Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Marathon, It's Here...

This story begins on May 1, 2011, the day Scott ran the Flying Pig Marathon, his very first, in Cincinnati. He had worked his way towards this feat, slowly escalating his mileage over the previous two years. I had seen his progression firsthand. The first 5K we attended together was the Run Shadyside event on October 3, 2009. Never had I participated in a 5K before, so I was unsure of what to expect. Scott set a pace for himself; I settled into a comfortable pace for myself. Sometime during that first mile, I lost view of Scott. I would not see him again until reaching the finish line, my time of 22 minutes nearly one full minute behind. In brotherly competition, the gauntlet had been thrown. Just two short weeks later, at the Peters Township Chamber Chase, I was bound and determined to defeat Scott.

It was a cold morning, very cold. I was dressed rather brightly, an orange t-shirt on top of orange shorts. A blue Under Armour turtleneck tucked into black Under Armour leggings completed the ensemble. When the starting horn sounded, I bolted. At the first mile marker, all other competitors were trailing my pace. (I would later learn this first mile was completed in/around 5:10). Keeping this pace would be difficult, and I was beginning to realize just how difficult. The cold air began impacting my breathing rhythm; my pace slowed considerably as I finished the second mile. Suddenly, Scott began creeping onto my heels. “Oh hell no,” I thought as my body found another gear to repel Scott’s first attempt to pass. However, he was persistent. Once again, I could feel his presence close behind. And once again, I was having none of it. “Not too long left,” I remember thinking. And still, here comes Scott again clipping at my heels. I could not muster the strength to repel this attack, and I watched as he trotted past and into one of his patented late-race pushes. I knew it then: no longer could I claim to be in better shape. Scott reigned supreme. He was just beginning his ascent…

Over the next couple of years, Scott transformed himself. While I did not keep track of his achievements, the physical change could not go unnoticed. After once topping out near 240 pounds, Scott slimmed considerably, down to approximately 180 pounds. A lifestyle change had occurred, and the Flying Pig Marathon was the crowning achievement to mark the occasion. At the time, I believed it was just his next natural progression. However, during training for my own participation in said event, I realized the term “natural” can never be used while speaking of such a challenge. The physical toll can be draining; the mental toll can be excruciating. I cannot yet fathom what Scott was thinking, or feeling, while waiting to begin. Nor can I yet imagine what crossed his mind as he continually passed mile markers. The picture of his finishing still hangs on his bedroom wall, the time overhead reading 3:45:00, an astonishing time for one’s first marathon. He had completed his toughest task to date, and I’m sure his mind had already pressed forward towards his next goal. That is how his mind worked, always yearning for that next challenge. That next challenge came, and nobody anticipated its arrival…

I awoke in the wee hours of the morning, September 1, 2011, to agonizing moans from Scott’s bedroom. For the previous few days, Scott had been bedridden by severe back pain. I bounced out of bed and asked Scott what, if anything, I could do. Just as I was doing so, my parents began to awake. As they tended to Scott, I slipped back under my covers and fell asleep. When I again awoke, the sight was still more painful to witness: Scott, lying on his stomach in the kitchen, moaning in agony. This, like many other sights and sounds, will be one forever imprinted upon my memory. Never believing the cause of Scott’s pain to be dreadfully serious, I left for work. I checked in with my mother once during the day, a quick text to see how Scott’s MRI had gone. “Still waiting for results,” she answered. With that, I turned my attention back towards work. At some point during these hours, a doctor gathered with my parents, with Scott, and informed them that a tumor was found in his sacrum. Truthfully, had I been present, I’m not sure what my reaction would have been. And now, some 20 months later, I do not know what type of reaction there was among those present. I was informed of the news when I arrived home. When hearing, I fell into shock. Immediately, cancer found its way to the front of my thinking. Upon reaching the hospital, I began to lose grip of my emotions. As I reached the door to Scott’s room, I saw my mother, and it all came rushing out. The battle had begun, for us all. However, we did not yet have a full understanding of the task at hand. That news would arrive, with a devastating thud, the next day.

That long Thursday night had turned into Friday morning. I, through a haze, went about my morning at work. My office mate, Nicole, had known about Scott’s struggles. Checking up on the situation, she asked how things were coming along. After a slight hesitation, and a choking back of tears, I informed her that a tumor had been found in Scott’s sacrum. She must have noticed my dread and hesitation, because she did not ask any further questions. The rest of the morning went about as normally as possible. Around lunchtime, I realized getting out to clear my head, just a bit, would be necessary. On a whim, I texted my best friend, Mike, and asked him to meet me. Since this type of situation never happens, I can only imagine what he was thinking. And so, upon his arrival, I spilled my heart. For that brief period of time, I let go of everything. No words or actions could begin to stop my tears. And patiently, Mike sat with me. I had explained to him how a tumor was found in Scott’s sacrum and how further testing was being done that day as a precautionary measure, to be sure it had not spread from another area. “Doctors are saying it is a routine practice,” I told Mike. But sadly, as I learned upon arriving home from the most miserable of days at work, routine turned into terror. Doctors had found more tumors: one in his chest cavity, two on his liver, and one on his right lung. Had we not known previously, we knew now: it was cancer.

