40,000 Miles

Isabel Bearman Bucher

© Copyright 2005 by Isabel Bearman Bucher

  It felt like a velvet glove, moving up from my chest, spreading its fingers  around my throat.  The wild beating began then - this playing of a thousand notes up a xylophone. The tachycardia swelled like a symphony, until my heart was thudding like a runaway clock with stripped gears. I lay  there and stared down at my thumping chest.

I'd just put my two young daughters to bed and had collapsed,  exhausted, onto the one I shared  with my husband, who worked  nights writing sports at the local newspaper.  The strange episode  passed, but the fright didn't.  I waited up for him,  talked into the wee hours.  Next day we were sitting in the cardiologist's office and he wired me up to  a  portable EKG machine with instructions to come back after three days.

"We've been over every beat," the doctor  stated a week later.  "There's  no irregularity.  But, you do have a very significant mitrol valve heart murmur.  In time, it may need surgery, but for now, you just need to check in with me twice yearly.  And for a young women, you are in absolutely lousy shape!"

There began a reign of  total terror now known as a panic attacks.  I got infected with  the  "fraids" -  fraid of dying,  fraid of leaving my children, fraid of having a heart attack.  What it really was, way down under, was massive stress. The stress of no money, mounting bills, no help from my husband who was always going out into his world of sports, dressed in a suit, traveling with the teams, while I stayed home 24 hours a day with tiny kids.  And, the big whammy - stress because way down under, I knew that my husband was systematically killing himself with three packs of cigarettes a day, over the hill fatty foods and a huge job that paid dividends in ego strokes, guaranteed to create real strokes.   I could be  waiting at a traffic  light, sitting alone evenings, or in the middle of a crowd and the attacks swarmed over me like army ants.   I didn't sleep much anymore because I was waiting to die.  My digestion went south.  Any food cranked off tremendous volcanic explosions.   Gasping for air, rolls of stomach gasses sent me into more panic  because "what if" it really was a heart attack?

Several times, LeRoy  rushed me to the Emergency Room  where they strapped heart monitors onto my chest and found nothing. Completely sure they were wrong,  I began to suppress my terror from the world, but not myself.  I was a mess.  Off the edge.  If this one wasn't a heart attack, I reasoned, the next one would be, because how could a heart survive all this stress and terror.  At one point I took tranquilizers, but after a week I gave them up because I hated the floating quality they painted my life. Down deep,  I knew I had to get my arms around this beast,  fully alert.   So alone,  I was positive I was the only one in the world going through this nightmare.  What I needed was counseling, but my mother was in a wheel chair, I did kids from morning to night and paid professional help was not an option.

When, after a four month follow-up EKG revealed nothing, the disparaging comments of the docs regarding my lousy physical condition made me  just plain mad.  That's what forced me to start trying to fix myself.   Nights, when the attacks blossomed like wraiths, and the pounding beats soured, I'd get  up, lay on the living room floor, arms outstretched,  and  breathe in six, out six, increasing  to in ten.   I visualized dress patters, laid them on imaginary material, cut, then sewed.   I'd rise slowly, shakily,  heat milk with honey and cinnamon and sip away this night's fear.  Tiny millimeters of space began to wedge  between me and the beast.

Women were barely doing any exercise in the early 70's, and running was just making the scene.  I bought a pair of two dollar tennies and one early morning, I took off running down the  block in a skirt.  Bent over and wheezing, I had to  walk the second.  In a stop-start dog and pony show, ten blocks later,  I got back to the house and met my perplexed husband and daughters waiting on the front porch.

"What ARE you doing?" LeRoy questioned, laughing.

"Running, "  I huffed, hobbling up the steps.  One more laugh Bucko, and I'll smack you!"

Getting out of bed the next morning, I howled, then crumpled to the  floor.  My calves were molten fire.   I had to hang on walls to get around.   Two days later, I hobbled out  there again.   And so it went, again, and again.  In two months, I did my first real mile, non stop.  LeRoy wasn't laughing anymore.  As the running grew stronger,  panic and stress diminished.   In 1974, I showed up for my first race in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, dressed in jeans, carrying a purse.  When the starting horn blared, I shoved it into my cardiologist's hands.  Forty-eight minutes later, LeRoy, the girls and the doc, who was swinging my purse like artillery, cheered me in - first four miles ever, twelve minute pace, back of the pack.  I was hooked.

Two years later, I became a widow.  LeRoy died at 42 of a totally wrecked  heart.  His arteries were in shreds from genetics, from smoking, from fats and  from stress.   My every breath hinged on his every irregular heart beat,  every heart attack he continued having, but the look in my cardiologist's eyes,  when he met me in the hospital hall for the last time,  cracked my heart wide open.

"I TOLD YOU SO!  NOW YOU'VE LEFT US!" I keened, like an animal,  crumpling to the floor, wailing by his bed.

  Time passed.  Wounded hearts heal - mine and my daughters.    I  remarried.   For 28  years, I ran half marathons, roads, hills, mountains -  American byways. 40,000 miles give or take.   I made every part of this beautiful big-hearted country mine on foot.  Sunrise found me doing a part of the Grand Canyon rim, Missouri paths, Houston bayous,  the Mississippi River at New Orleans when I heard the mournful song of a sunrise sax.  My heart swelled  for the beauty of it all - this country passing under my thudding feet, trampling  stress, breathing in wisdom and life.  The wraiths and beasts  had long since packed their bags and had silently crept away during some anonymous night.   I was like a train, speeding through hot flashes, cheap-o eye glasses, graying hair, winning medals, doing seven-minute miles.   The kids grew up, the dogs died.  I got checked, my EKG's read, but no doc ever said I was in lousy shape again.  As things do, life changes.  I got bumped to another health care program.  When I ran the treadmill, three strange docs watched the computer screen.

"Are you on beta blockers?" one asked cautiously, while reviewing my super-low blood pressure and the odd, slow spike, with a kick  heart blip that comes with athletics.

"Na," I replied casually.  "Been running 28 years, but I quit dressing other people."

"Hardly any blood is leaking back in the mitrol valve," reported another doc.  "Dressing others?   Give us the secret."

"I quit trying to dress other people in my dreams, fears and desires," I said wistfully, continuing my slow jog.  "I learned to dress myself.  I do what I can, and let go of the rest."

"No problema with this thumper," said another with a huge smile. "Get the heck outta here lady jock!  You got the secret of life!"
Because my heart was so strong,  so tough, so small, stroking from pure joy, they kicked me out of the program.

Five years ago, my husband and I did a home exchange in San Francisco.  On my 62nd birthday, I ran the Golden Gate backwards and forwards. My Italian Nonna once  told me that life is a series of exits and entrances, and I better know when to do both.  I figured this bridge,  in the City by the Bay,  was a fitting end to all my running years.

Long ago, I came to accept that if I died, I died, but to live in fear, not giving my absolute personal best  everyday, was a life  not worth living.  These days, nearly  seventy, I walk with my husband, do aerobics faithfully with the rest of the young flat bellies in my class, and occasionally  run a mile for old time's sake  in the cool of an Albuquerque foothills sunrise, when I see my mountain raising out of lavender mist, and a good  city yawning itself awake.

So long 40 K.  Come on 50!

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