BY NAT BARTELL
Special to the Journal
In January, my family took a cruise to Mexico to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my grandparents’ marriage. For those of you who have never been trapped on a boat with 21 of your closest relatives, I can tell you firsthand that it’s a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, I am incredibly lucky that my grandparents paid for a vacation I will probably never be able to afford for myself. On the other, well, there’s only so much time one can spend at the fro-yo bar on a moderately sized boat before going a little insane. After ten days of champagne toasting and riding the waves, we vacated the Grand Princess, unaware that soon it would become infamous for reasons other than my on-deck tarot card readings.
On New Year’s Eve at my parents’ house, we toasted our health again and thanked God for our blessings amidst news of the impending outbreak of a new virus, at the time unnamed, in Wuhan, China. It couldn’t happen to us. How could it? These were the crazy things one hears about on the news but is personally immune to. Train wrecks, houses burning down, pandemics — oh my! Not in my house.
Three months later, everything has changed. We are on shelter-in-home orders, and due to the pandemic nature of COVID-19, all group gatherings have been canceled and forbidden. Needless to say, this has affected everyone in ways that can’t even be quantified. Spring quarter for my brother and I has gone virtual and my commencement will no longer be happening. My younger siblings will not return to school this year, meaning that when my little brother finally goes back, it will be to a different school, and my sister is missing out on some of the most impactful moments of junior high. For my mother, this mandate meant that the marathon she has been training for was also canceled.
My mom has done a marathon before. Almost six years ago, she ran the Santa Rosa marathon the morning after a 6.0 earthquake shook us awake in our hotel room. In training for her next marathon, where she hoped to qualify for the Boston Marathon, she got injured and was unable to run. That time, we completed a walking 5K with her coworkers, but I knew she was disappointed at not being able to run the full length that she had planned on. After all, running is her hobby. I can’t imagine how I would feel if I was somehow unable to write for years. All these years later, she was finally ready to run the full 26.2 again, but now her marathon has been canceled. This only dawned on me after sufficient self-pity about the state of my ruined graduation, but apparently people other than myself live three-dimensional life in which they too suffer.
I asked my mom what would happen with her marathon. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe some part of me thought she would throw up her hands and quit, but she smiled. “I’m excited,” she said. “I’m going to run it, and this time I am going to win.” I was astounded. As the only person running the marathon, she would set the fastest time, the slowest time, the best and worst times in her age groups, and effectively win and lose the marathon. Call it Schrödinger’s Race. In an act of defiance against the worst-case scenario, my mom has chosen to stay positive.
Saturday was the day she chose to run the race — the Heather Marathon. My dad volunteered to be the pacer for the one and only pacing group by riding his bike alongside her as she runs. My family set up socially distant fueling stations along her route in town, where she was able to get a drink and a snack while my family members cheered her on from her doorway. The only house she entered for a pit stop along the way was our own, and my siblings and I made posters and cheered for her every time she came by. This is not how we wanted it to be, but this is how it is, and we are making the best of it.
When I was a child, my grandpa had this little sand globe that had me mesmerized. It was a gift given to him upon retirement by one of his administrators. The little globe sat on a pedestal, full of white sand and promise, and when it was shifted, the sand would sift from one half into the other like an hourglass, revealing a message in the middle of the globe. “Perseverance moves the mountains…” Flip the globe, and the other side said “…one grain of sand at a time.” I spent hours fixating on this memento, watching the sand drain slowly into one side or the other, shaking the globe to make it go faster or sitting idle and seeing how the slow movement of sand gradually lessened the little mountain inside until there was nothing left but a small amount of dust — no evidence that a mountain had ever been there.
Perseverance in the face of adversity is perhaps one of the most difficult lessons of all to learn. Unfortunate circumstances offer the opportunity to blossom, but often it is easier to buckle under the pressure that they provide. My mom is not someone who buckles that way, as evidenced by her motivation to do the marathon despite there being no official race. Many people (myself included), would have taken this as a chance to stop training or find an easier pastime. If that had been the case, we wouldn’t have pulled together this way to make my mom’s marathon experience special. Our call to action would never have arrived. By the end of my mom’s race, our whole extended family had assembled on our street, standing a safe distance apart, to cheer her on through the finish line. My aunt brought a streamer finish line for my mom to break, and mixed roadside victory cocktails. Everyone cheered, including some random bystanders who got caught up in the action. It was one of the most inspiring things I have seen in a long time.
In a way, the act of perseverance on my mother’s part created a domino effect for the rest of us — not only did she motivate us to collaborate on something for her, she showed us that even in the most trying times, it is possible to persist. My mom is the definition of the iconic quote “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Running 26.2 miles is hard (not that I would know). Keeping a family together during a time of fear and uncertainty is probably harder. But that hasn’t stopped her from trying, because my mother is the type of person who will stop at nothing to move mountains, even if it does mean moving them grain by grueling grain of sand.
We can all learn a lesson from this to take heart when times are tough. Perseverance isn’t a magic fix, and it’s no guarantee that adversity will not seek you out at the least opportune of times. Sometimes the grains of sand we try to hold slip through our fingers. Better grip next time. If anything, the magic fix is found in trying again, perhaps with better results, until the outcome is as desired. The slow magic of being alive is the magic of infinite opportunities to try again. With that may come failure, hardship, and heartbreak. But it also comes with love, joy, the small luck of finding a $20 bill in your laundry every so often. The opportunity to find a silver lining in a pandemic.
And my mom’s silver lining is that after countless hours of running in the wind and rain, persisting in training despite the event being canceled, she still won the race.