I'm sure in the next couple days or weeks, if you search hard enough, you will find a picture captioned, "Two Sisters Hugging at the Finish Line" by a random reporter who unexpectedly creeped up on us at the finish line and mid-hug asked us for a picture. That's the last memory I have of the Bataan Memorial Death March - and if you don't know what that is, before reading further GOOGLE-IT and come back with a new appreciation for this blog. The fact that I'm even sitting up right long enough to type this out is an accomplishment, because when I'm done and I close my laptop for the night I'm going to be struggling to stand again (for about the 100th time today), I will feel my hips scream, my calves will fire, my thighs will shake, my back will ache, and my shoulders will feel tense, I'll take my first step towards my bed and feel a sharp burning pain on the bottom of my foot where a blister developed, my pinky toe will swell again and turn purple, and I'll finally let my body relax and collapse into bed and hopefully get better rest than I have in the last week to return to work and "normal" life tomorrow.
It began a little less than a year ago - right after I had good advice to NOT make any major decisions within the first year of mourning, I remember her saying, "Don't make big decisions, don't make big purchases, just let yourself grieve". I made big decisions, I made big purchases, and I pushed off grieving until it blew up in my face several times throughout the year.....I like to think that I just like a good challenge, I learned my lesson yesterday - She. Was. Right. A year ago we had our second board meeting - brainstorming what direction we would take The Josh Dunne Organization, what events we would plan, fundraise for, and community outreach. As we searched for community events I saw a big one coming up in a couple weeks - one I was all too familiar with: The Bataan Memorial Death March. Josh volunteered two years in a row and was adamant about having a civilian team march with him. He wanted to do this, he was planning on training weeks, who he would invite. He never got to live out that dream. When I saw the date last year, it was too late to register (it would have been crazy to do it so soon anyway). I called out the idea and not one single member of this organization stood down, in fact I had two outside friends stand up too! I was excited and everyone was committed to take the next year to train for the following year's marathon. We agreed to begin with the honorary march, not time ourselves, that we are in it to honor Josh and what he wished he could do. Throughout the year we had changes within our board (life happens), but at the end we had 9 strong participants, sort of. The problem is, we all work, have families, and probably not as much dedication to training - we did it anyway. I trained for maybe two months with my sister and brother-in-law in our back yard (which is a much tougher terrain of desert), it was hard but we weren't planning on going into the marathon completely blindsided (but stay tuned for that experience!)
Yesterday was the day, the day that all this anticipation, anxiety, and worry had built up to. I was surprised by how fast we made it to the 5 mile mark and I was feeling great! Mile 6 came up and I felt sand in my shoe, I knew I had a blister forming so we stopped so I could do a quick sock change and check on the blister and treat it as needed. Mile 7 came and I thought ok, this is how far we've trained and I know I'm good till mile 10, then its all odds against me for JUST 4 miles to finish, I thought, "I've got this". I forgot about the sand pit (make sure you google that too!) The blister at that point was unbearable, it was like a knife slicing at my foot and three more blister friends joined the party. We stopped as we got to the top of the sand pit and I told the volunteer at the water point, "They weren't fucking lying when they said the sand pit is brutal", he laughed and said, "It's only .6 miles of it". I wanted to punch him, but my sister also needed his water to refill her canteen. By mile 10 doubt started creeping in. I could feel panic in my body, our stops had to brief or soreness took over and it would be that much harder to gain momentum again. Every water point felt like a desert oasis I had been searching days for. I took deep breaths to make it through the pain and my muscles started to cramp. I kept telling myself, whatever, ignore the pain, there are people out here with prosthetic legs, some double amputees, you're doing it for them, you're doing it for all those who can't (especially Josh). It got to the point where I resorted to my defense of all defenses - laughter....All I could do was laugh at how bad I hurt, how bad this was, how windy it was, how much sand did I just swallow? I could see the end of the marathon by mile 11 or 12? somewhere in between there and it was taking us longer to finish each mile at this point. By the last water point, someone said, "It's not over, but it almost is." That's all I needed to hear, soon I could hear people cheering for those who were crossing the finish line just ahead of us, the people around us trying to finish were encouraging us - we were encouraging each other - the end is near and we got this, keep pushing. I saw mile marker 13 and yelled, "I quit! I changed my mind I'm going back!" Everyone around me laughed and I wanted to cry in pain because laughing hurt too. We turned the final corner and the spectator's were lined up with flags, veterans, marchers who had just finished, and were cheering us and everyone around us on....I felt proud, I felt accomplished, I felt grateful that I had a group of bad ass fearless people who took this challenge on with me. When we crossed the finish line I saw the first veteran survivor of the actual Bataan Death March, I grabbed his hand and bowed down to him and felt tears coming out, I cried to him "thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you". I saw the next survivor to his right and did the same, he smiled and said, "no, thank you for doing this." There was no hiding my tears at this point, I turned to my sister and saw she was crying too, we laughed and hugged it out so happy we made it to the end. That's when I saw the flash and the reporter said, "That's great! let me get another one!" She congratulated us and we limped off.
