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Memoir

The Runner

I’m not sure that I’ve ever made a truly considered decision…l leap then look, and have all of my life.

Dragline: You’re an original, that’s what you are! Them mullet-heads didn’t even know you was foolin’!
Luke: Foolin’ ’em, huh? You can’t fool ’em about somethin’ like that. They broke me…
Dragline: Aw. All that time, you was plannin’ on runnin’ again.
Luke: I never planned anything in my life.”

Cool Hand Luke

I’m not sure that I’ve ever made a truly considered decision. I don’t recall ever making a life-altering choice after careful research and deliberation. I have never faced a daunting challenge and weighed all of my options and their possible repercussions to arrive at the best course of action. I leap then look, and have all of my life.

On the day I joined the Army, I had awoken that morning with no inkling that I would do so. I was largely homeless at the time and needed a job –a job that would hire me, train me, house me, feed me, and clothe me. I just happened to be walking past the Armed Forces Recruiting Center when I realized this, so I walked on in. I had no real affinity or preference for the Army, they just happened to be the only recruiters who weren’t at lunch.

When I asked my first wife to marry me, I had to present her with a twist-tie around her finger in lieu of an engagement ring, because I hadn’t considered popping the question until moments before I did so.

It wasn’t much different when, twenty years later, I left my long-term girlfriend at home one Easter morning to go get Egg McMuffins, and impulsively returned ninety minutes later with an engagement ring hidden in an Easter basket.

I’ve walked off jobs in the middle of shifts, changed careers, volunteered for dangerous postings, and wrecked relationships after less consideration than you might give to what you’ll order from the Taco Bell Value Menu.

Even knowing this about myself, I rarely recognize that I’m being impulsive when I’m being impulsive. It’s only in retrospect that I’ll recognize how little thought I gave monumental decisions –usually about the time that the consequences kick in.

It was these consequences I was considering a couple of years ago, after making the most impulsive decision of my life.

I had recently bought (sight unseen) a small house in Rockaway Beach, Oregon –a tiny beach community on the state’s northern coast, where I knew not one soul.

I had visited there for three days in late September of 2017 and fallen in love with the town and its intoxicating mix of rugged, coastal scenery and idyllic nostalgia. I swore to myself that I’d move there some day.

“Some day” turned out to be a few months later, in February of 2018, when I signed the closing paperwork at a Starbucks nestled inside the VA hospital where I’d been a patient for three months.

There had been some harrowing days during those months, including a couple weeks battling a flu which were so utterly terrifying that things inside my mind had snapped like cables under too much tension. Those moments changed something in me, and as my release date had drawn near, I’d become frantic thinking about returning to my old life and the town where I’d spent the previous two decades –so one morning I decided not to.

I’d had no real plan to change my life when I awoke –no more than I’d planned to join the Army or get engaged. One minute I was sitting in a patient’s lounge, looking out the window at the snowy Blue Mountains, wishing I could just not go back home, the next I was calling lenders and things were taking on a life of their own. By that afternoon I was browsing house photos on my phone. By the end of the week I’d made an offer.

I moved into my new life directly from the hospital with barely a backward glance at the previous one.

The consequences came calling after only a few months.

I had been getting settled in with a new medical team and a new VA hospital, and so I was doing a lot of interviews and appointments and work-ups for transplant. As I worked through the process, more and more people began to ask about my “support system.” By the looks on their faces, I could tell that they weren’t happy with my responses.

You see, to qualify for transplant, one of the most important things you need to have is a network of friends or family who can be with you throughout every minute of the transplant and recovery process. The transplant committee needs to be absolutely positive that you have people in place who will take care of you from the moment you come out of the operating room to the day you’re fully recovered, around three months later. Without such a support system you will not be considered for placement on the transplant list.

I had just moved 300 miles from any support system.

It was only after I realized this fact that I began to recognize how impulsive and rash my decision had been, and it was really only then –while I was contemplating those aforementioned consequences– that I began to recognize a pattern.

There was a bright thread, a sort of thematic thru-line, that connected the major events in my life, and I hadn’t even seen it until then.

I was running.

That day that I shuffled into the recruiting office I was really running; running from the drudgery of $4.75 an hour on the Briggs & Stratton assembly line; running from a dead-end future in a dead-end town; running from the ghosts of memories and the specter of imagined outcomes; running from what I was becoming.

I was still running when I volunteered for Korea because it was as far away as they would send me, and running again when I volunteered for the Airborne to escape the dull safety of driving a forklift in support units.

After the Army, I ran from 9-to-5 monotony at the first opportunity, fairly sprinting onto a college campus and away from the workaday world.

I was running when I left a marriage that was failing in 2008, and running again in 2015 when I left a relationship that wasn’t.

I was running from the memories of that relationship in 2016, when I gave away almost everything I owned, traded my Harley for a sailboat, and moved aboard. Running still when I abandoned it a year later to move here to Rockaway.

Once I recognized this, I couldn’t unsee the pattern. Trouble with the roommate? Run. Don’t like the boss? Run. Fight with the girlfriend? Run. Tired of the town? Run. Scared of the diagnosis? Run. Terrified of the future? Run.

I began to realize that I’d been running my whole life. Running from situations, locations, emotions, uncomfortable truths, entanglements, and obligations. Running from messy human contact. Running from all the complicated interactions that make up a life. Running from all the ways that connections to other humans leave you vulnerable to being hurt and disappointed.

Finally it dawned on me that, no matter how fast or far I ran, I’d never get away from what was chasing me, because it was inside of me. I was running from my fears, from my hangups, from my shortcomings, from my faults.

You can’t outrun yourself.

I started reaching out to people after that, asking for help, asking for support, asking for forgiveness. It wasn’t easy or natural, but I did it.

I have a support system now –though it still may not be good enough for the transplant committee– and feel like a part of a community. I’ve repaired a few relationships that I’d previously damaged and hope to repair a few more before it’s all over. I’ve tried to put down roots here in my little town and resist the urge to run.

I’ve tried to get my mind right, as ol’ Cool Hand Luke might say.

Mostly I’m successful, but there are days when I feel that familiar urge creeping in –the one that says “To hell with this lung transplant! To hell with all these appointments and doctors and treatments and needles and scalpels! To hell with rules and bosses! To hell with all this! Just get in the truck and go!”— and it’s all I can do to keep from jumping in my pickup and ripping south down the 101 to Mexico, consequences be damned.

I may be tied down to oxygen tanks and nebulizers, encumbered by various inhalers, and barely able to walk across my own house, but I guess I’ll always be a runner.

By Brian E. Holbrook

A terminally ill writer and musician, Brian lives on the north Oregon coast.

2 replies on “The Runner”

Poignant. Makes me think about the people that WANT to run, can’t leave. I think whether you run or stay… our life is a culmination of the choices we make no matter where we are and that makes me feel not so different from everyone else.

Liked by 1 person

I think that’s very true! There’s a whole flip-side-of-the-coin essay I could write about how many times I was running toward freedom or growth or happiness as much or more than I was running from anything. . The running and all those impulsive choices brought me a wonderfully free and adventurous life filled with experiences. I was going to include that perspective here, but decided to write a different piece about it called “Dirtbag.” 🙂

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