I came into the pool on a mission, and the mission was accomplished
~ Michael Phelps.
Watching Chad Le Clos watch Phelps go on to victory and a twentieth Olympic gold medal, I found myself thinking back to 1982’s Oscar winning best film, Chariots of Fire, and its depiction of Eric Liddell, who stunned everyone with a world record breaking gold medal win in the 400 meter race. He wasn’t supposed to win.
Liddell pushed himself like a man possessed. He didn’t weaken. With the tape only 20 yards away . . . Liddell threw his head farther back, gathered himself together and shot forward.
A man possessed.
The legendary Eric Liddell ran only for the glory of God. He had refused to run the 100 meter race – his best event, and one he was expected to win – because it was scheduled on a Sunday, a holy day. Instead, he ran those races in which little was expected of him. He would go on to win a bronze medal in the 200 meter race and then to smash the world-record with a gold medal win in the 400 meter race – triumphant and true to himself. Doing the right thing.
Edging closer to the fifth anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, a milestone of sorts, I am thinking about Liddell – the man behind the athlete from the 1924 Paris Olympics -and his resolve not to run on a Sunday. Eric Liddell didn’t bargain. I cannot say the same for me. When cancer came to call I reverted to childish ways of bargaining with God. Half prayer, half promise: “Dear God, I’ll be a better wife, mother, daughter, friend, boss, human being in general, if you could just see to it that my Oncotype DX number falls in the really good range,” or “I will never complain about anything ever again, God, if you could just keep the cancer at bay.”
I have questions for this God, too, and they come in rapid succession, disturbing my rest to this day: “Did I get cancer because I used my cellphone while driving, or was it directly related to my having a baby at 34, at what some pregnancy books in 1997 described as “advanced maternal age.” Perhaps it was because I hadn’t been able to breastfeed nor had I been diligent about buying certified-organic produce. Or maybe it had more to do with the full-bodied Zinfandel I used to enjoy at the end of a day, pre-diagnosis. Will the cancer progress because I have been sloppy about diet and exercise? But mostly, the question for which there is no satisfactory response, “Why, oh why, did my darling daughter’s life have to be interrupted by my cancer?” At some level, I think I believe that I caused my own cancer, that it is my fault. I must have done something, right? From the ridiculous to the religious, I wander, and I wonder if perhaps I have rebuked God.
I don’t know when I last heard someone use “rebuke” in any context, but this cancer continues to conjure what Edna O’Brien describes as the inescapable themes of my childhood, which today are wrapped up in the long-ago Sunday morning church services at the All Saints Parish Church in Antrim. I can almost hear the minister, like many before him, deliver from the book of Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verses 11 – 13:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
Childish things – like praying to a “quid pro quo” God. So my spiritual struggle continues, all the while mindful and moved beyond measure by charity and love and the knowledge that my name remains on the prayer lists of people I don’t even know.
Childish things and questions of faith and Michael Phelps in Rio bring me back to Eric Liddell’s story, a story I know only because of its interpretation on the big screen. How I love the movies, especially those based on a well-written screenplay. While it has been highly entertaining in some social settings, being able to quote huge chunks of script has proven only useful in the observation of classroom instruction. With a nod to Dr. Madeline Hunter, I am a master of what is known in the teaching trade as “script taping.” An auditory learner, I can often recall what I heard verbatim. Admittedly, it is a selective kind of memory that did not serve me well as a student trying to recall the stuff of lectures that would prove to a crotchety professor of an excruciatingly dull Philosophy course that I had, in fact, been listening during his lectures. Nor did it help me readily recall anything I heard from the doctor who informed me of the tumors in my right breast. No. That would have been too useful. Instead, because I’ve wrestled with the same angst as, let’s say, the eponymous Shirley Valentine, I know by heart what she says while staring down the camera:
Why do we get all this life if we don’t ever use it? Why do we get all these feelings, and dreams, and hopes if we don’t ever use them? That’s where Shirley Valentine disappeared to. She got lost in all this unused life.
Ah, that Willy Russell knows how to get into the head of a woman in the middle of her life.
But this evening, it isn’t Shirley Valentine or Jane Fonda’s Sally Bender in Coming Home. It is Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, holding court with a group of admirers at the Highland Games, waxing lyrical about faith and God in the context of a race:
I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.
His sister, a devout missionary cannot comprehend why her brother would choose a secular sporting event in paris. Poignant and gentle, he rebuffs his sister, smiling with the assurance and grace of a man who is doing the right thing:
I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.
I feel his pleasure.
I am no athlete, but once upon a time I loved to run. I had planned to run the 2012 Belfast marathon, but cancer got in the way, forcing me to abandon that dream. I recall January of that year and a tentative post-surgical lap around a hospital ward. Bedraggled and unsteady with all that was attached to me – the urinary catheter and the JP drains, and the stunning realization that standing up straight was an impossible feat just three days after a DIEP flap reconstruction – I thought I would never run again, but magically, just two weeks later, I was walking along the Arizona Grand canal with my husband and our girl. Standing a little straighter, I was thrilled to be outside, the last of the JP drains removed, albeit frustrated to be reduced to a stroll. My feet wanted to break into a run.
The third day of my adjuvant tamoxifen therapy coincided with the first truly Spring like day in Phoenix, the temperature almost at 80 degrees. No side effects to report with 1,822 days to go, by which time my daughter would have voted for the first time. It was my season of rebirth and recovery, and it began the morning I ventured out for my run. Entirely alone. Not too strenuous and no more than a “good stretch of the legs” along the hard, packed dirt of my favorite stretch of canal, it was perfect. There was no hint of pain, and it was quiet save for the sound of my feet pounding on the dirt.
That silent sound was familiar and comforting, taking me back to daily runs through Antrim Castle Grounds and along the pathways of the Lough Neagh shore. And whispering in my ears then and still, the voice of Eric Liddell.
Thus, I run my race, and that will do for now.