On being a #SmartRunner and the MS50

Last Saturday, B and I headed out to run our second ultra, the Mississippi 50 Trail Run, where I hoped to run the 50K a second time. We had run the race last year and absolutely loved it, and we both have been seriously bitten by the trail bug.

To say that I was grossly underprepared would be an understatement, but that seems to be my MO lately, and I usually hope I can get by with a cute outfit, my cheerful optimism, and the paltry road miles I’ve been squeezing in since the Louisiana Half in January and the Loup Garou 20-mile run in December. We left the hotel at 4:30 a.m., followed by our friends Kim and Becky, who would be running their first ultra. 28783534_10213786227881813_3927180048699963948_n

The morning was crisp and cold, maybe the upper 30s, with a nearly full moon peeking through the tall pines — perfect weather to start a race. The 50K consists of two 12-ish mile loops, the “orange” loops, and one 6-ish mile loop, the “blue” loop. The race director had told us at the pre-race meal the night before that we would get our feet wet in calf-deep water on the blue loop and that there was “some” mud on the course … a bit of an understatement!

B and I had talked extensively about the water/mud situation on the trail, and frankly, neither of us was too crazy about wet and muddy feet. We had never run in those conditions, and I was envisioning a worst-case scenario of hypothermia, chafing, and blisters galore. But we also knew that the trail would be what it would be, and we expected a very different race from last year’s perfect conditions. We had both brought shoe/clothes changes and had generously slathered our feet with Trail Toes, which we had read about on the Ultrarunning Facebook page and used for a couple of practice runs (it works great, btw!).

I had been training (if you can call it that) with a 5/1 interval, which worked out to about a 12 1/2 minute pace on the road, but I knew the trail pace would be slower. My goal was just to best last year’s very (very very) slow finish of 8:22. I also planned to walk the uphills (I remembered the course as being very flat, but more on that in a minute) and any creek crossings.

The first few miles went as planned. There was more mud than I was ready for, but at that point it was fairly easy to navigate by going around. I soon fell in with three pairs of girl runners — Melinda and Lisa, Patty and Renee, and Sarah and Christy — and although we were all doing our own thing, pace-wise, we stayed fairly well in sight of one another at that point.

28467674_10213769218536590_1474283203784216222_nThere was mud, that became harder to circumnavigate as more runners plowed through it. And water to slosh through and temporarily wash away the mud. And there were brambles. And uphills that I had totally blocked in my memory of last year’s race (was Aid Station 1 really up that hill last year?? And what about that hill on the “back” part of the out and back?).

We soon were all sporting “battle wounds” from cuts from the thorns, and our feet and legs were wet and muddy. Surprisingly, though, I didn’t mind the mud and water as much as I thought I would. The course was as beautiful as I remembered, and the aid stations were well-stocked by friendly volunteers. The weather was perfect.

Super-inspiring runners and new friends

I had planned to run entirely by myself, which I had done during Loup Garou and dearly loved, but these six women were really friendly and fun to be around and absolutely encouraging and inspiring — talk about women empowering one another! I soon wound up mostly running with Lisa, a broadcast journalist from New Orleans who was running her first ultra, and Melinda, a veteran ultrarunner who had just run a marathon the week before. These ladies were awesome!

By the out and back, I was having serious doubts about running another two loops. I felt fine, physically and mentally, but I just didn’t feel like running any more — I don’t know how else to explain it. At the start of the out and back, as I was downing some chips at the aid station, I saw the most welcome sight, my sweet hubby, who was on the return from the out and back. We exchanged a hug and kiss, and I said, I think I might be done. And I was.

B finishing strong!

After stopping at the finish line to receive my medal and blanket (can I just say this race has the BEST swag, btw? And how awesome to be able to drop down to a shorter distance, the 20K in this case, and still be considered a “finisher”!), I headed to the car (where I found a sweet love note from my hubby!) for some warm dry clothes and to cheer on the 50K finishers. Kim and Becky rocked their first ultra in 6 hours and some change, B PRd his by 45 minutes or so, and all my new friends came in like champs. What a great day! We will definitely be back to run this race again, and that 50K has my name on it next March!

