The Fear of Living

Whether I have ever outright told him so or not, my older brother is one of my heroes. Undoubtedly this stems partly from some genetic hardwiring as old as time, a predilection of the younger to take an upward gaze toward the elder, but it would be an undervaluing of his quality as a man to leave it at that.  He has always had a natural ability to feel out the goodness in others, an ease of going that makes him pleasant, honest company in any setting. That he is also the most ferocious competitor I have ever met might seem at odds in comparison, but somehow works to complement his good nature. His simple, straightforward way of treating people transfers into the athletic realm: the gun goes off, and he is going to win or damn it all trying.

I always knew, and admired, this competitive quality about him as we grew up together. Three years his junior, though just two years behind him in school, I would watch his athletic prowess on the soccer fields or around the track, while using his accomplishments as the measuring stick against which I inevitably fell short. It was not until his senior year of high school, however, that this sibling adulation crystallized into something lasting.

It was the county championship track meet, and I watched from the stands, sidelined by a hospitalization from the previous summer that ultimately put an end to my competitive running career. From this perch I witnessed his come into full blossom. The race was the mile, and he was among a handful of competitors who might win, though the favorite was a boy with a personal best time several seconds faster than the rest, and proven superior closing speed. Likely with this closing speed in mind, my brother went to the lead around five hundred yards to go, more than a lap from the finish. A gap materialized, but the favorite responded, slowly eliminating it until he came up on my brother’s shoulder with half a lap remaining. Choosing smartly to sit behind for the final turn, he then emerged wide with one hundred yards to go and surged past my brother, who was clearly spent.

Only he wasn’t.

Where by all rights he should have folded, he instead countered, closing back down on the boy ahead until they bounded stride for stride toward the finish. I can still remember the stubborn tilt of his chin, the belligerent pumping of his arms as he churned defiantly through those final yards. A fold-away tent housing the finish-line camera blocked our view from the opposite side of the track, so as they crossed the line almost in unison, no one could immediately determine who was victorious. When my brother’s name rang out over the PA system there was an explosion of cheering from our team’s slice of the bleachers. Afterward our cantankerous coach took him aside and said simply, “Scotty, what you did that last hundred, that’s something I can’t coach,” and hugged him. I felt an unfamiliar urge to do the same, but abstained. The Smith brothers have never been much for hugging.

***

He parlayed his high school talents into a decorated career at a small Division I program at a large beachside university, attaining decoration enough, in fact, to catch the attention of well-to-do German athletics brand, who upon graduation offered him a monthly rent stipend, annual travel budget, and head-to-foot outfitting in all things three-striped. He signed on the dotted line and has been a “professional runner” ever since. Incidentals like food, cell phone plans, and gas are covered by whatever winnings he can muster at road races across the country. He’s not building a nest egg, and there’s an inherent uncertainty to his income stream, but he’s cognizant of the time limit on his current career trajectory and is making the most of it while his legs and lungs allow.

In the course of his professional career he’s contested races as short as the 800 meter and as long as the half marathon, and just about every distance in between, across hill and dale, ‘round track oval and city street. Racing has taken him to every corner of this country and beyond, to Japan and Bulgaria and back again, all in pursuit of paydays and PRs and ever elusive personal satisfaction.

Most recently his vocation took him east for the Boston Athletic Association 5k road race, contested the day before the marathon as the first leg of the BAA Distance Medley, a three race series made up of a 5k, 10k and half-marathon, spread throughout the year. Boasting a $100,000 grand prize for the overall winner, the series draws a stable of world class road-racing talent, so my brother arrived this year with the modest, but realistic goal of a top ten finish, and with it at least a small share of the winnings. On off day resulted in a less than stellar time, but more unsavory than that, an 11th place finish, just outside the money. (I imagine that business-people and lawyers and all manners of other professionals experience similar anti-climax: a promising deal unexpectedly falls through, a case months in the planning is dismissed, or what have you. I have a harder time imagining these parallel let-downs involve nearly as much lactate production or elevation of heart rates, but as I am neither lawyer nor businessman, I can’t be sure.)