The majority of time spent at the Washington Hospital revolved around getting Scott’s pain manageable, a task that would prove most difficult throughout his entire ordeal. Still, we found time to have fun, regardless the situation and setting. Just a couple weeks prior, we had decided to restart our Fantasy Football league, beginning with a live online draft. When news broke of Scott’s condition, my thoughts regarding the league were immediately flung to the back of my mind. When those thoughts came back around, I had decided to allow Scott the option of choosing what to do. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Scott wished to go through with the draft. There, in the hospital room, the 3 of us (I, Scott, and Michael) sat with our laptops, scouring which players we desired to have on our team. I was willing to do whatever I must to distract Scott from his given situation; this draft was one of those moments. However, our time in Washington was short-lived. After multiple tests revealed no definitive answers, Scott was transferred to UPMC Shadyside.

The confines of Posner Tower at UPMC Shadyside, walls we would come to view much too often. The poking and prodding that had become commonplace in Washington reared its head once again. It seemed as though every doctor housed in the hospital found his/her way into Scott’s room. At this point, Scott was still in quite a bit of pain, and these doctors felt it necessary to physically manipulate him for their own diagnosing purposes. While only doing their jobs, it tired Scott immensely. Finally, after what had seemed to be years, we had our answer as to Scott’s diagnosis: stage IV mixed cell carcinoma lung cancer. Shock does not begin to describe the moment we heard this news. How could lung cancer reasonably impact a 26-year old non-smoker? We had little time to ponder our reality; all focus turned towards Scott. And while we realized our journey would be long, our most immediate goal was to bring him to the comforts of home. We met this goal on the 23rd of September, a Friday, giving us the most pleasant of surprises to begin the weekend. Upon arriving after work, we found Scott to be quite vocal in his desire to leave the hospital. He had been scheduled to leave days earlier, but a bout of pneumonia delayed those plans. Doctors now felt as though he were well enough to have his wishes met. Quickly and excitedly, we packed up our belongings and brought him home, celebrating our first victory of what we believed would be many.

Scott’s pain never truly alleviated to a comfortable level. We witnessed this sobering reality on our October 3rd trip to Johns Hopkins to receive a second opinion. While speaking with their specialist, Scott was seated in a wheelchair, or so some version of Scott. The pain was debilitating, rendering him barely able to speak. The moment I remember best from this visit was their specialist pausing for a moment, and then stating outright, “You did nothing wrong.” Indeed, Scott had done nothing to deserve this hell. The battle to claw from these depths began the day after our visit to Baltimore. Chemotherapy had begun, and we waited anxiously to see how effective these drugs would be in treating Scott’s tumors. We received our answer just one day before his scheduled return to UPMC. While we had begun to see noticeable improvement, noting Scott’s improved movement, the pain had come rushing back. Doctors had informed us that the drugs being used were not working as effectively as they had hoped. New, stronger drugs were ordered for his next round of chemotherapy.

These next few weeks, sadly (or perhaps thankfully) have turned into a complete haze. During this time, fluid had to be drained from around Scott’s right lung. Also, to prevent further fracturing from radiation treatments, a titanium rod was inserted into his left femur, an area to which the cancer had spread. With hindsight being 20/20, it is now easy to see the dark path this had every intention of following. In the moment, however, we held onto every ounce of positivity. Scott was a determined fighter, stronger than any person I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Just in time for Thanksgiving, Scott landed (what we would later learn to be) his final back-off punch of the battle. After nearly a month in the hospital, we again brought Scott home. He was as near his best as he had been since his ordeal began, much of the pain he had experienced being reduced to minimal levels. He joined us at the dining room table for Thanksgiving dinner, joking and cracking wise as he had always done. On Friday, he was well enough to visit friends. However, on Saturday, the pain began to creep back into the equation. The pain quickly intensified over the next 24-36 hours, this time accompanied by difficulty breathing. On Sunday evening, an ambulance was called to, once again, take Scott to the ER. It would be the last time Scott left through the front door of our parents’ home alive…

During this visit to Shadyside, fluid had to be drained from around Scott’s heart. From that point forward, the downward trend began accelerating. The beginning of the end came on December 7. Upon arriving from work, I found Scott in a state of distress of which I had never seen. He was no longer there; his mind had left him at some point during the day due to elevated calcium levels (caused by tumors on his bones). It was just minutes later that my mother pulled us out of the room to give us the most horrifying news we had received since his diagnosis: the optimism of doctors had waned and no more chemotherapy could be done until Scott grew stronger. Doctors informed us that, in his current state, chemotherapy could prove fatal. So doctors worked, discussing options to strengthen Scott to the point of receiving treatment. By the time a plan was formulated and a feeding tube had been inserted, it was too late. In less than one week, Scott had gone from potentially being able to defeat lung cancer to having, maybe, a couple weeks to live. At that time, fulfilling Scott’s wishes, we brought him to the comforts of home. While we still clung to the belief that a miracle could be done, none was forthcoming. At roughly 2:30 PM on December 20, Scott peacefully drifted from this world.