Musing on the race afterwards, I apologized on FB to one of my new friends for having bailed on them. Her response? “You were being a #SmartRunner. Some people don’t know how to make that call. You did fabulous!!!” I love the laid-back and empowering feel of these trail races and the support from the ultra community. I am not a quitter; I am a finisher. And I did not let anyone down, not even myself: I was a smart runner.



The tale of the titmouse

For as long as I can remember, my favorite bird has been the tufted titmouse. I have always been charmed by his bright, inquisitive black eye, the perky tuft atop his head, his lovely markings, with shades of grey and his peachy-coloring underneath.

My brothers and I grew up learning about and loving nature. Our family vacations were always tent camping trips — Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky, southern Canada, Wisconsin, Colorado — and we were always equipped with bird and wildflower books. Finding a Lady’s Slipper in the forest or spotting a new bird gave us immeasurable pleasure. I have carried that love into adulthood, and birds, especially, give me great joy.

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The tufted titmouse, aka “Tufty,” visits the Sunshine House.

Many people say that the cardinal is a sign from God or a sign from heaven that our loved ones are watching over us, including a beloved lady I know, who has had a daily visitor tap on her windows in greeting for the past two years, and she believes wholeheartedly that he is her dad come to greet her and watch over her. I always thought the sentiment of the cardinal, or a butterfly, or a hummingbird, was a lovely one, but I did not give much credence to its validity.

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The cardinal is thought by many to be a sign from heaven that our deceased loved ones are watching over us.

The mother of a colleague at school died several months before my mom did, and in the months that ensued after we had both joined that sad club, he and I had several conversations about our losses. He told me that in the few months after his mom died, on more than one occasion he saw signs from her — perfectly aligned rocks on the sidewalk or other things that he thought were messages to him.

And after my mom died, I found a letter in her strongbox in which she wrote about how she had, on three separate occasions, received “eagle messages” and believed it to be a sign from my stepdad, Gene, after his death. In both instances — my colleague’s comments and my discovery of Mama J’s letter — I thought, “that’s nice,” but with a hefty dose of skepticism.

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Mama J believed that Gene had come to her in three eagle messages in the weeks following his death in December 2000.

Then, this series of events occurred: My mom died in early October of 2016, and for Christmas that year, I received a package from my stepmom Denise, which contained, among other things, a small, porcelain bird ornament. It was a tufted titmouse. The letter that accompanied the bird told me that many years ago, after my parents were divorced and my dad remarried, my mom had given my stepmom the ornament, saying “every Christmas tree needs a bird.” In the kindest of gestures, my stepmom thought that the bird would give me comfort, and she sent it to me. But here’s the thing — there was no way that my mom could have known, when she gave Denise the ornament, or, some 40 years later, could Denise have known, when she passed it along to me, that the tufted titmouse, aka “Tufty” was my favorite bird.


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After we moved in to our newly built home, dubbed “Sunshine House,” my husband Brian and I started feeding the birds in our back yard. We had been seeing lots of cardinals and house finches and the like, but on Mother’s Day, my first Mother’s Day without my mom, we had another visitor: the tufted titmouse. I had never seen him there until that day and would not see him again until the next time he came — when Brian was out of town for a couple of days and I was home alone. Here’s what I texted him:

“Tufty came to the backyard again today, and I got a picture! God is looking out for me while you are away.”

Since then, Tufty has been a fairly regular visitor to Sunshine House. Sometimes it will be weeks before I see him, and sometimes he comes for a few days in a row. Each time, he makes me wonder: Are there really portents or signs? Do our loved ones watch over us from heaven or nature or the universe or wherever they are? I cannot answer definitively. Call it susceptibility, or a need to believe, or divine intervention, or even a little bit crazy, but those three events, particularly their timing, brought me great comfort in my grief, and I have to admit that, even if just a little bit, I believe that Mama J is still watching over me.

This is grief

Back in May, at the funeral of a colleague’s mother, I began to cry and could not stop, already beginning to mourn the loss I knew was soon ahead. My then-boss, a wise and wonderful woman, held me in a tight hug afterwards, knowing, without my saying a word, what I was thinking. And then she said, quite kindly, “Don’t bury your mother before it’s time.”

