Running for Your Life

by Victoria Winterhalter

You know you shouldn’t be doing this.  And just because you left the house before anyone in your family woke up doesn’t mean you’ll get away with it.  Eventually, your body will betray you.  Your secret is tearing you apart.  But you can’t stop.  The only time you feel like your old self, the woman before your cancer diagnosis, is when you run.

Your feet pound the pavement in your neighborhood, keeping time with your broken heart.  Your boobs no longer bounce along.  Granted, there never was much to strap down, but at least there was something.  Not like now.  It’s been six months since they removed your breasts, and the only time you don’t miss those saggy sacks of milk is when you run.  No more jiggling.  No more burning.  When your chest heats up now, the warmth spreads through your veins, chasing the cancer away.  You don’t know how running can be bad for you.

Sure, everyone tells you to rest.  Your doctor.  Your nurses.  Your family.  But if you have to stay cooped up in that house another minute you’ll lose your mind.  It was different during the first rounds of chemo.  You couldn’t move.  You split your time between the bathroom and the bed.  Your body couldn’t handle any more.  But now you’re feeling better.  With four weeks left, you’re in the home stretch and to continue lying around feels more like a curse than a cure.  When you run, you’re out in the land of the living.  Front porches receive newspapers.  Garage doors dispel commuters.  And soon sidewalks will host school kids.  Nothing out of the ordinary, but that’s the way you like it.

You pause to turn on the iPod shuffle clipped to your clothes.  The music subdues the anger that rises in you every time you think of all you might miss.  Holidays.  Graduations.  Weddings.  It’s not fair that you, of all people, got sick.  You eat right, exercise.  Hell, you hardly even drink anymore.  The whole reason you started running years ago was because you wanted to do everything you could to make sure you stayed fit – for your two daughters and for your wife.  But fate had other plans.  Or at least that’s the way it feels when you lie there in your bed, hour after hour, day after day, resting.  You find it hard to believe that anything good comes from it.

Sure, you know how the body works.  The science of sleep.  The restorative nature of nutrients.  Yet you resist, still watching your diet and continuing your runs, even though it’s wearing you down, because while you rest, your mind runs a mile a minute.  You wouldn’t admit it to anyone else because they’d think you were a terrible person, but hate hides in the holes of your arm pits, where your lymph nodes used to be.  You hate the overweight people you see waiting in line at the fast-food restaurants, carelessly clogging their arteries.  You hate the healthy bastard you saw spanking his daughter at the grocery store.  What does he have to be so upset about?  You hate the thin teenagers you spied bingeing on junk food at the food court, for you want to be invincible again.

When you round the back of your house, you weave your way through the toys strewn across the lawn.  A deflated soccer ball.  A faded jump rope.  A couple of Big Wheels.  The screen door creaks open.  The interior knob clicks.  But when you sneak in, you realize the coffee pot is brewing.  Your wife is up, and she knows where you’ve been.  You tiptoe straight to the bathroom, hoping her anger will fade with time.  After all, it’s easy for her to preach, “Rest. Relax.”  She still has her breasts.  She still runs with a sports bra.

You lock the door and strip down to your scars.  You brush your thinned hair and watch while the steam covers your image in the mirror.  It makes you wonder if that’s how it’ll be when you’re gone – out of sight, out of mind.  You fight back tears because you promised yourself you’d stop crying.  This damn cancer has ruined enough of your life.  Instead, you stand under the hot water, scrubbing your skin raw, desperate to feel clean again.

By the time you make it back to the kitchen, your kids are on the couch, cuddled up watching cartoons.  Your run hangs in the air, like the yellow tape at a crime scene, and you know you’ll talk about it using the same clipped phrases that you do the cancer, as if the kids don’t have a clue.  You couldn’t pick them up for weeks after the surgery and all anyone ever does is nag them to wash their hands, as if it’s the cold that kills.

The phone rings, and your wife answers.  “Hello, uh, yes, I understand,” she shakes her head in agreement, like the caller can see.  When she hangs up, she puts her hands on the counter and hangs her head.  “That was the nurse.  She says your numbers aren’t good.”

“What do you mean?  Not good?” You look over your shoulder to make sure the kids are still watching the TV.  “I’ve been feeling better.”

“They’re worried about your immune system shutting down.  You may have to stop chemo.”

“I can’t stop now,” you insist in a hushed tone.

“You may not have a choice, if you keep it up.”  She turns in your direction, but she’s not really looking at you.  She hasn’t in months, at least not the way she used to.

“Keep what up?” you ask, even though you already know.  You just want to hear her say it, be honest, for once, about something.

“Oh, give me a break.  The running.  The dieting.  You’re only making things worse.”

“I’m staying strong the only way I know how,” you cry.

“But when you have cancer, strong means something altogether different.”

Visions of bald heads, wiry limbs, and sunken faces flash through your mind.  You claim, “I just want to make the most of this moment.”

“But now is all you’ll ever have if you don’t stop,” she yells through gritted teeth.

You don’t answer because deep down you know she’s right.  It’s just so hard to accept curing cancer is a marathon, not a sprint.

Category: Short Story