Heartbreak Hill

It was called heartbreak hill for a reason, that stretch of road on the fringes of the university campus. For neophytes, the short steep uphill was a cardiovascular nightmare. Only pride and willpower could overcome the pounding of the heart and shortness of breath that initiate the novice runner into a route more challenging than the academic oval where most recreational runners can be found. It had been quite some time since I’ve last been here. And now that I am, my heart began to break for an entirely different reason. Heartbreak hill marks the beginning of a route my late husband Beau used to run with me. And now, a few weeks after his death, for the first time, I run the route without him.

It is the first training day of Team Beau, as we had taken to calling our motley crew. The jock that he was, his brothers and I, along with the rest of his family had committed to honor his memory by continuing his athletic pursuits. Now, it was the members of his family that flanked me.

Chey led the pack, being the most experienced and most consistent runner among us. He shared Beau’s love of the outdoors. In fact, it was through his influence that Beau found his greatest passion, rock climbing. With Beau gone I ran behind Chey now, allowing him to set the pace. I remembered it was my husband who had convinced his brother to start running. Chey reminds me the most of Beau because they really did enjoy the same things — climbing, running, boxing.  I can see my husband in his brother’s face, the same proud nose, the same lash-fringed eyes, the same rise and fall of mellow notes when they speak. Only a few weeks ago, Chey finished his first full marathon. In the agonizing last kilometers, when pushing to reach the finish line felt more torturous rather than victorious, Chey told me he remembered something Beau used to say: Pain is temporary. Quitting is forever. That buoyed him to the finish, a finish that made Beau inordinately proud. Beau had immediately sent a message to his eldest brother Mao, telling him to congratulate Chey for the accomplishment and pushing him to join next year’s race. Beau’s pain must have been unimaginable. It must have felt permanent. Otherwise, he would never have quit.

Through the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of Mao, now running beside me, training for that marathon he promised Beau he would finish. Despite Beau having lived with his eldest brother before we got married, I never really got to know Mao very well before all this happened. And by his own admission, there were many things about Beau that he didn’t know either. It must be the gaps in our knowledge that bonded us now, as we ran beside each other. In the days following Beau’s death I had always felt an urge to tell Mao about our marriage, about how much we loved each other, about the truth of the days preceding his death that led his baby brother back into the family home. I yearned to help him gain some understanding, a look into his brother’s psyche to help him accept the tragedy that happened a few steps away from the threshold of his home. His eyes remain haunted. It makes me shudder to think of the images permanently etched behind them. He carries the burden of being the first in the family to see Beau’s lynched body.

I could never have survived seeing him dead on that stairwell. If one believed in God, then perhaps that was the one favor that he gave me. His family, they share my pain. I feel guilty that they had to be the ones to find him, that my husband was not with me during his last moments. There are many things I regret, many things I wish I could have done or not have done that I know will haunt me for the rest of my life. Beau had chosen to stay away from me for the past few months. He needed to figure things out for himself he said. Chey thinks he did that to save me from the pain he knew he would cause, knowing even in his subconscious, that he was no longer in control of himself. I would never know, and that, adds to the torment.

Behind me I could hear the easy banter of Bunny and Bobby, cousin and friend respectively, but brothers to Beau all the same, bound not just by blood but by a guileless love forged by time. If there was one thing the two shared with my husband, it would be the easygoing sense of humor, the carefree air that made everyone around them feel at ease. I’ve known them just long enough to know that the smiles and indulgent jokes hide their own soap opera lives and yet there they are, alive and well, running behind me while my beloved Beau had thrown in the towel before any one of us were in on the game. It left a bitter taste in the mouth. The thought that it was not even really his choice made it even more acrid. My husband was murdered, forced to take his own life by a malevolent disease that came in the dark of night.

I’ve been hanging on to them for dear life the past few weeks. I suppose its because if there was anyone in this world who shared my pain it would be them. Without children there is nothing of flesh and blood that I had left of Beau, except for his family. His only sister Rona, whom I had seen for the first time a few weeks ago when she had flown back to Manila to pay her last respects to a long missed brother, has become a daily salve. Although geographically apart, I’ve survived my morning anxiety attacks by reading her morning online messages. Love offered to me, a sister she has never really known. Love offered to a sister, whose only remaining connection with a brother is in a few bags of clothes and a grieving widow’s tears.

At times I feel overly assuming and am afraid that I might overstay my welcome. I’ve impinged on their lives, hanging over them like a black specter of death. This is the scarlet letter, the mark of Cain a widow carries. As much as I remind them of Beau, I also inadvertently, with my weeping and despair, remind them of his loss.

As I run I am acutely aware that my heart chooses this family, the same way my heart chose Beau. The future looms uncertain. I cannot even see past today. We pass over Heartbreak hill and pound our way through the route my husband used to run. I am not bound to them by law anymore. Death had released me from that. For now we are bound by tragedy, chained together by sorrow. We run together towards hope, towards love, towards a tomorrow we are forced to face because we continue to live.

They flank me as I run. Chey before me, Mao to my side, Bunny and Bob behind me. At the turnaround their wives and their kids wait for us with drinks to quench our thirst and cheers to appease parched spirits. This is the family that inherited me. And they are the shield I have around me.

I am reminded of St. Patrick’s breastplate. He declares: Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

They say God sends angels to help us on our way. One only has to look with an open heart to see the magnificence of their wings.