Half Marathon Plan and am racing in December.) I run four times a week, before the rest of the family gets up.
Speaking of family…it’s bigger than it used to be. After Cantrell died, I thought it was just going to be Aevn and me for the rest of my life. But Brandon, a good friend, turned out to be more than that. It was scary to move on, to bring someone into our lives, but I know that it was what we needed—and what Cantrell would’ve wanted. In fact, we talked about it multiple times before he passed. He said he wanted me happy and I always said I wouldn’t be happy without him.
Brandon and I got married a couple years ago and now have a little girl, Ada. I left my job when she was born to raise her, which has also given me more time to running.
Somehow time does heal wounds, even if you can’t imagine it.
Losing a spouse at 31 is something that no one prepares you for. There is no guidebook. There are no words that make you feel better. There is nothing that fills in the gaping hole that the love of your life left. But running helped me put myself back together, process my grief and heal so I could be a better mom—and ultimately a better me.