I didn’t call or text him that day, figuring he was probably stewing a bit from the lackluster result. Knowing he planned to stick around the next day to take in the marathon, I texted him after the elite fields had finished, something stupid about the apparent giganticness of the top American male relative to the east Africans ahead of him, along with something even more immature about the attractiveness of our top two female finishers. He was at the finish line area in a special section for the elite participants of the weekend’s races, and confirmed the size of the top American man (he had been dubbed “The Tight End”), while remaining more noncommittal in regard to my appraisal of his female counterparts. We exchanged a few more immaterial texts and then I got back to my work day, having squandered a good part of it already surreptitiously watching the internet feed of the race.

***

As I arrived home from my part-time job later that day, I got a call from one of my roommates regarding a matter that has since slipped from memory. The part of the call that remains lodged firmly in my recollection of the day is the closing of the conversation, when he asked a simple question:

“Did you hear about Boston?”

From that moment commenced a dream like period of time, indistinguishable in the usual way of minutes or seconds or hours. Instead it was a miasma of shortened breath and heightened pulse and shivers down the spine and back up again as web pages scrolled and loaded and fingers reached frantically for numbers on a phone to reach people who weren’t answering and texts messages with no responses and rising stress threatening hysteria and images on the television replaying again and again and “have you heard from him?” and please answer oh God please answer where are you where are you please no.

Until finally (had it been days, weeks, years?) a text from his girlfriend that he was ok, and then confirmation in the form of a text message from my brother a few minutes later. Three families had been torn asunder, scores of lives permanently altered, and a city scarred, but not my family, not his life, not this day, so I allowed myself a shallow breath of relief.

But then the images kept replaying on the television and the men with their microphones and instantaneous internet reporting kept saying there might be more bombs, there was confusion and nothing was certain and a fear remained. The fear of knowing my brother, my hero, was blocks away from the blood on the ground and the uncertainty of not knowing if more was to be shed, maybe this time his. I felt the burn of tears in the corners of my eyes, and didn’t feel silly but instead lost and small, a fleck of cosmic dust caught in a storm beyond control or comprehension.

I saw the lens of my life tumbling unceremoniously from its place and felt the murky darkness of the malevolence it had filtered come crashing violently into shape, and was conscious that the shock came not so much from awareness of this evil’s existence, but from realization of the precariousness of the arrangement. This was a fear of living that had visited me on so rare an occasion that meeting it now was like taking a physical blow, and I couldn’t be sure my tears weren’t a reaction to a corporeal injury. I closed my eyes and let it run its course.

My brother flew home safely that night and more lives were lost that week and they shut down a city but finally Neil Diamond sang again and the fear receded.

***

I understand now that what was on display around that track on that spring morning so many years ago was a conquest of this fear, played out with a drama that only physical conflict can provide. There was the initial engagement of it with his preliminary move to the front. This was a conscious, calculated courage. A rare thing in its own right, but something that can be cultivated over time to be called on with something approaching regularity by those with strength enough to do so.

It was in that second moment, on the homestretch, with the race slipping away, that the lens must have begun tumbling down and the fear roaring in. But where I could only sit paralyzed with eyes clenched shut, my brother was able to meet it with a force of will and certainty that sent it back into the depths of oblivion.

While at times I have been able to muster that first reserve of strength in the face of fear or difficulty, the second, fundamental form has eluded me, so I can’t profess to know what true conquest of the fear must feel like, that moment of victory flying across the line. I like to think it must be a sort of guarded euphoria, a deep, but not desperate draught of chilled water after near death in a desert. The satisfaction comes from acknowledgement of the strength of the defeated adversary, and knowledge that the scales might tip the other way with the next meeting. Wild celebration rings hollow in such moments.

I can’t know when next it will visit, when I’ll be served startling reminder of the frailty of my assumed self-determination. A speck of dust in the storm I remain. But when the storm brews again I’ll think of my brother, of others like him, and hope to meet it with open eyes.

The homestretch beckons. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

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