She was right, and Mama J persevered for five more months, and we spent loving, happy, quality time together. But then it was time. Too soon for me and for all those who loved her so dearly, but the right time to have ended the suffering she was hiding from all but the most discerning. While her physical body will not be buried, she will return to the earth this spring in a place she held dear, the Gene Owens Nature Trail at the Scout camp in Missouri. Time to say goodbye. 

Grief is new to me. When my grandmother died in 1981, she died at the hospital, and her body was whisked away to be cremated, and we never saw her again or had any kind of memorial to provide us a transition between “here” and “gone.” Both my grandfathers died when I was too young to remember. My stepdad much beloved but not my blood to mourn. I am unaccustomed and unprepared. 

If this is grief, it is a strange and unpredictable creature. Some days I feel so “normal” that I worry something is wrong with me. Other times I carry such an anxiety in my chest that I wonder if people can physically see the tentacles of anguish that clench me tight. A friend, another recent motherless daughter, described it as a PTSD for which you do not know the triggers. 

This is grief: The moment you told the hospice staff who called that you were a mere mile away, and there was a hesitation before they said they’d see you soon, and you knew, just knew. Your husband frantically driving that mile and holding your hand while you prayed together the whole way. The feeling when you first saw her closed door, then entered the room and saw her there, peaceful and still. How your legs buckled beneath you and your husband held you up through his own pain and became your strength as you sobbed out “Mama” over and over. 

This is grief: Knowing that no one will call you by certain nicknames ever again. Mary Jane Finkelheim. Fink, for short. Gailer whaler, from a silly made-up childhood song, just for you. Sissy, mostly. 

This is grief: Seeing one of the two Bradford pears at the exit to your apartment blooming unexpectedly in October and wanting to tell her how strange it is, or to drive her by and show her. 

This is grief: Sitting in the dark at a concert in New Orleans with your sweet hubby, sneaking a peek at your phone to find out the score of the National League Championship game and bursting into bittersweet tears because her team — the Cubs she taught you to love from the time you were a child — is finally going to the World Series, and she is not here to know. 

This is grief: Every public restroom a reminder of the struggle with the damn wheelchair for the past year, the stalls not big enough or wide enough, or angled right, her getting jostled, rolling over your own foot, or getting stuck between the wheelchair and the door, both of you laughing at yet another bathroom predicament and lamenting the businesses that adhere only to the letter of the law.

This is grief: Inconsolable, when you realize that you have inadvertently erased all of the voice mail messages you’ve saved over the past year, anticipating a time when you could no longer hear her voice, the only remaining message the one from that final Saturday: “I think I need help.” 

This is grief: The apartment you and your hubby lovingly, painstakingly, helped her to make a new home, stripped bare of everything that made it that way. The realization that someone’s treasures may no longer have meaning, with no one to explain them or hold them dear. Whose was that little brightly colored kerchief or that pearl-handled pocketknife? 

This is grief: The Christmas ornaments you helped her pick up that day in July, that day you didn’t have time to open them with her, laid out in a corner of her living room, neatly labeled, in mailing boxes, with Sharpie and tape at hand, ready to go. As if she knew you would need her help in sending them, that she would not be there. Laid out like an open wound of guilt and a healing balm of love. 

I could offer my heart and friendship and words of kindness in the past to those whose loved ones had gone before them, and I did, most sincerely. But I did not — and you will not — understand. Not until you are there, in the dark, sleepless again, feeling once more the crushing blow that nearly knocked you off your feet. 

A dear friend told me a few days after Mama J’s death: Things will be good again, maybe not for days or months, but they will. Happier images and memories will replace the ones in your head. Feel what you feel. Take your time. 

Wendell Berry writes, “Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.” For now, I become accustomed to grief. And I know that with time, with grief, out of grief, comes love, from all of you — my friends and family — and from Mama J, shining out to stitch together the pieces of my heart. 

To follow the Adventures With Mama J from the beginning, start hereAnd Mama J makes 3


Neither B nor I was prepared for this hideous in-between. Sleep easy, my sweet mama.

As I have shared, when Mama J moved to Louisiana I asked to photograph her and began this blog as a way to work through the emotional toll of becoming a caregiver to an aging/dying parent. I didn’t realize it would all too soon become a vehicle for keeping friends and family apprised of her condition in her hospice bed.

It’s hard to express what’s “wrong” with Mama J right now. I used the word in-between in the title of this post, and it’s perhaps the best way to explain what’s happening.

