Sometimes I just have one of those days. I was a living in the crawl space of my head, frustrated, angry and anxious. I was afraid of and consumed by a bunch of trivial things, like work and running my first 1/2 marathon after minor knee surgery on Sunday.
And then I met Jake Ryan Lee Robert's dad at the Orange County Marathon pre-race Expo.
He was surrounded by a few kids and friends in the parking lot outside of the expo, operating a booth filled with t-shirts that read "Team Jake" and had a adorable little boy's picture on the front.
"Hi! What's Team Jake?"
I posed the question to a rather big, handsome dad looking guy in the middle of the booth. He told me Team Jake was a group that honors his son, raises money for United Cerebral Palsy, and asked if I would wear one of the shirts in the race on Sunday. Reading the shirt, I realized Jake had passed away at the age of four, and Team Jake raised money for UCP. Six years before, Jake's dad carried a giggling 4-year old Jake the last 100 yards of the Orange County Marathon. Jake died that night in his sleep, and Team Jake has been a mainstay of the race ever since.
Jake's dad gave me one of the shirts to wear in the race. Reaching for my purse I asked how I could donate, and he referred me to the UCP Orange County site. I asked if I could give him money for the shirt, and he said no. They were free. I'd be one of the hundreds running in Jake's honor with his smiling face leading the way on Sunday.
It was nothing short of a God gift meeting Jake's dad, and Jake. My brain became right sized in an instant, and all of the junk that I thought was important enough to fill it just minutes before found its proper place.
I was raised to believe in Catholic Church that God gave us tragedy to test our mettle, like the trials of Job in the Old Testament. See what our faith was made if, and how much we really trusted God. But I don't believe that now. I don't believe God wakes up in the morning, deciding today is the day He's decided someone gets cancer or dies in an accident or a terrorist strikes. Instead, I believe He gave us the good and bad possibilities of life without malice. So why would He allow tragedy to strike? So that we can learn from our lives and grow. There are the occasions we rise to, and those when we must lean on others to get through what's completely outside of our grasp. And love is truly the only certainty that can help us find our true north.
Oftentimes, like when I consider my dear sister/friend cousin Ann and her damned metastatic cancer or the host of other horrific injustices I've seen, I struggle to make sense of the nonsensical. I search to find ways to somehow understand the god-less concept of war, and attempt to heap my peace on it. Rather than hate the bastards responsible for atrocity and fight the urge to rage against all the enemy holds dear, I knee pray to find a way to handle it.
I sincerely believe you never know how you'll react to anything until it puts you in an emotional or physical or spiritual stranglehold. That's why I don't want to waste time judging how other people lead their lives. God didn't put me here to tell others how to do things my way. Instead, I get to support them on their journeys. I get to learn from them. I leans on the ones whom I trust to prop me up when I'm faced with tragedies that are beyond my abilities to cope.
On Friday, tragedy didn't win. Horrific loss didn't have a right to own the souls of those it ripped from their moorings. When I looked in Jake's dad's eyes, a complete stranger to me, I think I understood what God had in mind. Although I guarantee you that Jake's dad's heart aches every moment of every day thinking about his little boy lost, the love that lights up his face with mere mention of Jake tells a much more important story. Love is why we're here. And when we can share it, even for a short time - a moment, a day or four years - it makes the pain worth it.
Thanks Jake, especially for that little boost I asked you for on mile 8. I wouldn't have made it up that hill without you.
Sarah O'Leary is a runner, writer, and proud member of Team Jake. Donations can be made to Team Jake through at: www.ucp-oc.org/UCP/TeamJake_Donation.php. You can reach Sarah via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through comments below.