Her name is Elizabeth Ewens. She is my sister. This is her journey. (Warning: it’s not one of those about overcoming adversity as much as it’s just about her being really super-present which is a total hurdle for people today. So that’s huge—right?)
My sister is this kind of brilliant and generous person who does pretty much everything better than me. And that’s not an attempt to be self-deprecating as much as it is being honest. She was the first and got all the good stuff. I came along second and got all the leftovers. But that’s all families, all siblings. We tend to gauge the unremarkability of our own lives against something familiar.
Growing up, I had a lot more slack and a lot less supervision and she had a lot more expectation. Maybe in retrospect, it’s all subjective or maybe it’s all self-imposed. Dunno. I do know it took me well into my adult life to figure out that she had It. At the same time, she took the time to admire a few good things about me.
- I could pretty much do what I wanted to do. If I wanted to move to LA, I moved to LA. If I wanted to live in the mountains, I lived in the mountains. If I wanted to disappear for three months and then show up randomly at her door with my cat in a cat carrier and could it stay for
a week11 years as I asked to borrow money for some Quizono’s and an oil change, I, um, did just that. She had a high tolerance for whatever it was I was up to and a disproportionate amount of faith that I’d come back around. I’m her first-born’s godfather and when that was minted, the only worse godfather was the third one. Maybe that blind faith is some kind of flaw of hers.
- I could do some things that she couldn’t. She’s the lawyer, but I was always the one hiring lawyers. She’s competent and well-versed and attractive and drives a Honda Pilot and I still get tax refunds. I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen her ski—but you know the woman snowplowing in front of you who abruptly turns and skitters perpendicular all the way across the mountain causing traffic to pile up in her wake? Yep. So, we both have our strengths, I was just a little better at the stuff nobody could—or wanted to—put a price tag on.
- And I could run. My resting state is a bit of a dickish runner’s repose. Like, I just sort of have to do it. And if I go a day without, I get more awkward: hungover, no sleep, off a plane, late for work, on Thanksgiving while everyone’s doing chores, in the dark of pre-dawn or the highness of high noon. At times I’ve been slow as shit and at times I’ve been a competitive age-grouper. She didn’t pay as much attention to all that as she did the fact that I was selfish enough to continue to do what I had to do.
Over the past two decades, it was just hard for her to be anything but a mother and a lawyer and a wife when you’re trying to be a…mother and a lawyer and a wife. To my sister, there has never been a differential between what she wanted to do and what she should do. That’s probably the secret of not getting in your own way that took me decades to unlock. So running, along with most everything else that required copious amounts of time being on your own and having the luxury of breathing and thinking and making the rest of the laundry really smell like shit—got shoved aside.
In early 2013, my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The year to follow was a Cancer Year which means all the stuff you talk about is filler because all you’re really thinking about is cancer.
“These noodles are great dad has cancer where did you dad has cancer get them?”
“Oh, dad has cancer at the Nugget. They were dad has cancer on dad has cancer sale. Dad has cancer and they dad has cancer make them fresh there.”
“Great. They dad has cancer do great dad has cancer stuff at the Nugget.”
“Yeah, that’s why dad has cancer we dad has cancer shop there.”
My sister shouldered most of the day-to-day with my folks as she lived 20-minutes away to my six hours. I was the weekend relief. Up on a Friday afternoon, back down on a Sunday, trying to spell her a bit and give her a moment to be a mother and a lawyer and a wife.
I arrived the evening before my father died about 9 p.m. It was a Monday. My sister met me outside looking not-so-subtly haggard. These moments are portrayed in movies as the time when people say something profound standing back lit in a turtleneck. She just coughed out a “Your turn” wearing a tear-stained sweatshirt. I didn’t sleep. She showed up somewhere around ten the next morning. I threw on my running clothes and punched out.
I returned, sweaty and a little weepy, to find her and my mom by his bedside trying to figure out a jumble of similar-era family photos from a shoe box. Then it happened.
…The night following my father’s memorial, she, over the wine and the wilted sandwich tray, started to ask me about running and not in a just passive half-drunk/half-sad way but maybe in a way that it was easier to talk about running than keep talking about my dad.
And so, I confessed I didn’t really have a routine but it was something I had to do. And then I did something that I’d never done. I kind of half-acknowledged the misbehavior and sort of suspended youth I’d managed to pull off for so long.
A pause and the conversation came back to the room we were in. But that exchange made me realize we were both just kind of living this thing, together in this small family that now remarkably had one fewer. At that moment, I felt less alone than at any point in my adult life.
And the next day she went for a run.
Sunday, she toes the line at the 2015 New York Marathon. Here, she recounts the story from her first trip around the block through the fartleks and the intervals to packing Body Glide for race day (or is that for after the race?) As she makes her final prep to test herself with 50,000 of the luckiest people in the world, she’s 100 percent there. She’s in it. It’s not that I marvel at the accomplishment or at the fact that she found the time. It’s more that our moment of post-funeral mutual understanding was a Freaky Friday-type cosmic shift of energy and time and tone. I am now the one with the toddler and the schedule and she and her husband are the half-empty nesters who get to pretty much do what they want to do. So they run.
But watching her punch through the training to the mile and the minute and being ready for the moment; while at the same time, harnessing whatever suppressed desire and power she’s held on to for so long—is just fucking dramatic. The New York City Marathon is a worthy goal for her if not one that’s changed within the construct of how she’s living now. It grew from a bucket list item that she talked about in abstraction to a new way of life. Sunday’s 26-mile celebration—breath-by-breath, step-by-step, minute-by-minute, mile-by-mile, borough-by-borough…nervous at the gun to tear-filled finish—is the start of something for her decades in the making.