Just minutes before we head up to the starting point, Olian offers Freeda an out. “Are you sure you don’t want to just make a forty-dollar donation and just go home?”
I could have told him what her answer would be; I know she has not spent the last three months getting ready for this day to just turn around and walk away at this point. Even someone who didn’t know him well would know that Olian is concerned, not convinced that she is ready to tackle a three-plus-mile walk that will include a few slopes and two river crossings. There are many times in this world when our fears keep us from enjoying seeing those we love take on their challenges.
Freeda is not as frail as she looks to strangers but there is no denying the slightness of her appearance. I don’t think she’s an inch over five-two or a pound over… well, let’s just say that she’s a bit thin. What strangers can’t see and even family members might not accurately perceive is the degree of determination. She would have fit right in with the pioneers who pushed their way through the Cumberland Gap a few generations ago.
That seems fitting here in Boone, North Carolina.
As Freeda, Paul and I come up to the starting line, we can sense that the announcer is somewhat amused. “Well, folks,” he muses via the PA system, “I don’t know how fast this group is going to be but I am pretty sure they will finish this whole course. They have checked it over very thoroughly.” Indeed, our whole group has had a pretty good look at several of the obstacles within an easy walk of the parking lot. And I had a real close look at all of them during my morning run.
Freeda has spent the past two months getting ready for this. Less than two years ago, she had the first sarcoma mass removed. Just a few months past her seventy-second birthday in February of this year, she had a tumor removed from a lung. Following that, she took on the self-imposed challenge of getting ready for this day. Making herself walk farther and farther, she built herself up. A quarter mile past the starting line, she catches Paul and me ambling along the course, trying to be considerate of her. “Guys, I can’t walk this slow!” she complains. Ambling is over.
Except for the piggyback ride Paul gave her at the first river crossing, she walked every step of the course on her own. Insisted on wading through the river herself when the course brought us back to that opportunity. With the water two feet deep and the current pushing against her as she walked upstream for a hundred-and-fifty feet, the only assistance she accepted was a steadying hand.
She took pictures of him and me at some of the obstacles. We talk along the way and they both keep their distance when I make my charges through the mud pits. Paul and I keep an eye on her and ask her how she’s doing a few times. “I’m doing fine,” is the answer, every time.
It took us just barely over an hour to reach the finish line. Months of training and anticipation caught us up together in a swelling of relief and accomplishment. Olian gave Freeda a big, sincere hug of pride and relief. The words he shared with her are theirs to keep.
I hope to never know what she has been through in the past two years and I hope she never knows again what it is to face another cancer surgery. But I also hope she knows how proud I am of what she did on this day, how I treasure the sharing of this walk, this celebration of survival.
After Paul helps me clean off the last bits of mud with more hot water from the big picnic cooler, I change into clean, dry clothes. The three of us sit with Olian, our other sister Patsy and Paul’s wife Debee in the parking lot. I enjoy another pimento cheese sandwich and another of the peanut butter-and-chocolate “Buckeyes” that we made the night before.
A little later, as the six of us sit in folding chairs in the afternoon sun in the high country of western North Carolina, I realize that what we are celebrating today is much more than survival. After decades of distance and tension, resentment and jealousy, we have decided to reach over and around all of the reasons and excuses, hurts and disappointments, and just be a family.
This is the celebration of some folks that have chosen to overcome their own dysfunctional history and just have fun together. And that, my friends, truly deserves an RC Cola and a Moon Pie.