I have loved New York City my whole life. By that I mean since I was a preschooler living across the Hudson in North Bergen, New Jersey. Even from the relative distance of the Jersey Shore, where my family moved when I was 6 and where I've spent most of my days, "the city" has been as prominent a backdrop as the cool green Atlantic. From trips up north to see family, I watched the derided Twin Towers get built. While flying into Newark Liberty International Airport when I lived in California post-9/11, I pondered the void.
It was as a hometown girl that I ran (and walked) the New York City Half-Marathon last Sunday on behalf of the Children's Tumor Foundation (CTF). I love to run and have been doing it since winning ribbons at elementary school field days. Running with CTF's NF Endurance Team for research into a disease that may have contributed to my son Gabriel's death is a particularly rewarding experience. Not only is CTF the world's leading non-government funder of neurofibromatosis research, it has given me education and encouragement ever since Gabriel was diagnosed with NF as an infant.
CTF is headquartered on Pine Street in New York City, so it was a hometown race for the team as well. It was more than that for me though. Life for my family had been pretty idyllic for a decade before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Two nights before those attacks, Gabriel's friend Christopher Braca was at our house. His dad Al picked him up. Al Braca worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and had lived through the first World Trade Center bombing. He didn't live through the second. He was known as "The Rev" at work because of his outspoken faith. Stories came back to his family after his death that on that fateful morning, when all hope of survival was lost, Al had gathered people around him to passionately invite them to go to heaven with him.
A week after the attack, I dropped Gabe off at Christopher's house to hang out. His mom, Jeannie, said, "I realized last night that Al isn't coming home and neither is his body." A little later, I got a call that I needed to come pick Gabe up. Despite Al's body having fallen more than 100 stories amidst tons of debris, it was found intact. We called it a miracle in the midst of unspeakable tragedy.
As it happens, our hotel near the finish line at Battery Park in Lower Manhattan was a block from Ground Zero. I hadn't anticipated that, nor had I spent time there since volunteering at a relief worker respite station in spring 2002. On Saturday morning before the race, my husband and I strolled around the site and took in the changes, including a visitor center and a bronze memorial to firefighters who had died there. Locals were giving tours, telling tourists about human remains found as late as a year ago.
I began to cry and said to my husband, "This is when it all began to go bad." I was referring to our idyllic lives. He said he had been thinking the same thing. I said something else: "I've long wondered if the way Gabe was fixated on dying, as evidenced in his drawings and poetry about jumping from a precipice, was connected in some way to this?"
On Sunday morning, the race began with a seven mile loop of Central Park. We emerged from the park onto 7th Avenue to the sound of cheering crowds. A smile crossed my face so big it made me laugh. Owning Times Square for a moment felt as magical as I imagine it must feel to be a Broadway star. We turned right onto 42nd Street and loped over to the West Side Highway, where we were greeted by showgirls and guys dancing and singing us on to victory. It was about then that my legs began to get heavy and tight, but I ran a really smart race. I paced myself, stayed in the shade, stopped at every fluid station, stretched, and ate packets of salt as advised in the 87 degree heat. Someone later asked if I ever thought of quitting. No! I was having too much fun taking pictures and tweeting as I ran and walked!
Besides, how could I quit with Dribble the World runner Ashley Ten Kate bouncing her basketball a few strides ahead of me for 13.1 miles! According to its website, Dribble the World "exists to save the lives of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa using the game of basketball." There was also the 13.1 Virgin runner, who I thought was running in support of abstinence until someone who doesn't write about the sexual revolution and its consequences informed me was probably a first time half-marathoner. Duh.
Sprinting for the finish line a couple hundred yards from Ground Zero, though, I started to cry again. It was as if all the happiness and pathos of my life was represented in that course.
I reveled for a bit in my 2:42:18 finish time and ran into another team member who didn't know anyone with NF, but wanted to support a charity that benefits childhood cancer. After a quick shower, my husband and I sped out of the city for my niece's baby shower. A woman sat next to me whose face was vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it. Finally she reminded me that she was a "9/11 widow" for whom my niece had babysat for several years. Her husband was also a Cantor Fitzgerald employee, and their only child was born in December 2001. As we kibitzed over a new generation of gifts, she said, "That was the hard part, figuring out how to put those things together."
When Gabriel was diagnosed with NF, I thought it was really unfair given the challenges he was already facing as the black child of a white unwed mother. After much wrestling with God, I realized that, if his grace is sufficient for the challenges of my life, it is sufficient for everyone's, including my son's. I also adopted Job's words as a motto to stave off fear of debilitating tumors and disfigurement. "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" are words I have lived by my whole adult life. Much, no all, of that life has been lived in the kinetic shadow of New York City. Last weekend, I owned that city's streets for a couple, three hours. It's only fair. They've long owned me.