Across the Disappearing Finishing Line

Searching for the keys to endurance, a ski racer pushes his body and heart to the limit—until his father's sudden illness changes all the rules

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THE NIGHT BEFORE Dad went to the hospital, as I was taking off his slippers to put him to bed, I could see the hard, veiny calves that only a month ago were powering him up high mountains in his native Northwest. They were useless now. Was he useless? What did it mean to lose your body in a week? And what would it mean, 24 hours hence, to lose some large chunk of your mind?

That next morning, at the hospital, Dad passed into another, yet-smaller world, where his abilities meant nothing. When the surgeon finally came for his pre-op visit, Dad asked only one question: "Will my personality change?"

"I hope not," the doctor said.

We watched as they wheeled him out of his room to the operating theater. It was after lunch before the doctor appeared to give us the news. Dad had come through surgery OK, but the pathology was exactly what he suspected: glioblastoma, grade four. The worst grade. He couldn't get it all, it had already spread to both lobes. Sorry. The next few months, the doctor said, would be "the good time," a phrase that would come to haunt us.

When they finally let us up to see him, Dad looked...beautiful. A turban of bandages wrapped his head, but beneath it his face was eerily young, as if he were in his twenties. The sparkle was back in his eyes. When we turned on the TV the Red Sox were leading the Indians in game one of their playoff series behind seven RBIs from Mo Vaughn. Dad was making jokes—he whose head had been sawed open and then the two halves pulled apart by traction. This much was clear: His personality had not changed, not one whit. Doubtless it would darken when the tumor recurred, when the swelling built up again. The hope, though, was that we'd bought ourselves a few months, a window of time to make peace with his passing. Nothing more.

And so we settled into the pattern of small victories and somewhat larger defeats that must mark most terminal illness. They shifted Dad to a "rehabilitation hospital" in the suburbs, where after daily morning trips by ambulance to the radiation ward he would return for afternoons of physical therapy. The therapy rooms reminded me of the world where I'd spent much of the last year—they were filled with weight machines, parallel bars, treadmills. But here, in place of the ersatz philosophy of the gym, real struggle prevailed. Dad's workouts, as tightly scheduled and as exhausting as mine, involved batting a balloon back and forth with the therapist, folding washcloths, unscrewing a jar top, kicking a ball. He could swing his right foot perhaps an inch, enough to nudge the ball along the floor, but no more. When he tried to steer his wheelchair, it inevitably drifted to the right till he hit a wall, reflecting the now-distorted architecture of his brain. His major triumph: learning to apply and disengage the wheelchair brake.

Through it all I kept running. I suppose I should have stopped, if only because it seemed in such poor taste, calibrating my body's improvement as Dad's withered away. But Dad had been the most interested in my project from the beginning. And there was nothing else to structure my life. No one expected me at an office. I was commuting between the Adirondacks and Boston, between my adult and boyhood homes (I was sleeping on the bed I'd slept on as a boy, the same bed Dad had slept on in his youth). There was no way I could write—when I tried to still my mind enough to string two thoughts together, I invariably began to weep. Only motion seemed to relax me.

I'd begun this compulsive exercising on the premise that I was at the tail end of my youth. Now it was all too easy to calculate that if I lived as long as my father was going to, I was already halfway used up. But I could feel the second half of my life starting in more complicated ways too. Identities long fixed shifted back and forth. Sometimes I was still his son. But then the next morning would dawn, and we'd need yet again to make some impossible decision: more radiation, say. Dad would doze off while the doctor was explaining the options, and we'd be left trying to figure out what he might want, what we might want. The goal of all the physical therapy diminished. Instead of teaching him to regain real function in his muscles, the single aim became training him to help in the process of transferring himself from bed to wheelchair, and vice versa. If he learned that, he could go home and Mom could take care of him by herself. The technique, as detailed and precise as a good cross-country skiing kick, involved lifting his butt an inch up off the bed and then sliding himself in two stages about a foot and a half into the wheelchair. He would push himself up on his knuckles, slide ten inches, rest 30 seconds till the panting subsided, then make the next assault. Each time he'd forget the sequence and need to be reminded; each time it left him red-faced and tired.

All this training, and for what? It wasn't like my training. I knew I was getting steadily stronger and fitter. Not Dad. He worked all afternoon stretching his rubber bands, lifting his tiny dumbbells, and yet his body decayed faster than he could build it up.

I went in to the rehab center one morning and found him in an uncharacteristic rage. Some doctor had wandered through that morning (one of the glories of managed care was that unknown doctors constantly drifted in and out of our lives) and remarked to him, on the basis of a handshake, that he was getting weaker. Dad was outraged, agitated. He didn't want to go to therapy that afternoon, but I talked him into it.

You followed your schedule no matter what; sometimes that seemed about all my year had taught me.

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