With brilliant sunshine warming the entire East Coast the past few days, especially after this particularly snowy Winter season, I found the subject of Spring not only lurking at the back of my mind as a potential blogging subject, but also front and center in my consciousness, an inescapable, "Pay attention to me!" from Mother Nature herself. But what to write about? The peepers that began crawling out of their muddy birth pools just this Monday, chirping and gwokking their joy to be in the world? (Yes, there are two distinct calls, vastly different from each other, emanating from the mud that is home to these creatures. It’s almost unsettling to imagine what they really look like; you know, when they think we’re not looking.)
The arrival of the peepers was a definite possibility as a subject, as was the joy I saw reflected in the faces of almost everyone I encountered this week. Their giddiness at being able to walk outside without having to don layer upon layer, and boots to boot, was palpable.
But then, as I jumped in the car this afternoon to drive to my youngest son, Sage’s, high school track meet, it hit me: what signifies Spring to me? Track. Spring track, to be exact.
My love for track meets was nurtured early in life, as my father had been a collegiate track star in his day, becoming the New England Mile Champion back in ’37 while attending MIT. He loved track meets himself, and my mother and closest sister and I would drive the two and a half hour drive to Philadelphia for the Penn Relays every year, despite the fact that we never knew anyone running in them. I was on the track team in high school, as was my husband Karl, but truth be told, there’s nothing to write about there (for either of us).
So, when our eldest son, Karl, began running in middle school, and then going out for the high school team in 9th grade, we began creating what has become both a Spring tradition in our household and the source of some of my most cherished memories.
Not only did Karl run; he ran the hurdles. That takes a special strand of guts. And ran them he did, even in 9th grade, qualifying, to his surprise and ours, for Districts that very first year. His form at first belied his future promise. He plowed through those hurdles, occasionally tripping or nicking his shins, rarely falling, mostly flattening the hurdles themselves as he drove forward in his determination to get to the finish line.
By 10th grade, he knew he could be really good, and he was. He came through. He made it to Districts again; he even made it to States. The same held true for his junior year, only this time he became District champion and yes, his senior year as well.
It was tough, those years that Karl was running track in the Spring. I’d have to leave my office and whatever I was doing and drive like a madwoman to get to the meets, always worried I’d be just a hair late and miss his race in the 110 high hurdles – the sprint – his forte, because the hurdles were the very first race of the meet. (He also ran the 300 intermediate hurdles, which take place much later in the meet, but which never seemed to yield the intensity or satisfaction of the high hurdles.)
I would inevitably arrive at the meet, wherever it was, and find my heart beating palpably in my throat, or fluttering madly right in the center of my chest. I consciously tried to take on any excess nervousness he might be feeling – take it from him so that he could run his race with the perfect balance of adrenalin and excitement that would allow him to do what he did so well: skim seamlessly over the hurdles, leading leg – toe pointed – extended straight as an arrow just a hair’s breadth over the top of the hurdle, his trailing leg flexed at the hip and the knee so that his knee – and foot, too – cleared each hurdle and allowed him to – step, step – meet the next without missing a beat.
His photo graced many a sports page in both of the major newspapers that covered our League’s meets over those years. Always, there was a look of determination and will seared onto his face, his body displaying sinewy grace and agility.
Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about any of this as I drove to Sage’s meet today. At most, I had the brief thought that I was glad that Sage’s events, the 4 x 800 relay and the mile, aren’t the first events. I didn’t quite feel that old familiar need to stand on my gas pedal in order to get to the meet precisely as it started, and that felt good. I was, as I drove, contemplating these track meets as a Rite of Passage each year, realizing that I’d been going to them for nearly 12 years (our sons are 28, 22, and 16, and Maximus, our middle son, also ran track, the hurdles, even!. It was then that I realized, for me at least, Spring = Track.
But then I arrived at the meet, still subconsciously glad that I’d missed the earliest races. I climbed into the stands, going further and further up, until I had a bird’s eye view of the entire stadium, with the start and finish lines directly below me, settling into my "usual" spot.
And then my skin got a little prickly as I realized that the hurdles were being set up on the track. Now. Right then. I watched nonchalantly as the girls raced their heats. Indeed, I even wrote a few sentences in my journal, feigning indifference to the race to come. And then I saw the boys getting into their starting blocks. I heard the starter yell, "S-e-t!" And when his gun went off, my heart jumped right into that old familiar constriction…except this time, tears began to roll down my face and I heard myself breathing in a weird, almost asthmatic way, trying to breathe, trying to breathe.
Shit, I thought to myself. I didn’t want to sit through this. I didn’t want to see this race. I don’t want to watch this; I don’t, I don’t.
Until that very moment, I hadn’t even realized I’d been avoiding it.
You see, right now, at this moment, I do not know where Karl is. To be completely honest, I do not even know if he’s alive. I worry about him every day. Every night, too – especially when I awaken at 4:00 a.m. with him in my thoughts, in my dreams… Our last telephone conversation, months ago, was scathing and horrible. And everything I know, every fiber in my being, tells me he’s lost.
Spring. Track. Hurdles. Some hurdles, like those set up on the track, look so hard to overcome, but are cleared effortlessly. Others, the inner ones that no one truly knows we face except ourselves, sometimes feel – and then become – insurmountable.
I guess all I can hope is that Spring means Karl clearing some hurdles again – even if it’s ugly at first, I know he’ll clear them (with grace), if he just tries. But that’s what I’m afraid of: Will he ever try again?
P.S.: *Let me add that none of these feelings in any way interfered with my full-throated exuberance for Sage and his teammates as they ran their races and jumped their jumps, creating more Spring track memories to celebrate and cherish.