As of yesterday, I am done with the hardest part of marathon training. Now all I have left to do is taper, which is runner lingo for the dreaded dropping off of weekly mileage until race day. Why is it dreaded? Because runners typically don't want to run less. I have always hated the taper weeks, as unlike the months prior, you aren't achieving any new milestones or accomplishing new goals. It's boring. It's slow. It's necessary. It's awful.
This year it is especially hard, because all Alex's death has left me with, other than his book, is numbers. In the past, I'd experience the notorious "runner's high" all the time. During the middle of a long run or toward the end of a speed workout, I'd feel the tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand up and the sun would suddenly feel extra good on my skin. My legs would become weightless and for a couple of minutes I'd feel like I could lift a car if need be. It's euphoric and wonderful and makes me feel invincible. But to feel that, you have to let yourself, you know, actually *feel* things, and I just haven't been able to do that this go around. I learned on a run shortly after Alex died that there is only one door on the dam that holds in emotion. I was running faster than normal, it was a tempo workout. If I talked, it would have only been in single words at a time, I was breathing that heavily. Then, like clouds parting, my gait got smoother, my breath became steady, the tiny hairs on the back of my neck were waking up. But instead of feeling invincible, instead of imagining myself sprinting toward the end of a coveted race, or surging past someone I dislike just before the finish line, or winning the Mark Twain award for comedy and giving the "smartest and funniest acceptance speech I've ever heard," as quoted by Steve Martin, I crumbled. The emotional flood gates opened, but the happy stuff was no where to be found. Tears instantly clouded my vision and my breath was caught up in my throat. I felt like I was choking while being punched in the stomach. The embarrassment of crying in public added a layer of anxiety on top of this emotional meltdown. I had to stop. I ran over toward the lake and raised my hands up over my head, giving my lungs more room to take in air. I tried to slow my breathing down, but I couldn't, and I couldn't stop crying. I tried running again, just to get home quicker, but my chest locked up with every step. Red faced, exhausted, ashamed, I walked home the rest of the way, trying not to meet people's eyes.
That was the last time I let myself feel anything on a run this year. Since then I've been going through the motions, completing my scheduled miles, taking pictures of pretty moments along my various routes and listening to my favorite songs, but my heart hasn't been in it. I haven't been able to risk feeling all the bad things just for a chance to feel the good. I don't want to be like T-1000; constantly falling apart while chasing my goals. So instead, I focus on numbers. The miles, the times, the days. I count and analyze, bargain and organize. I make plans and to-do lists, I check off my runs like they're an errand or a chore. I do this with the hope that one day I won't have to, that one day I'll go for a run because I feel the desire, not just because I'm trying to resume a sense of normalcy. I'm going to finish my training. I'm going to run this race. If my heart isn't in it, I guess I'll just have guts.
I've spent my last two weekends attending weddings and parties and honestly, I'm fucking spent. I'm not sure I've ever been more emotionally exhausted, and that includes Alex's memorial service, the last presidential election, and the Thanksgiving my dog spent projectile pooping blood all over the place. The first of the two weddings was my youngest brother's, which was hard for all the obvious reasons. It was our first family event after Alex's death, and his absence was felt heavily. The next was my best friend's wedding, and our mutual friends from all over were there to help them celebrate. While it was great to see my long distance friends again, it's also hard to talk to people I haven't seen since my brother's death. I am not the same friend they had before. Like, yeah, I still tell everyone what to do and eat too fast and dance really hard, but once you've been to the dark side, you don't see things the same way anymore. I used to answer, "How have you been?" with the polite and expected, "Good, thanks! You?" but I can't tell that lie anymore. At the reception, a good friend asked that very question and I told him, "Miserable, but I'm here and managed to put lipstick on." It startled him. I could see it in his face, but I didn't care. I can't care. I spend so much energy trying to be a functional human being that I have had to force myself to let some things go. Putting on a happy face for my friends is one of them. Obsessively cleaning my hardwood floors is another. I don't want to be off-putting to the people I like and love most. I don't take pleasure in dumping my problems on others, and I don't believe that's what I'm doing. I am, however, starting to believe that I need some help in this.
Before you send me the names of your therapists, know that I have thought about it and have decided it's not for me. I've been to counseling before, and while this may sound very, um, stupid, for lack of a better word, was taken aback by the amount of talking required. If you know me, you likely know that I like to hang out in small groups wherein I feel comfortable telling self-deprecating and exaggerated stories of my various personal failings. I also like to exclaim things at the television when the Cubs are on. But for every day I see people, I need at least one day off. Talking is hard, guys. It's really, really hard. So hard in fact that after two weddings and one retirement party for my in-laws I spent all yesterday sobbing on my couch, pausing briefly to run 10 miles then watch the Cubs game. I would rather put a stranger's cigarette out in my eye than talk about anything, especially my feelings, for a prolonged period time. It's actual torture. Seriously, if I were a captured spy, I would tell my captors anything they wanted immediately if it meant that they'd stop asking me questions. This would inevitably lead to my execution when given back to my home country, but hey, being dead is better than having to explain yourself in court.
So what do I need then, if I don't want to talk about my feelings? When I told my friend flat out that I was miserable, he flinched, but he stayed right there next to me. That was enough.