I have to tell you about my team of bad asses. First of all, Josh's brother get's some major recognition, what do you expect from the brother of a marine though?! But you might be surprised by his training regimen which consisted of weeks of "maybe? Maybe not?" and down to the last minutes of registration of "well, ok". Josh's brother didn't train at all, or had ever done a marathon, and he did it. That's what grief does - it drags you down, suffocates you, makes you KNOW that if you can survive that hell, you can probably do a marathon without training...THAT is motivation, and that is what gets you through the end. I have a good friend (who isn't a part of this organization), but did it with me. I asked her and she immediately said, "no" or maybe she said, "I'll think about it" but I knew it was a no. I had to recruit her, I needed someone who could just tell her she was going to do it. I recruited Oscar, my friend, no - my bad ass friend and board member who I recruited to this organization a year ago, an Army Vet. with a "I won't take no as an answer" kind of guy. It took one text from Oscar for her to immediately reply to me with a "WTF, ok I'll do it!" Job done. I needed at least one outside friend, who knew this kind of grief was only a plus (I know that's a morbid thing to say, but she gets it!), to jump in with me. She is my spirit animal, I love her tenacity, her courage, and to know that this was intimidating to HER, made me feel like a bad ass already. At 4 AM Sunday (the day of the march) she looked me dead in the eye and said, "I'm doing this once and I'm never coming back" - understood! Fair enough! I get it. There is no nice way of putting this, so I just want to say she had the attitude of, "I just want to get this the fuck over with and never look back". She ran the Bataan Death March and finished around 5 hours later! Amen, sister, amen! But I think I created a marathoner, she's hooked, and I'm proud! Thank you for being a bad ass! You have gotten me through many tough times this year and never once judged me for the horrendous thoughts that came out of my mouth, including this. Oscar, Thank you for getting her there! Even though she left us all behind, I needed her at the beginning and at the end and she definitely was there. And thank you for wearing Josh's name on your pack, thank you for getting your wife in this, her jokes made the pain lighter, and the start easier...I'm forever grateful for your dedication to this organization, you both have given so much of your time and you guys are sooo bad ass!!!
A couple months ago I had a cousin reach out when he saw I was doing the march, he said he was training too. But being that he's pretty much a professional "marathoner"- I knew he was set out for the full 26.2 and probably running it. He was, and he did, faster than I marched 14.2. I saw him breeze past us in full on "zone mode", making it look easy, I was about to call out his name but didn't want to mess up his flow. I know you said you marched for Josh, for our grandfather, for your brother. Thank you for being a bad ass cousin, you are an inspiration for sure! I will keep going because who knew that doing a marathon would be addicting and life changing, I get it now.
My sister will literally fall a 40 story drop for me....and she has, she will also impulsively agree to do a marathon, in a sandy desert with little preparation, and she did and so did her husband. Through every single step of grief, pain, bad ideas....some good (the 40 story drop was a good one!) they both have been there. I cannot have imagined doing this without them by my side. I have literally been attached to my sister's side since I was born. When anything bad would happen I would cling onto her and this time in my life has been no different, and she has graciously opened up her arms to welcome me back in, every single time. I honestly don't believe that I would have finished this without her, I needed that comfort, that feeling of home, the next best thing to Josh to push me through the end, even to the point of mile 13 when I said I can't, my body hurts, I need a change, we have to start running it! It might have been only a few yards....but you even ran it with me. Thank you! I love you and your husband so much for all you have done. We will start training for next year now! This is only the beginning of making the best out of what is the worst we could imagine.
For Josh, when I saw that Bataan Memorial March headline a year ago I couldn't imagine a year would come by so quick. I did it to honor you, to honor the survivors and casualties. I did mostly because I am searching for you everywhere and somewhere deep within I thought that if it was just me and a few hours surrounded by amazing people with great views I might find you again out there. I talked to you a lot and many memories came to mind of us. I mostly thought about how badly you wanted to do this march, how you wanted to go beyond volunteering. I cried when I thought of all the things you wanted to do and will never get to do them. I cried about the people who did this with me how fearless they are and how grateful I am to have them. I had a great thought around mile 8; I started making a list of all the things we talked about doing, what you wanted to do, and I have set out to do them. I know we all won't be able to do them together; but I will. You are my bucket list and because you can't do them I will. You weren't done living your life, so I'm going to live it for you!
I love you, I miss you.