Late last Thursday afternoon you could find me in my usual place, running on the treadmill at the downtown Y.
Running and crying. Not weeping but more than a little bit teary eyed.
I blame my son. Earlier in the week he recommended I listen to an American Life podcast, a recent live one with stories and pieces from a list of greats like the two Davids, Sedaris and Rakoff.
It started well with a warm hearted piece about a blind father raising a sighted child. Then a funny bit about celebrity that somehow escaped me. Who is Taylor Danes any way?
None of this had to do with crying. It involved nothing more embarrassing than an out loud laugh that caused other gym patrons to turn around and stare for a short moment. It could have been worse. It could have been a fart.
Then Ira Glass dropped the bomb.
David Rakoff has cancer and he stepped out onstage to read about it. The piece – very wry and funny – was about dancing, or rather not dancing when that’s what gives you joy.
From childhood Rakoff has loved dancing, the spins, the leg lifts, the flapping arms, all of it. But he can no longer flap the arms. After years of cancer treatment and pain his doctor recommended an operation to remove a damaged nerve causing the pain. The nerve also controlled his left arm.
The operation left him with little more than a shrug on his left hand side.
I’ve had 6 operations to remove various tumours around my brain stem. The last one left me with a neck made of steel and a band of pain from my head to the end of my right shoulder.
All my life I have loved to run. Like Rakoff, a self described mediocre dancer, I’m a mediocre runner with the wrong kind of body to ever be really good at it. But I love it.
I still have a clear picture my favourite run of all time. It was over ten years ago, my second leg of a relay race through Sonoma and I started the leg with a pulled calf muscle and a fistful of ibuprofen.
The route began uphill and got steeper. Hills suit me. I might be slow but I am strong and I often passed dozens of better runners on uphill stretches. So I ate the ibuprofen and ran the hill, passing one runner after another and building my confidence.
The road ended at the crest of the hill. A farm gate was open and the race warden guided us onto a dirt track that took the race through a small forest leading to a wide open field. It was downhill from there.
Uphill suits me. Downhill doesn’t. I don’t have the control and speed to take advantage. But this time was different.
From the top of the hill I could see out beyond Marin County to the sea. The sun was setting and the moon rising. The warm air was rising off the fields pushing me along. I rose up on my toes and glided down the slope, faster than I had ever run before or have run since. I felt like I was, for an hour or so, a different animal.
At the end of the next leg somewhere near Sausalito I checked my result. Out of a thousand or so runners I finished in the top fifty.
As Rakoff continued to talk about dancing, his lessons, his college career and adult life, then the cancer and operation that cost him movement in his arm he began to choke up. Finally, unable to continue he fell silent and walked away from the podium.
The wetness around the eyes was already there. Then Ira Glass described what happened next. Rakoff began to dance, his left arm hanging at this side. Slowly he danced off the stage.
That’s when the tears flowed. I can’t run outside anymore. It hurts too much. But I can run, on a soft treadmill holding the rails to stabilize my shoulder and neck.
It’s not what I want but it’s what I’ve got. And it is something.