I went to snap a photo of her, and she opened her eyes and looked straight at me … and waved. Where are you, my sweet mama? Somewhere in between yourself and forever. I love you.

In-between describes this space between life and dying, a space that B and I were not prepared for. Foolishly, selfishly (both for her and for us), I thought I would come to her apartment one day and find her, fallen asleep never to awaken.

But life, and dying, don’t always work that way, and her time is evidently not run out. Mama J is no longer herself. Due to oxygen depletion, or carbon dioxide buildup, or the falls, or whatever else is happening physiologically (aside from the devastating long-term effects of her COPD), she has suffered some cognitive impairment. She sometimes knows us or what is happening and sometimes repeats a word over and again. She has referred to both her parents, both long dead, and people we don’t know. She asked for soup last night, and B rushed to get her some, but when he returned we both realized she was playing out something that was only happening in her head. Sometimes she can respond to a request, and she has said “I love you, too.” An automatic response, programmed in? Or God’s way (and hers) of comforting me? She wants up and out of the bed and the chair, and fell again early this morning, hitting her head. Mostly she is sleeping, as her body works whatever processes it is trying to work right now.

We have been faced with the difficult choice of what to do next. Her social worker and doctor and Medicare have decided, at least for now, that she is “well” enough to transfer to a nursing facility, perhaps as early as Monday. I look at her and wonder if they are talking about the same patient. I’ll admit to saying “That’s bullshit” to the social worker through tears of frustration. One nurse says she will not leave hospice. Another says she’s improving (um…). All agree that she is not yet “imminent” or “actively dying,” yet the infamous little blue book (have you read it yet? Rush right out…) Gone From My Sight has a checklist of mental changes “one to two weeks” from death that we can check off every item on the list. Disorientation. Check. Picking at clothes. Check. Talking with the unseen. Check. Agitation. Check. Check. Check.

We have decided that once they “release” her, she will stay here at the hospice. It is clean and quiet, and she is getting excellent care. If she runs out of money before she runs out of life, we’ll figure it out.

I want to say how much your love and prayers and kind words mean. When I write to someone on Facebook or in a text and say I’m thinking of you or praying, I mean it and do it with my whole heart. But I’ve not really been on the receiving end before, and it’s a powerful gift of a place to be. I can’t express enough our love and thanks.

Meanwhile, Mama J is still here. In between herself and forever, somewhere. I hope her journey will be easy, and not long.

To read about the Adventures With Mama J from the beginning, start hereAnd Mama J makes 3

Next post: This is grief


Mama J, in a peaceful moment today.

To read about our adventures from the beginning, start here: And Mama J makes 3

Next post: In-between

7 seconds

It’s said that your life can change in a split second, or in the case of Mama J’s New Adventure, seven seconds.

Seven seconds. That’s how long it took for me to take Mama J’s dishes to the kitchen, to hear a noise, and to rush back to the dining room to find her on the floor. I know because I looked at the camera footage when I was beating myself up trying to figure out what I could have done differently. My sweet husband assured me that even if I had still been sitting there, she would have fallen anyway, and I might have hurt her worse in trying to grab her. But still.

This morning I’m sitting at the hospice facility, where Mama J is propped up in a chair, sleeping, mouth open and looking exactly like what she is, a little old lady in hospice. The television was on when I first got here, and my first thought was, I’ll admit, irritation: Y’all don’t know her at all. She never watches TV, except for Jeopardy, like clockwork.

Mama J was transported here by ambulance yesterday after a second fall yesterday morning when her brain told her to go outside and get her newspaper and her body had other plans. After the fall alert sounded, B and I found her sitting on the bottom step outside her apartment, dazed and bleeding from a cut on her shin. It wasn’t until much later, stroking her hair away from her forehead, that we found the purple goose egg swelling there. Unable to rouse her from deep slumber, her hospice nurse decided to move her to hospice inpatient to see if she could be stabilized.

Waiting for the ambulance to take your mom away feels like an eternity.

For the past two weeks, Mama J has been getting shorter of breath. She didn’t tell me this directly, of course, stoic as she is, but she did tell B. Her caregiver noticed that she hadn’t seemed well for a week or so. And she was withdrawn, uncharacteristically quiet, one day at lunch last week. Friday night she turned away homemade pizza, one of her favorite foods.

