Anyone who knew my brother Paul would not have pegged him as a good running companion. But after he died in 2009, that’s what he became.
In the weeks after his death, I took to the pavement and used my daily runs to try to figure out what had happened. Paul, the second oldest of my six siblings, was 14 years older than me, the youngest. We generally regarded him as the family screw-up, a role he worked hard to cultivate. He battled addiction issues his entire adult life — alcohol and pain pills mostly — and at 49, his body decided it was enough.
My conversations with Paul started with questions that mostly went unanswered, questions like: Why did you make the decisions you made? Is there something I could have done differently to reach out? And in the weeks that followed, out of respect for the dead, I figured I should use the miles for positive reminiscing, calling up memories like the first time I saw Paul’s son, my nephew: Remember how I held him, hardly believing that I got to be an aunt when I was only 10 years old?
But as the months wore on, that highlight reel started to fade. Anger began welling up as soon as I laced up my running shoes, and I was usually on the attack by the time I got to the end of my street. Monologues of frustration at my brother and his choices flew through my mind as I pounded the pavement: Growing up, you were mean as nails to your siblings. As an adult, you just stopped showing up. You let your friends talk you into doing stupid — and illegal — things.
It turned out I was far angrier than I thought at my brother, and every foot strike was a chance to enumerate the ways. The faster I ran, the harder I hit. On tempo runs and intervals at the track, I pounded the image of him in my mind like a fuming child throwing fists into her pillow. You fought, screamed and drank your way through one marriage and were in the midst of doing the same with another. Every time you borrowed money from Mom and Dad, which was constantly, the first thing you bought was cigarettes and beer.
And then, one day, he spoke back to me: Yeah, Judi, I messed up in every way possible. What do you want from me?
What did I want from him?
Now I used my long, slow Sunday morning runs to contemplate that question. The answer, I discovered after many miles, was that I wanted to understand how we could come from the same place, yet wind up on such different paths. He dropped out of high school, beat up his body with cigarettes, drugs and alcohol, worked irregularly, and constantly seemed to be in financial or legal trouble. I went to graduate school, found enough steady income as a writer and storyteller to support my family, ran and did yoga, never smoked or did any drugs, and generally avoided trouble.
It took another year — maybe two — before my brother and I made headway. I had to hear the judgment in my own voice before I could truly hear his voice. And it said to me: You write people’s stories for a living. Did it ever occur to you that I had a story, too?
On a run through the easy rolling hills of Cincinnati, just across the river from where we grew up, he reminded me that he was coming of age precisely when the family was stretched to its edge in terms of money and the time our parents could devote to their seven children, and that we actually did not come from the same place. As I ran through the main drag of my suburb’s tidy downtown, he told me that he never felt as if he fit in with the family, and asked me if I knew what it felt like to not belong.
He saved his real demons for the steepest, most tortuous uphill climbs. Do you think I wanted to get addicted to pain pills at 19 after I broke my back falling on the job? You think I didn’t know everyone wanted me to be someone other than who I was?
As I imagined him narrating the story of his life, I found that we had a lot more in common than I had ever realized. We were very different people, but we shared many of the same tendencies, including a nonnegotiable stubbornness about living life on our own terms. Only through a slight variation of genetics, order of birth and pure chance had we ended up in different places.
Nearly four years after my conversations with my brother began, as I prepared myself for another summer of running, I decided to ask him for a favor. Our father had developed dementia — it was a condition he had in the last years of Paul’s life, but it had greatly worsened since Paul died. The family knew it was time for him to move to a nursing home.
Please help him release, I asked Paul during every one of my runs that summer. The gentleness of my request surprised me. A few years earlier it might have sounded very different: You jerk, you never helped out or did anything for the family, can you at least do this? But it wasn’t like that now. The miles had connected us in a new way. By the end of August, my dad had passed peacefully.
You’d think I’d talk to my dad on my runs now. But I hardly ever do. It’s still Paul. It’s still his story I work to hear and understand. After all, people say you need a running partner who challenges you.