I push aside the plastic curtain and approach the table on which lies the dead runner. His arms are at his sides. His eyes are closed. He looks asleep, and I know he is dead only because the emergency room nurse has just informed me. Somewhere behind me a woman weeps.
Today is the first day of May, my favorite month. Until now.
I bend over my father and encircle his chest with my arms. He is still warm. I see that he has chipped a front tooth. Probably from the fall. I rest my head on his rib cage for a moment. A wave of grief floods through me so suddenly and intensely I am paralyzed, but somehow I manage to stand straight again and look him over.
I am fascinated. He looks fabulous. He is slender and muscular for 60. He looks like he could go under 3:30 at Boston right now. He only made it to the 3-mile mark of the 10K race we ran this morning. The paramedics say he was gone before he hit the ground. I notice that one shoe is missing. His T-shirt, which clings to his chest, has been ripped down the front. Probably for access.
I back away muttering some farewell and turn to comfort my mother. My wife sits next to her. The nurse taps my elbow and wordlessly hands me my father's effects, which are composed of only two items - a wedding ring and a runner's watch. Serious runners travel light. I realize that the watch is still running, and an oddly perverse chill runs through me. My father's last interval continues.
The course we ran was out and back with a turnaround at the halfway mark. I had waved at him as we passed each other on opposite sides of the road. He yelled out my position to me. He was moving well. Approximately 2 minutes later, he was dead, and I was trying to move into 11th place. I came across the finish line satisfied with my performance and found a spot on the curb to cheer the other runners and wait for my father.
As the last runner crossed the line followed by the sweeper on a bicycle, I was puzzled. I inquired at the officials' table, and getting shrugs in response, I began to search among the hundred or so runners spread out on the grass eating yogurt and bananas and sipping orange juice. When the police officer approached me, he asked me to follow him to the hospital in my car. He begged ignorance of my father's condition.
It is late October, and I sit at my drawing table. I am an illustrator by trade and work at home on the third floor of a neo-Victorian house in Brooklyn. I am thinking about the New York City Marathon and my father. His birthday was a few days ago, and in tribute I ran a 3-miler at sub-6:30 pace even though I'm preparing for the marathon on only about 20 miles a week. Since May I've had three bouts of bronchitis, and my training has been stilted also by waves of anxiety that overwhelm me as I run. Irrational fears. Of sudden death, of embolism, of infarction, of cars, of rogue asteroids.
There is no denying the fact that I am haunted at times as I run. Sometimes when I have reached the end of a particularly long and hard run, my vision blurs, and for a second I think I see him up ahead of me. At times I'll hear the footsteps of another runner pacing me from behind, and I'll look back to see that no one else is with me.
Older male runners in their 60's and 70's hold a strange fascination for me. I am struck with the longing to waylay them and without saying a word embrace them and tell them of my wonder and puzzlement at finding my father gone so much sooner than I had expected.
I will attempt to complete my ninth New York City Marathon as a tribute to my father, who ran it three times and loved every minute. Becoming an athlete at 52 offered him some salvation from the eye disease that began stripping him of his vision two years later. At the end, he was moving down the roads of Tom's River, New Jersey, navigating with peripheral vision only. In time he would have been totally blind. I joked with him that he wouldn't have to stop running because I would tie a rope around his waist and drag him along with me. That would be the least a son could guarantee his father.
I pull my chair back from the drawing table and open a small drawer in it. From among the pens, pencils and erasers, I extract the watch. The chronometer is still running almost six months later. I have not been able to bring myself to hit the stop button. I watch the digital numbers flash by, counting off the hours, minutes and seconds since my father took off on his last run. I torture myself again as I have almost every day with the impulse to stop the watch and end it now. But I don't. I search for an answer, but I don't know what I'm going to do with it.
Marathon day dawns chilly and cloudy. Good. It is still dark when I arise and prepare to meet the bus that will take me to the starting area in Staten Island. I carefully strap my father's watch to my wrist. I have decided to wear two watches during the marathon. I will wear his watch above my own, closer to my heart. Perhaps a synchronization of some sort will occur. Some blending of rhythm that will finally neutralize my grief.
The sun has broken through the overcast, and the humidity is on the rise as I stand waiting for the cannon to be fired and the crowd of impatient runners around me to surge forward. I've probably been talking to myself. I am alone among thousands. I miss my father more at this moment than any other I can remember.
The boom of the cannon signals the start, and I begin to move my arms and legs. I cross my wrists and start my own watch. My father's watch relentlessly and silently marks its own time. My heart rate, which had already quickened as the countdown began, now accelerates sharply as blood begins to flow. The sun is beginning to beat down, and I realize it will be another hot one.
We move forward up the incline of the Verrazano Bridge, and as I approach the apex of the span with its spectacular view of New York Harbor, I suddenly know what to do. I quickly unstrap my father's watch, and touching it briefly to my lips, I smoothly fling it up and out to the right over the side of the bridge.
Rotating like a black starfish, it neatly bisects the brilliant blue space between two of the bridge's enormous support cables. I feel a strong and sudden release as the watch glints briefly in the sun and disappears from view into the waters below. Still counting time.
Addendum: February 2010: Twenty two years after my father's death, I carry him with me on every run and have reclaimed the joy of running and looking forward to the next curve on the road ahead! This March, I will run the Oakland Half Marathon with my oldest daughter Dayna who was less than a year old when Ron died. His DNA is in both of us and we carry on the race! Cheers!
This website is dedicated to my father Ronald H. Hamann who died in May of 1988, and who is with me every step of the way.
©1992 and 2010 Brad Hamann