As I jog by my second-year dorm, then first-year dorm, and on past the football stadium, I know this is a sweet season.
I’ve sensed it. That over the last year, my life’s been boundaried by pillows—the same kind we use to keep Tophs on a bed, the kind you spray with lavender and take on road trips because they’ve molded to your head.
You’ll ask about hard days. I’ve had those. Some seemed far too long for their worth. But for every night I barely slept or every morning I wished the kids could watch themselves, the spectacular moments—where the moon hangs like a fading Chinese lantern in the noon sky, where your toddlers hold hands over breakfast at IHOP, where you look at your husband and see the boy who sang to you with a ring in his pocket—have held me closer. For every day I sow in the sun, the peaches prove too many to count, far too many to carry home.
I am reaping more: my children, Paul’s job, these Virginia mountains and summer thunderstorms. But as I jog by the football stadium, then the fitness center, and on past the dining hall, Anne’s body weakens.
Does she see the rain outside the window of her hospice room? When she opens her eyes in the morning or at midnight when the nurse comes in, what is her first thought? Does she think it before her lids even lift?
The questions come as my feet beat down too heavily on the pavement. I’m new at this—both the running and the pain of a friend’s illness.
Has she sown all she could? Or are there seeds left fresh in her pocket?
From the moment I met Anne (not her real name), she intimidated me. Sure, she was tall with a commanding voice. But she scared me because she cut through the frills. She ignored my insecurities, yet refused to ignore my potential.
“What’d you read in the paper today?” was the first thing she asked me. She didn’t care about the weather or my drive in.
I was in my mid-twenties, interviewing for a journalism internship, and hadn’t bothered to read the paper. I was the worst.
I had, however, made time for Starbucks that morning and seen an abandoned front page on the table next to mine. Three bolded black letters came back to my mind: AIG, baby.
“Oh, just more about AIG,” I said.
She led me through a set of doors and started to ask me who, if anyone, should be legally responsible, and I started to sweat out my perm. Then the miraculous: We stepped onto the elevator, and someone interrupted our conversation.
The thing is, Anne probably knew I felt out of my element. But it never seemed to bother her that I had no formal journalism experience. She knew I could write. She knew I could think. And judging by the writing sample I left her, a five-pager on lynching, I had a way of looking at the world.
She hired me. But she didn’t coddle me. On the second day of my internship, I shared that Paul had successfully defended his dissertation earlier that day. She congratulated me. Then she pulled me into her office.
“You deserve to be here, Taylor,” she told me. Her hazel eyes were big, almost static. “You are here because of your credentials. You don’t have to get us to like you.” She said that jobs come and go, but family? You be there for your family.
I thought I had done a noble thing by not asking for the day off. Anne wasn’t impressed.
“That’s all for now,” she said, grabbing her purse. “I have to go get something to eat.”
So am I awesome or in trouble?
My God, she cared. Even when it hurt my feelings. I wrote a piece on American racism (shocker) that I figured Taylor Branch would reference in his next trilogy on civil rights. I mean I really felt proud, but, once again, Anne wasn’t impressed. She called me into her office.
“Taylor, you’re so angry,” she said. “You’re young. Try writing something fun and light.”
Did I cry? I might have cried. I probably cried. In the bathroom and only stopped when I passed a mirror because it’s so embarrassing to see your ugly cry face up close. Anyhow, it doesn’t matter. The fact is, I listened. I wrote a new piece exposing my deepest secret: I had no clue how to do Black hair. I’d gotten through life with mousse and long ponytails, and if I ever had a daughter with hair coarser than my own, she’d have to find herself a live-in hair nanny.
Even now, every time I grab a jar of Kinky Curly for Elie Mae’s hair, I think back to Anne and that essay. I remember the sweetness of that summer. Of being surrounded by the most diverse group of hardworking, witty intellectuals. By the time I left that internship, I hadn’t fallen in love with journalism. I’d fallen in love with journalists.
I read the Bible most nights. Somewhere between tucking Eliot in for the fourth time and opening a jar of Trader Joe’s cookie butter, I read a few passages on my iPhone. I’m that girl who believes Jesus healed the blind man. That Lazarus came out of his grave after four days. They’re more than ancient myths to me. They’re the hope of my faith, the reason I can sleep at night.
Over the course of my life, I’ve had plenty of thoughts that stole my sleep. Stories of physical illness, especially, never failed to unnerve me. Growing up with an anxiety disorder, I obsessed over brain aneurysms and anaphylactic shock and heart disease. If someone else could have it, I could have it. I did have it.
After years of therapy and medication, my initial response to another’s illness is no longer fear for my own health. After years of being both protected and plagued by a mental illness that wouldn’t allow me to empathize without panic, I can hurt for others. When I got the message last month that Anne had been moved to hospice, I didn’t immediately fear I’d end up there, too. I wanted to be there to sit with her.
The tough part about being healthy enough to hurt is that you hurt. So I need Jesus calling forth Lazarus. I need the grave clothes tucked in the corner for another time, because this time doesn’t feel like it should be the end.
Along with reading and praying, I’ve started running. Sometimes I have to shut off my brain for a while and just breathe. After the kids go to bed, I jog down Alderman Road and up Observatory Hill. I’m slow, and I’m broken. And at the eight o’clock hour, so is the sky—gorgeously bleeding pinks and blues after being pierced by the mountains. In this hour, the Grounds are still, and the lack of movement seems a set up. Feels like the moment before spectacular. The bland University Press Warehouse becomes a glorious place where books are born. Where you could simply tear a bestseller, rather than insulation, from its walls.
One evening, I slow to a walk about halfway up the hill. My calves and chest burn, but my head feels clear, and this is where I might lose you. This is where you might tell me the therapy and meds aren’t working. But that’s okay.
I’m walking, and it’s as though I hear, “Keep going, Taylor. I’ve got you.” It’s the way you hear a song lyric that’s not being played.
I feel encouraged, less alone.
Minutes later, as I’m about to pass a runner, the real kind with lean muscles, he asks, “You still running up? Run with me to that stop sign.”
I run the last 50 meters in my bulky sweats and with heavy breathing because I don’t want to look weak. I also run for Anne. And for a friend’s husband who is fighting brain cancer. And for a young newlywed who will begin another round of treatment soon. I run, too, for Paul and our children, for a year when the gifts seemed too rich. And for that little girl who couldn’t outrun her own fears.
The act of coming alongside someone, like the strong runner did for me, is something Anne practices. We’ve kept in touch since that summer through sporadic emails about life, babies, and our careers. One night when I was searching for clues as to why Anne’s illness was knocking the wind out of me, as though I could google the reason for my heartbreak, I opened up her most recent email. I smiled at her nickname for me, “Mrs. Taylor,” and could feel her shaking the potential from my fingertips even as she congratulated me for landing this Big Mom column:
I had no doubt in my mind you’d be victorious. You’re a gifted writer. Now, we’re ready for the novel. Stay on your mission.