Immediately after his passing, I felt a sense of relief drift over my being. I knew now that Scott was no longer suffering from the excruciating pain he had experienced during much of the previous four months. And too, I wanted to be strong for my family. Many people showed at his viewing, signaling to us the impact Scott had made on countless lives during his short time here on Earth. One moment, in particular, was surprising. A young man, not much older than I, shared with us his story of having been tutored by Scott. This fact alone was not shocking; Scott had tutored many in Mathematics while attending Waynesburg. However, that was not the topic of discussion. Scott had helped him through a Sociology class. I distinctly remember looking at my family upon hearing this, and they returned my look. He went on to add, “Had it not been for Scott, I would not have passed the course. And had I not passed, I would not have been able to graduate.” We were speechless. Not even I, who had shared an apartment with Scott, knew he tutored Sociology in addition to Mathematics. Scott always had surprises up his sleeve during his life. This turned out to be just one more.

At Scott’s funeral, my mother allowed both myself and Michael the honor of speaking. At that time, I made Scott a promise. Less than a year prior, he had completed his very first marathon. I, perhaps through a haze of distraught emotion and determination, vowed to follow in his footsteps. And now, just mere days from race day, I sit at my computer, only the light of its screen illuminating my bedroom.

I am fully cognizant of how poorly I may have handled some situations over the past 16 months. I have, repeatedly, buried emotions deep within. I have learned things about Scott that have injected themselves into my life. I have struggled with anger, sadness, and loneliness. I have felt a weight pressing down upon my shoulders as the stress manifests in cruel fashions. Heartache has pumped feelings of not being worthy of love into all crevices of my body. The one time and place wherein I found peace at all times, lying in bed before drifting to sleep, no longer allows such a feeling. Mood swings have become more prevalent than I would like to admit. In the face of all this, I have maintained one singular focus: training for this marathon. I have spent many a night thinking of how, exactly, this run will take place:

The first couple of miles will be a body check. I do this during every run. I’ll start out at a slower pace than I normally would, checking off mental lists with each passing step. I imagine this will take place with nary an issue Sunday.

The next four miles (6 miles total at this point) will see an acceleration of pace, albeit slight. This will have been the distance of normal runs, so not too much of an issue will arise.

The following eight (14 miles total at the point) will be tell-tale. I am not foolish enough to believe I will be able to run the entire course. I am going to walk at some points, and during this stretch, I most likely will have two spurts of walking. I will be carrying food along with me, so these walking spurts will allow some nutrition to be taken in to ensure my stomach remains my friend.

The next eight miles (22 miles total at this point) will be HELL. I already know it. At some point during this stage, my emotions will grab a hold. I will begin to think about Scott, think about the miles I have put in during training, and my mind will most likely revisit some memories I have tried my best to forget.

The last spurt will be purely adrenaline and emotion. My legs will have probably come back a bit from a short recess during the previous stint. More spectators will be lined along the sidewalks. My vision of the finish line will be flashing before my eyes, and I will channel Scott’s inner strength. He also finished his runs strongly, and I hope his spirit latches onto my body.

After this marathon, I must deal with some major issues. No longer will I have one singular focus to draw away my attention. Of this I am aware. It is a scary thought, a scary place. Never have I enjoyed being emotionally vulnerable. Sarcasm and jokes are defense mechanisms I have perfected over the years. Eventually, these walls will have to come down. I am just really scared to face this…

Oh, and Scott won our Fantasy Football League that year. I set his line-up for the championship. In all of our eyes and hearts, Scott left this world a winner.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your awesome words in telling the story. I had to get up from my computer a few times to keep from breaking down. But I am glad that I finished reading it.

    While I don't know the pain that you have gone through, I have seen enough suffering to know that cancer sucks.

    Last May, I knew it was time to devote myself to staying healthy and getting back into shape. I also decided that it was time to give myself a reminder to do this, so I got a tattoo on my left calf of a soccer ball that has a banner below it and has the initials SG in honor of Scott. This also serves as a reminder so that anytime that someone asks what the SG stand for, that I get to tell the story of Scott and how we can't take life for granted.

    I'll be honest, every time that I read one of your posts that mentions Scott, I tear up as I remember all the good times that I had growing up with Scott. And mainly I am reminded of how Scott never had anything bad to say about anyone.

    While I probably won't be able to run in a marathon this year, I do plan to run the Flying Monkey 5k again and not finish last.