I Didn’t End Up Running
Her name was Elizabeth, but it could have been anything. She could have had the name of your sister, your mother; she could have had your very own name. The sun had not quite risen; the waves were mostly still, and I stood at the end, or maybe the beginning of a path that can be followed on foot some twenty miles South along the Pacific Ocean. That path is where I find myself, where I exist at my most still. At its end, or beginning, there are two benches of stone—etched into them are the stars and rings of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. I’ve never bothered to wonder why, despite seeing them nearly every weekend while I stand, facing south, feeling my body gain its center and waiting for the sun to tell me it is time.
Along this quiet stretch of the Pacific, a grassy slope abuts the path that carries me, making its way toward the sand endlessly carried away by the waves. The clouds were particularly beautiful this morning; I’ve noticed that is what happens when one is away from Los Angeles for long. The skies are magic here. I stood watching the sky and the sunrise, a red bicycle on the green slope, its basket empty. A woman dressed in black and grey sitting next to it. Her form was not hunched, not bent, not slouched; it was weighted. Music was already moving through my headphones, catching speed in my veins, preparing to set my strong legs in a forward motion that would carry me miles out and miles back. She didn’t move. I couldn’t see her face. No part of her skin was visible, yet I could feel the weight of her heart as we both waited for the sun.
My own voice, the quiet one, the still voice inside of me overpowers the loudest music if I listen with my heart; the one I think some people call God, called me to her. I walked over and crouched beside the stranger on the slope; I pulled my headphones off of my ears.
“Hi,” I said softly, afraid of alarming her.
She turned her head toward me. Her eyes were swollen and full of tears.
“Are you okay?” I asked
Her eyes filled still more. She couldn’t have been much older than my mother was when she died. Her eyes looked the way mine do sometimes when my heart is overcome by helplessness.
“Yes, I’m okay” she responded.
I kicked myself for asking such a stupid question. I hate it when people ask if I’m okay. Ask a better question, I told myself. I took a breath. I heard my music still playing faintly from my headphones and turned it off. I introduced myself.
“I’m Corrie.” I thought of the woman my parents named me after. “Are you safe?” I asked her.
“Yes, I’m safe” she said.
I took another breath. I looked into her flooding eyes and I listened with my heart.
“Is your family safe?” I asked.
She said yes, but the doubt of her own words was evident.
“May I ask you a very personal question? Only because your answer will tell me if maybe I can help you.”
“Okay,” she responded. Her words were broken—pain multiplying syllables and distorting her mouth as she spoke.
“The thing that troubles you, is it related to drugs and alcohol?”
Her body crumbled into sobs and her eyes overflowed. I sat quietly for a minute or two, just listening. The sun seemed to have stopped rising. She didn’t say anything, she only cried, but as I watched her, I imagine my father must have cried that way over me. I think only parents can cry those kinds of tears.
Eventually, words found her “My son,” she cried. “My son!” I introduced myself to her more completely, telling her my first and last name, and that I am the Executive Director of an Intensive Outpatient Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center. I told her that, my team and I, our lives are devoted to helping others. I asked her name.
“Elizabeth,” she said.
“Hi, Elizabeth,” I responded gently, hoping the sound of her name would wrap around her like a blanket.
I asked if it would be okay if I went to my car and got one of my cards so she could call me if she wanted. Her eyes smiled for the first time since I crouched myself beside her and I ran off in the direction of my car where there was not a business card to be found. I kicked myself for not carrying extras in my trunk and grabbed the cardboard label from a blanket I received at a company holiday party a few weeks back, tearing it in half, leaving it three times the size of any business card I’ve ever seen. I wrote all of my information onto the label and ran back to her, taking a seat next to her on the slope near the sea.
“Here,” I offered. I told her I didn’t have any cards but had written it all down. She asked about what we do and I told her. She told me about her son. I told her I used to be a lot like that and I imagine my father must have cried the way she was crying just then. I told her that I was telling her that because in my heart, I hoped the fact that I was sitting there with her now would give her hope for her son.
She asked if we could help her figure out what to do. I told her I wasn’t the best person on my team to help her do that, but if she would call me, I would connect her with someone who could better guide her. Her eyes filled simultaneously with hope and doubt.
“This isn’t about money, Elizabeth. Someone will talk to you for nothing. We are here to help.” I watched relief wash over her and remembered I couldn’t hear the ocean.
“I would shake your hand,” she said, “But I’ve been wiping my face so much…”
“May I give you a hug?” I asked.
Her eyes turned up again, “Yes,”
I wrapped my arms around her tightly, her black sweater soft and warm, her tears catching my shoulder and reminding me I am human. After a moment she hugged me back and we sat there for some time; two strangers wrapped around one another, hugging on the slope between the path that follows the Pacific and the sand that leads you right in.
When we parted I stood in the distance, back at the beginning, or the end, and watched the sun as it seemed to resume rising and Elizabeth rose along with it, took up her bicycle, and walked away.