On Saturday morning after our long run, we had a missed call and voicemail from her. “Brian, it’s Mom,” she said. “I need help. I’m confused. I don’t know what day it is. I mean, I know it’s Saturday, but I don’t know what day it is.”

And then, one fall, two. Three days of solid sleep. Four days with little to no food. And a mama who, in waking, repeats “Vanilla, vanilla, vanilla, vanilla” over and over and over. Our lives changed forever, again.

Read about our adventures from the beginning here: And Mama J makes 3

Next post: Rest


This was going to be another post entirely, about the hurt Mama J inflicted about our new house and about my sweet husband’s defense of me, my heart stinging with pain and bitterness. But then something wonderful happened — two somethings, actually — and I decided to write this story instead.

“It is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself and others.” — Dalai Lama

About a year and a half ago, my stepmom Denise was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, which had reached some lymph nodes as well. Shortly after Denise’s diagnosis, Mama J began crocheting a prayer shawl for her. If you don’t know about prayer shawls, the individual making one prays while she is crocheting or knitting, so that the prayers are “stitched” into the shawl, with the idea that the recipient is then covered in prayers when she wears the shawl.

Then, Mama J’s life was turned upside-down with a life-altering move to Baton Rouge. In the midst of these changes, she naturally stopped working on the shawl as she got settled into her new surroundings. And then, after decades of crocheting experience, the unthinkable happened: She couldn’t remember how to crochet.

Mama J with the prayer shawl she crocheted for my stepmom

Meanwhile, Denise soldiered on, undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, a double mastectomy, and reconstructive surgery, with a beautiful, determined spirit, purpose, and will to survive.

Mama J floundered. She stitched and ripped. Her health diminished and plateaued. Cognitive ability faltered and resumed. She tried again. She failed. At her wits’ end, she bought a crochet book for beginners, enlisted some assistance from my dear friend Ginger, and retaught herself to crochet.

At nearly 77 years old, in failing health, Mama J retaught herself to crochet so that she could finish this prayer shawl for my stepmom. This beautiful creation (pictured with Mama J above) went in the mail last week and arrived safely at its destination to a grateful recipient. And, with her re-found talents, Mama J has begun crocheting cancer caps for St. Aloysius Church and will join their prayer shawl ministry later this month.

Meanwhile, yesterday I received an e-mail from Denise. My stepmom is likewise a woman possessed of many talents, one of which is crafting beautiful handmade rosaries. “I have made a couple dozen rosaries,” she wrote. “Do you think that there are any flood victims who need rosaries? I would love to donate them to someone who could distribute to Catholics who need them.”

I immediately reached out to Fr. Michael Alello, a beloved local priest and fellow runner, to see if he could help, and he agreed to distribute the rosaries if Denise would send them to his church.

My stepmom Denise, recovering from reconstructive surgery


It wasn’t until later in the evening, my meager role in connecting Denise and Fr. Alello accomplished, that a revelation came over me. Denise didn’t just whip out a “couple dozen” rosaries overnight. I am the honored recipient of two of her rosaries, and they are beautiful, painstakingly crafted pieces. She made these rosaries while she was undergoing chemo, radiation, and surgery, sometimes in isolation because of a compromised immune system.

I was struck by the connection between these two important women in my life, their lives unavoidably and inextricably woven together by my parents’ divorce and my dad’s subsequent remarriage nearly 40 years ago. And what they have in common is far beyond their connection to me and the love for the daughter they both share.

You see, both Mama J and Denise possess the quality of selflessness — my mom, reaching out from her own suffering to provide comfort to my stepmom, the woman who had married her children’s father, in a time of need, and my stepmom, recovering from the trauma of a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, to aid flood victims with a gift to help them spiritually in the recovery process.

These two beautiful women have given me many gifts over the years. The gift of life. Monetary and physical gifts. Their unfaltering love and friendship. Mother Teresa — Saint Teresa now — says that “A life not lived for others is not a life,” and I am thankful to both my moms for this lesson, as they unknowingly gave me yet another gift today … that of a full and grateful heart.

To read the story of our Adventures With Mama J from the beginning, click hereAnd Mama J makes 3

Next post7 seconds