Running Paris and L.A.: My Mother's Fight, And Mine

A tale of two marathons and of loss averted

Part 2: Los Angeles and Mum

Street closure in L.A. for the 2023 marathon.

When you have a large family, shocks are inevitable. Amid all the bickering, the petty but epic rivalries, the multiple attempts to get everyone in the car, and the shared memories of childhood goldfish burials, a phone call lands out of nowhere.

One of you suddenly in hospital. Suddenly single. Suddenly married. Suddenly hungover in a Cambodian airport with somebody else's shoes on and no ticket. Yep, the possibility of shock is always there.

The biggest shock in my family's history happened in 2022, a full year before the Paris Marathon.

Mum. Nana B. Fuzzy. Mother Goose. GG. Had cancer.

The shock and the reassurance

When recalling a shock, some people have a very specific detail of the moment, scar-like in their memory. Often this detail is weirdly peripheral. The smell of the street in which you took the call. The way someone at the next table along was rolling his wedding band around his finger while, at this table, you were fired. The Billy Joel song playing low on the hospice radio when the doctor was making that long, gentle walk down the hall, toward you. With the moment itself too much like looking directly at the sun, the mind grabs something from the shadows.

My mum with her four children (I'm second to left).

I have no memory at all of mum calling to tell me she had cancer. I have a feeling I was on the balcony of my French home at the time, but my mind has retained nothing in proof. And I know why. Losing my mother is my greatest fear. When that news arrived, wherever I was exactly would have ceased to be somewhere specific and instead became an abstract place, one that I have carried in me everywhere since I was a child. A dark corner in myself that comes with the walls of who I am. That place is what I'd be without my mother, and from that corner everywhere in the world feels the same. Somewhere becomes everywhere, and, frankly, everywhere nowhere.

The first memory I do have after her diagnosis was of mum setting out the plan. It was Stage 1 bowel cancer, she said. The tumor was very small, caught in a recently launched screening program for seniors in her area. There'd be more tests - grueling because invasive - and then probably surgery, which would be major and not without risk.

In my memory, as mum tells me all this, she is tense, yes, but not brittle. In her voice was the deep-down certainty that she would rise to this, and, more specifically, that I would. Even in what must have been the most terrifying episode of her life, when reassurance was very much owing in the other direction, mum was reassuring me.

The other side

I'm not going to dwell on what my mother went through. It's her story to tell -- and she does tell it, a little, in an interview that will be posted here soon. For the purposes of this piece, I'll cut straight to the ending. At time of writing, mum is cancer-free, and that's been true for the past six months.

It has taken me almost as long to sift through my feelings from that time. Which really means: to recognize there largely is no sifting. I think of it as spice jars spilled at my feet. There is no neat reorganizing of that, no putting things back into their former places. I can only get on with this that I have now, a wild new blend of heightened awarenesses.

The new normal is that mum is still here, just as she was still here before, but now I'm aware of that as a privilege. People are lent to us, and we forget that.

My dad and I, getting those touch-typing lessons in early.

Perhaps it's fair to say that I, in particular, forget that. I have a bunker mentality, probably inherited from my brilliant father, that has helped me: hit deadlines; learn a second language at brutally short notice; teach myself PHP as a young starving artist sleeping under her desk in her office (and thereby stop starving, get older and my art wiser). I'm sure all this might sound kind of awesome, and therefore like humble-bragging, but consider that life is meanwhile taping 'While you were out...' notices to my door. Believe me when I say, I'm no longer that fond of that capacity in myself, actually.

Life has given me my mother again. That's how I see it. Most people are given their mother once. This lucky bastard has been given her mother twice. In this, my second gifting, I will waste none of it. I'm almost grateful to cancer for bringing me to that determination.

The realization in Los Angeles

And so to Los Angeles. The city as foundational to my character now as a place of birth, even though in reality it was 5,000 miles away that I took my first breath, with no palm trees or sign-spinners or kids with their demo tapes around to witness it.

In March 2023, exactly two weeks before the Paris Marathon, Los Angeles had its own such event. I'd just done that 22-mile rehearsal run in Santa Monica, so it was a bit bow-leggedly that I took to the sidewalk on Sunset to spectate with my best friend and family.

Fergus at the LA Marathon: not exactly riveted by the runners.

As the runners passed and I inevitably thought of myself pounding out the miles in Paris very soon, the best friend and I whooped feel-good stuff, kind of self-consciously. ("I feel like such a tit," I confessed. "They don't know me, what do they care if I think they've 'got this' or not?" "I know," the best friend nodded. "We're the sad sacks on the sidewalk, standing here not doing it. Wouldn't silent awe from us be more apt?") Fergus the dog remained bluntly incurious about the passing smear of Nike-swooshed ankles and the projectile paper cups, instead scanning for social minorities to bark at. (We think he's a Republican, but we're going to let him come out in his own time.) An evangelist wagged a sign promising runners they would GO TO HELL. ("Read it again," she said sniffily when we lined up adjectives for her behavior: uncool; unkind; inaccurate because hell was the Pasadena Freeway, in the other direction. We looked closer and saw there was a DON'T in tiny eye-test letters above the main assertion. So she's kind really! Jazz hands!)

Somewhere during all of this, a resolve formed in me. Paris might be my first marathon, but it would not be my last. This, the L.A. Marathon, would be me in 2024.

And I'd raise money. My preparation for the Paris marathon had been intensely self-centered: my injuries, my hangups, my ghosts. Nice navel, honey, but look up. We live in a world where kicking a ball around gets you a mansion, while teachers and nurses are sleeping in their cars. An infinity pool on one hand; an infinity of financial insecurity on the other. Within such an absurd system, the (legal) irrigation of money by individuals toward where it is truly needed is something I very much believe in, even though the amount redirected might be less than that ballplayer's dry-cleaning bill. Money, like water, has the capacity to invigorate in whatever volume it is received. The worst thing it can do is to sustain life, and the best to change it. Tell me what part of that isn't worth doing.

My mother's choice of charity.

The fine details of my resolve soon fell into place. I'd raise money in honor of mum and her experiences of cancer. I'd ask her to name the charity. On March 28th, a few days before the Paris marathon, she did. See her text, pictured. The charity: Bowel Cancer UK.

Faith for the distance

So, you see, mum had indeed joined me at mile 16 in Paris. She was in the words on that young man's charity t-shirt: BOWEL CANCER UK. They bobbed in my sightline for that mile and the next. (Ultimately, with the new credit line of energy that came to me via this refracted presence of mum's, I found him a bit slow and overtook him. Lol, right? Life's a scream.)

Mum must have been in such pain at various times throughout her treatment. She never let me see it. Instead I got the next stage of the plan, complete with gentle warnings that things might not pan out how we both hoped, but there was every reason to believe they would. Science was on her side, and science was 80% of what was needed to cover the distance, make it to the end. The rest was faith. My mum had faith. Would I join her and throw in my faith too? I would. I did.

At mile 16 in Paris, I did it again. Pain, as my mum had proven, was finite, surmountable. Endurance was possible. With faith, it was probable.

I carried on.