Ralph Huez smiles a lot and walks with a cane, which he often drops and stoops to retrieve. He looks good for his age, which is just south of ninety. His hearing aid stopped working two weeks ago, but he’s convinced he doesn’t need it. What? He’s convinced he doesn’t… What? I said. He is. Convinced. He doesn’t. Need it. He has a memory like the proverbial steel trap—and then some. Ask him about what happened when he cleaned out his garage in 1984. Ask him the name of his friend’s sister’s husband, the one he met at a holiday gathering thirty-five years ago. Ask him about the annual horseshoes tournament at the St. Jerome’s church picnic and the time he and Bill Marxkors, my papa, defeated the reigning champions who, I might add, were nothing short of a dynasty duo in the 1950s. (It was a glorious upset that became something of a legend among the parishioners.) Ask him anything. He’ll give you the answer. As long as you ask him loudly enough.
It was a week ago on Thursday. We were sitting on metal folding chairs in a church basement, eating ham sandwiches and mostaccioli and potato salad and angel food cake prepared by the faithful gray-haired ladies who muster their services on such occasions. On Friday, we had gotten a call from the nursing home: Grandma Marxkors wasn’t doing very well. That Sunday, the same day as the Rock ‘n’ Roll St. Louis Marathon, she passed away. We were at her funeral.
This past year has been a rough one. I don’t think life ever suffers from a shortage of trials, but 2013 has been particularly proficient in that respect. Yes, there were scrapes and bruises aplenty, but most notably, we lost both of my grandmas.
My mom’s mom passed away in April. Her funeral was the same morning as the GO! St. Louis Marathon. I remember standing in the funeral parlor, hugging friends, hugging family, crying, and thinking how very far away I felt from the excitement and tumult of the marathon downtown. It was a strange feeling. It was almost as if the race—a race that has played such a prominent part in my life over the past few years, whether I was racing it, working it, or cheering people on—didn’t exist. Even when a close friend rushed straight from the finish line to the funeral home, I felt strangely removed from the world of running.
Several months later, I once more found myself miles apart from the cheers and anticipation of race day. They say when it rains it pours, and this past weekend was no exception. I never made it downtown for Rock ‘n’ Roll on Sunday. Long hours and the strain of anticipating my grandma’s passing had taken their toll on my body. I was sick. My grandma passed away that night. And by the time we headed to her funeral on Thursday, I still hadn’t run.
It was a strange phenomenon. For weeks, even months, so much focus had been on the race. Now, as we sat in the basement of her old church, listening to Mr. Huez tell stories from years ago, stories about my papa, Bill Marxkors, and the two friends’ insatiable enthusiasm for restoring old hot rods and World War II jeeps, stories about the old neighborhood and all the trouble caused by the “kids” who sat across from him at the table, kids who were now in their early sixties and had children and grandchildren of their own, stories from a world I never knew but learned about secondhand, it was as though the whole marathon never happened. It wasn’t that I hadn’t run in a week or that I had missed the race—some things, such as family and getting well, trump even the miles. I simply started thinking about my papa, and realized that to him, it never did.
Papa Marxkors died when I was nineteen—four years before I became a “runner,” four years before I ran my first marathon, and almost a decade before I wrote my first book. He never knew that I worked at a running store (“Fleet Foot,” as my grandma called it). He never got to see my blogs published. He never saw me run a race. And even though he knew me for the first twenty years of my life, he never knew me as a runner or an author at all.
As Mr. Huez told stories about “Bill” and his penchant for mischief—Papa sported a zoot suit back in the day—I suddenly wished I could tell him all of the things that had happened since he left us eleven years ago. I felt the same childish excitement—part timidity, part pride—that prompted me to start countless conversations with the eagerness of a forthcoming revelation: “Hey, Papa! Guess what?” Whether it was a victory on the tennis courts, an A+ on a high school exam, or the announcement that I had just watched Von Ryan’s Express for the first time (and bawled my eyes out, thank you very much), I couldn’t wait to disclose a piece of information that would make him smile. “Hey, Papa! Guess what?”
I think Papa would have gotten a kick out of The Lola Papers and seeing the name “Marxkors” on a book cover. And while he unquestionably would have heckled me about my knee-high compression socks (“Did you forget your knickers?” I can hear him saying), he would have been the first to scour the newspaper for published results after a local marathon. He was very proud of all of his grandchildren and would have been pleased as punch to hear what we’ve been up to since he left—becoming lawyers and business owners and artists and engineers and thespians and, yes, even compression-sock-wearing runners.
I spent my childhood with all four grandparents, and until Papa Marxkors died when I was 19, it never occurred to me that they wouldn’t be there for my adult life as well. They have all since passed away, Grandma Marxkors being the last. But Papa and Grandma are back together again, happy and healthy, as they should be. And while I’m sure they have a lot to catch up on, perhaps after the initial greetings and kissing and hugging and celebrations, Grandma will tell him about all of the shenanigans his grandkids have been up to since he left us eleven years ago. Maybe, when she gets the time, she’ll give Papa the update. Because he was always proud of his grandchildren, and I think he’d get a kick out of it.
“Hey, Bill! Guess, what?”
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014. This post in based on an original post on www.TheLolaPapers.com.