When Alex was barely two, he scratched off a lottery ticket my dad bought him, as we loved to scratch away the metallic film with pennies while we waited for Dad to fill up the gas tank. Alex’s ticket was a $500 winner, and with that money my dad bought our family’s camcorder. We were definitely the first family on the block to have one, and while I and the rest of the neighborhood kids were always trying to come up with a new schtick for the camera, Alex only ever had one thing to say when the giant lens focused on him. “BATMAN!” he’d say, in the same sing-songy way the Adam West series theme song went. Sometimes he would preface this declaration with the, “na na na na na na na na” part of the song. Sometimes he would get distracted during the “na na na na na na na na’s” and keep going while pushing a toy car across the living floor, climbing up the tree house, or coloring a stack of computer paper. Focused on the task at hand, “na na na na na na na na-ing,” my dad would wait patiently for him to look up and finally notice he was being filmed. When several minutes would go buy, Alex still singing monosyllables, Dad would give up and call to him. “Alex!” He'd look up and grin. “Say hi, buddy,” Dad would ask. “BATMAN!” Alex would exclaim, before going back to that world inside his head that always seemed very busy and very far away.
His Batman obsession continued into our childhoods, with Batman themed birthday parties, batman pajamas, a massive wooden bed carved into the likeness of the Batmobile by my grandfather and painted shiny black with the signature signal by my mother, Halloween costumes, bed sheets… We even called the nebulizer machine he used to inhale his asthma medication the “Batmask,” so he’d actually sit still and use it. In the beginning, I think he loved Batman for all of his gadgets. Alex loved to build things, so the Bat Cave, full of intricate tools, utility belts, the Batmobile, Batboat, Batcopter, Batcycle, and Batplane, was his idea of heaven. Not to mention all the corresponding toys. I’m sure when we moved out of that house, the new owners found tiny missiles and barbs shot from the Batmobile he got for his third birthday, stuck in the carpet, wedged inside light sockets. When Tim Burton took over the franchise, the villains became Alex’s favorite. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was endlessly fun to impersonate, while Danny DeVito’s Penguin used to keep us up at night. When Alex wouldn’t stop bugging me, I’d threaten to bite his nose off like Penguin did to that image consultant who implied he was ugly. The fear-factor those movies provided was a far cry from the campy Adam West days, but they also introduced a side to the caped crusader we hadn’t seen before. Batman wasn’t just a nocturnal hero with an endless supply of grappling hooks (I always wondered how he sat down in the Batmobile with those attached to his belt), he was Bruce Wayne; a depressed orphan who sought revenge with a side of adrenaline. He was a lonely, friendless (save for an aging butler), misunderstood, mortal man. Alex particularly loved Christian Bale’s interpretation of Bruce. Instead of the brooding, intellectual business man Michael Keaton portrayed him to be, Bale made him an insufferable brat, a drunk, a spoiled party boy who squandered his father’s money and legacy. He made Bruce despicable, so no one would question if it were he who was out saving the world every night. This is the idea I think Alex related to in the end. That everyone had both a Batman and Bruce Wayne inside of them. Everyone was capable of being the hero and the villain, and the choice of which one to be isn’t a clean one. You have to sacrifice a part of yourself to be one or the other.
When we were very little, he started to call me “Robin,” after Batman’s fellow orphaned sidekick. In fact, I don’t remember him using my real name until he was at least seven or so. I should have been irritated that I got the role of the wimpy sidekick with a horrible costume of garish green underpants, since I was the oldest sibling and therefore had all rights to front seat claims, PG movies, and pretend character assignments, but I never said boo. I guess it just made sense to me that Alex would be the Dark Knight. I mean, I couldn’t go anywhere without my baby blankets (still can’t), while Alex regularly demanded to sleep outside in our treehouse. By himself. All night. Without a flashlight. It took me 30 years to build up the courage to sleep outside at night (camping, some call it), but there are other things some may consider daring that come naturally to me. Drinking beer and gin in the same night, for one, but also getting tattoos. I’ve always admired them on other people, and when I started getting them myself, I began to love the process. I love the very sensation of getting tattooed. It makes me feel peaceful and calm. It’s the closest thing I have ever felt to what I’ve read meditating feels like. When Alex died and I racked my brain of things that would make me feel something other than his loss, getting tattooed topped the list. I ran the idea by my mother, knowing full well she would think I was kidding and change the subject. Turns out I know nothing, because when I suggested that during her next visit we get matching Batman tattoos for Alex, she said, “Okay, what time?”
The most recent installment in the Batman movie series, The Dark Night Rises, ends with Batman carrying a lethal reactor away from Gotham with The Bat (another great flying contraption of his) to detonate it over the sea. While he saves the city he loves so much, he makes the ultimate sacrifice to do so. Or so we think. With the presumption of Bruce Wayne’s death, Wayne Manor is turned into an orphanage, Alfred inherits the Wayne fortune, and John Black, a good cop who helped Batman, is given spelunking gear and a set of coordinates, left to him by Bruce. John, whose real name is, you guessed it, Robin, swings through a waterfall and into a massive cave, where a swarm of bats immediately encompass him and a platform rises from the deep, taking him to where it all began. This is the job of the sidekick. When our hero dies, we don’t wallow. We don’t give up. We pick up his emblem and finish what he started.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. My body is a lot smarter than my brain. That’s not saying much, seeing as the t...