In a Pandemic, Reflecting on my Race with Mortality

by

05/24/2020

Neighborhood: Bay Ridge, Park Slope, Staten Island

Lately I’ve been working the elliptical hard, pumping the pedals like I have something to prove. As a cancer survivor, maybe I do. Staying strong could help protect me against COVID-19. Because of my condition, I make it my priority.

Sometimes during my workout an old memory drifts up, of a time I had even more to prove. It’s November 1995—the start of the New York City Marathon. I can clearly picture that morning: the stampede of runners, myself included, sweeping across the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and making it shake. The low sun stipples the Hudson River orange. Steel cables tremble in a stiff wind. 

I remember feeling strong, eager to go the distance. As I reach the bridge’s high point, I speed up and break free of a pack of runners. Then it happens. My ankle twists sharply, and I stumble. A sea of runners swirls around me as I lie on the ground, holding my foot.

The timer chimes on the elliptical interrupting the movie in my head. I slow down and stop. Breathing hard, I see parallels between my lockdown workout and my setback a quarter century ago. Both that marathon, for me, and the struggle to survive coronavirus, are races against mortality. 

Toweling sweat from my face, I think back to my reason for running the race. I’m grateful to be around, 25 years later, to tell the tale.

*   *   *

Four months before the November 12 marathon, I wrote an essay for The Associated Press, where I worked as a reporter. It tied my reason for running to my battle with incurable thyroid cancer. Despite two extensive neck operations, the surgeon couldn’t get everything. Training for the marathon, I wrote, was a way for me to feel healthy and rebuild my sense of well-being. I hoped the grueling physical regime would somehow steel my body against the disease remaining inside. 

My article went out to the world. AP’s clients are media outlets, and I received clippings of my essay from dozens of newspapers, large and small. Readers from as far away as New Zealand wrote supportive letters; co-workers voiced encouragement; fellow cancer survivors sent me positive vibes. 

During months of training, I bore the raised pink scar around my neck as a reminder of the challenge I faced: passing a public test of my battle with an insidious disease. 

If I survived the 26.2-mile race, I figured I could survive anything.

I trained long and hard. Ran up to 60 miles a week across Brooklyn, sucking up my free time, obliterating my social life. I reserved Sundays for an extra long slog from my apartment in Park Slope to the beaches of Coney Island—and back. 

Gasping my way through the city, I used mental tricks to keep me going. I imagined crowds of spectators cheering me on. Latinos in the South Bronx offering me orange slices. Fur-hatted Hasidics in Williamsburg offering prayers of forgiveness. 

The world holding its collective breath to see how I did. 

And in a sense, it was.

Looking back, I wonder if the challenge I’d set up for myself prepared me for the battle against coronavirus today.

*   *   *

Reflecting on the moments leading up to my mishap on the bridge, I realize that I must have been distracted by all the excitement. Or maybe it was that I ran faster than my pace, trying to make up for lost time, and was careless with how I stepped. 

After twisting my ankle I lay on the ground for what felt like forever but was probably seconds. There was a pebble in front of my face. Had it tripped me up? Sneakers thudded past, nylon shorts swishing; far-off voices expressed concern. Then time resumed as strong hands grabbed my arms and tugged me to my feet. A kind man disappeared into the fleeing crowd before I could mumble thanks. 

I began to jog. Pain pulsed up my foot, confounding me. I’d put in too much damn work for this. I’d turned my ankle plenty of times before, notched plenty of races in my lifetime, and was capable of running through pain. I’d just run through it.  

Marathoners passed me left and right as I stiffly jogged down the Brooklyn side of the bridge, well below my race pace, and entered Fourth Avenue. Cheers erupted from roadside crowds, seemingly synchronized with my throbbing ankle. Desperate for advice,  I spotted an ambulance parked near the exit ramp, and stopped. 

A pair of paramedics eyed me sympathetically as I unlaced my right shoe, and undid my sock. “It’s definitely sprained,” one said, eyeing my swollen purplish ankle. 

Suppressing a “no shit, Sherlock” look, I asked for reassurance that I wouldn’t seriously injure myself if I ran another 24 miles. 

“I’m not a doctor, but there’s one about a mile down the road,” he said, waving that way.

Annoyed at his useless suggestion, I jammed my sneaker over my swollen foot. But sometimes we don’t need to decide. Life does it for us. Bolts shot through my foot as I stepped down from the ambulance. My ankle had stiffened into wood in those few minutes with the paramedics. 

I was clearly done for.

The pit in my stomach grew as one of the EMTs called a cab for me. I barely remember the ride across Brooklyn, the zig-zagging around streets closed for the marathon. Finally deposited in front of my Park Slope apartment building, I limped up four flights of stairs. 

I sat in my living room, unlaced my sneakers, and considered tossing them in the trash. The sun through a dust-streaked window blinded me; I moved out of the light and fell asleep. My shirt was damp with sweat when I woke. I felt defeated and deflated—ashamed for not living up to expectations. I placed my running shoes by the door, opened the freezer, and took out an ice pack for my ankle.

I think of that time as a key inflection point in my life. Of course, it wasn’t the first time I had the bottom kicked out from under me. But it was one of many setbacks that I managed to recover from. 

***

As I ride the elliptical hard, I remember what happened next. The day after the marathon I limped into work and explained to co-workers I didn’t finish, their words of comfort falling flat. The days dragged by; it took about two weeks for my ankle to shrink back to normal. One morning I woke up early and slipped my feet into my running shoes, making sure the tension was just right. I descended four flights to Sixth Avenue. A fruit delivery truck rattled past; there was the distant screech of an ambulance. Taking a deep breath, I began to jog. Slowly. I passed Mexican vendors selling flavored ice shavings. Bright plastic triangles flapped from bodegas. I passed august brownstones, took a wide berth around a mother pushing a baby stroller, and hop-scotched over a fallen branch.

I entered Prospect Park. An aroma of damp earth wafted up. There was a rattling behind me, in the rustling of old leaves, and I imagined a hooded pursuer testing my flank, black shoes sneaking up.  Anything was possible at this pace, but I held out for the final stretch.

In the decades since then, my cancer spread to my lungs; I underwent three years of harsh chemotherapy, which only made me feel sicker. I entered one clinical trial after another, seeing incremental improvements. I had two bad bouts with pneumonia.

But even after I went through the worst, I’d find the strength to put my running shoes on and hit the streets, getting in a good sweat. A few years ago I found a clinical trial that managed to keep my disease at bay. Today, my wife and I have a 19-year-old daughter, a freshman at college who’s back home taking courses online. She bakes in her spare time, filling the house with the aroma of chocolate chip cookies. We eat dinner as a family. I take long brisk walks with our dog. A few years ago I wrote a novel about my cancer battle. 

One day, humankind’s race with this pandemic will be a memory. Lessons learned, stowed away. A new normal, somewhat different than the old normal, will dawn.

Lumps and all, not a bad deal.

*  *  *

David Kalish is a novelist, essayist and former Associated Press journalist. He wrote The Opposite of Everything, an award-winning comedic novel inspired by his brush with cancer and mortality. He blogs wry essays for the Times Union, in New York State’s capital region.

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§ 3 Responses to “In a Pandemic, Reflecting on my Race with Mortality”

  • Dr. B says:

    What a wonderful story Mr. Kalish….love it, love you!

  • Peter says:

    A report by Britain’s National Health Service on the country’s Covid-19 deaths through late April showed that people who survived most types of cancer 5+ years ago were *more* likely to survive Covid-19.

  • Jeff Loeb says:

    Great stuff. I love the tension between the two situations with elliptical as mnemonic trigger.

§ Leave a Reply

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