Part 4: Washing Away

I don’t usually apologize in my posts, because I figure this blog is what I make it so the only person I should be obligated to is myself. But, I left this one hanging. The four months between posts have no meaning outside of the fact that I had a lot going on (like the final months of pregnancy and birth of my second son…stay tuned).

I started posting this series on the third anniversary of my Brother David’s death by suicide. Now, we are approaching his birthday…he would be 40 on July 26, 2015 and I miss him everyday. The Washing Away Series (see also Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) are pieces of a long essay I wrote about consecutive years running a race as a process in my grief.

Each mile a memory

In 2012, I thought tackling a trail would displace some pain. Barely a week before the race, I watched through stinging tears as my oldest brother’s closest friends lowered him into a final resting place he would never have wanted. He wanted to die, no doubt. I just know he didn’t want to be put in the ground. It was my mother’s choice, and as I’ve said many times since then, the burial is for the living not the dead. Releasing himself into the wide open, David had driven up the Blue Ridge Parkway, walked onto a deserted trail, taken a shotgun he purchased that afternoon, and ended a life he didn’t think worth living.

For days after, rain fell. Cathartic rain, soaking rain, gentle rain, torrential rain.

During a family memorial hike on Read Mountain a month later, the sky opened and sent us slipping and stumbling down rocks and washed out trail. Little ones clinging to our backs and cradled in our arms, we tried to outrun the inevitable. Once we reached the trail head, light crept back into the sky and thunder and lightning receded. I’ve twice taken that hike since then, and each time it rained.

The view of our family on one of the annual hikes of Read Mountain since David died.

The view of our family on one of the annual hikes of Read Mountain since David died.

There is one spot we always stop to remember our broken brother, Weeping Rock, where water incessantly trickles, or streams, down the face of a giant boulder wall.

“This is the place I really feel David,” my sister says from that spot.

I find him in the creeks flowing through my backyard mountains. In roaring falls. In silent streams. In rushing rivers.

The Montvale course I’m running today is known for being more of a canal than a trail. Last time I was here, seven days after the earth’s waterways absorbed my brother’s life and the skies shared my sobs, it stopped raining in time for the race start. A sopping mess, the mud clung to my shoes with every heavy step, draining my energy and making each stride a challenge. I couldn’t even run most of the miles, slogging through the exhaustion, confusion, revulsion.

I dedicated each slow mile to someone I love or someone I’ve loved and lost.

One—to my brother, the oldest of five siblings. David was the second born of premature twins, the one who made it. Just not long enough.

The first mile is always the most painful, as the body remembers what it’s capable of and the mind untangles from the daily frenzy.

Two—to my sister, the second oldest. Lydia always held the strongest to our parents’ faith, which provides her a healthy perspective on the rebellion we all entered but she more gracefully exited. Navigating a failed marriage, with a young boy named Pauly and little princess named Josie to raise; the tatters of a near-perfect life shattered in front of everyone to put back together. She and I share more than sisters should but somehow not enough to find our truly common ground.

The second mile feels more familiar, but resistance to the run remains.

Three—to my ex-husband, who married the third of five. We’ve been apart long enough now for me to see how he provoked every unhealthy inclination I’ve ever had to love someone for their potential, attempt to rescue the unsalvageable, and pour myself into others until I am empty.

The third mile is often the turning point.

Four—to my younger brother, the one closest to me in age. John escaped our hometown, knowing it might take him down the way it did our oldest. They lived and drank together for years when David moved back from Richmond after a second failed attempt at college. John made a lifetime of bad decisions before a quarter century, but quit a dead-end job and left a roommate behind to hike six months on the Appalachian Trail. He found God there, he said, a version he could live with. Packing up everything in his Jeep he made it to Utah, where the peaks stretch to heaven and adventure waits around every corner. He’s continued to struggle with booze and bad women, but he takes his own personal development and newly found sobriety as seriously as any summit he’s ever approached.

The next few miles feel comfortable, like a home away from home.

Five—to the baby of our family, the one who really got away. James excelled beyond what anyone expected of him but perhaps still short of what he expects for himself. We call it “the list,” and he checks it off dutifully. Move away from home. College degree despite finishing high school with a GED. Respectable job as a civilian engineer on a Marine Corps base in North Carolina. Home ownership. Dog in the backyard. Wife who is willing to live with him away from her folks in Pennsylvania, but travel enough to stay close to both families. Baby boy named after the twin we never knew, Daniel. Mini-van. As our family’s youngest, he’s driven to prove himself. I only hope he finds a way to truly enjoy what he’s accomplished.

Halfway through the course, defying the odds.

Six—to my son, who makes any sacrifice worthwhile. Nasir joined as the first extension of our immediate family in 2007 and started a trend of first cousins born in August.

A reason to journey, with the end goal now clearly in sight.

Seven—to my parents, the ones who gave us as much as they could. They take responsibility for our worst decisions and give us credit for our best choices.

Trudge on, as anyone must, no matter what life or the trail brings.

Eight—to the twin, who could have tripled the child versus parent ratio in the Cassell family. The one who has become closer to us since the loss of his other half.

The feeling of being lost, but knowing you’ll be found, in the midst of a race not quite complete.

Nine—to my McGee, my friend Jenny who lost her mother to the cruelest disease I’ve ever seen. ALS took Debbie’s first love, running, and systematically took everything else until it took her breath. Debbie left behind the poignant words I carry with me each race, about running a race you didn’t train for. I knew Jenny would be there for me when my brother cut our love out of his life, just as I was there for her when what she dreaded would happen, hoped would happen, finally happened.

This is it. Time to dig deep.

Ten—to myself, the one I must protect, who will be with me no matter what.

Every mile, every struggle, worth every effort.

I will post this memoir essay in multiple parts. Thank you to everyone who is represented in this story, as your friendship and kindred sharing of experience adds value to my every moment. Read Part 5.

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  1. […] friendship and kindred sharing of experience adds value to my every moment. Read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part […]

  2. […] as your friendship and kindred sharing of experience adds value to my every moment. Read Part 3, Part 4 and Part […]

  3. […] story, as your friendship and kindred sharing of experience adds value to my every moment. Read Part 4 and Part […]

  4. […] I posted this memoir essay in multiple parts. Thank you to everyone who is represented in this story, as your friendship and kindred sharing of experience adds value to my every moment. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. […]



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