“Limitless undying love, which shines around me like a million suns, it calls me, on and on, across the universe.” ~ Across the Universe, The Beatles
Last night at yoga we did a few stretches before we were called to the tops of our mats for the start of practice. Once there, the instructor asked us to set an intention.
I used to set an intention by making a wish, like a private prayer. But I’d struggle to come up with something quickly, and I couldn’t always get it done. So I started to simplify things, and now I just conjure up an image, usually one of someone I love, and then I wait to see what comes to mind.
Last night the image was my son, decked out for the swim portion of the New York City Triathlon. He was in his wet suit, wearing goggles and a bathing cap, mid-air in a feet-first jump into the Hudson River!
Only two days earlier I had witnessed this event, supporting him with family and friends as he swam and biked and ran in memory of a loved one whom he considers his brother. This young man had shared a life with my daughter, and when we lost him, so many plans were cut short, including the one he had made with my son to enter the triathlon.
Loss is a complicated thing, and when it takes us by surprise, as this one did, there’s never a plan for it. Yet that’s what loss seems to beg for most. It begs for plans that no one wants to make, plans that no longer include the one we’ve lost but that still remain very much about him.
For my son the triathlon was one of those plans, so he designed a training regimen.
Since he had never been a big swimmer, he signed himself up for swim classes for triathletes. The only one to show up in board shorts and winded after just a few laps, it would take several months and a Speedo to build up the skills and stamina necessary to swim in open water.
He mapped out routes to run and ride around New York, reporting home with photos and updates from all over the city.
He kept up his yoga schedule and did his circuit training. He ate as clean as he could.
And then he selected a charity in the name of this young man, so that others who wanted to support him could also become part of his plan.
And he respectfully asked the family of the one we lost whether they’d mind if he rode the red bicycle that had belonged to their son, the one that had hung in the home he and my daughter had shared. And the family graciously agreed, because they, too, were part of the plan.
My son did all of this on his own, for that’s the other thing about loss. It’s personal, and so even when it’s shared, it’s yours in a way that’s not anyone else’s. It leaves you on your own to cope in ways that only you can.
And the way for my son proved to be the triathlon. He had set his own intention, and that’s what I think I was witnessing when he jumped into the Hudson.
Each person is on his own in this race of individual endeavors that include swimming, biking and running. These activities are not done holding hands. There are no teammates. Even the training is individualized, and so are the results. Everyone participating would be receiving his own finishing times for each section of the race and also for the transitions in between.
We cheered him on as he swam steadily for 1500 meters, or nearly 20 blocks in New York City measurements. We hollered as he came out of the water in a sprint toward the transition area, where we then lost sight of him for a few minutes while he readied himself on the bike. Then he came out of the gate and pedaled away, as we cheered him again and held up our signs. And then, while he rode for the next 25 miles, our group made its way to a place he’d earlier scouted out, a spot outside a café where we’d line up to watch him run by.
And as I stood there waiting for my son, a familiar feeling came over me. It was the one that I have at the end of my yoga classes, when I realize I’ve just done something on my own with others who have done the same. At the end of the practice, my individual effort suddenly feels like a shared effort, and my heart fills with love for everyone in the room, even for those I don’t know.
Maybe this is why the instructor asks us to thank the people practicing next to us when we’re done. It brings home the fact that none of us are in it alone.
And so I found myself clapping and cheering for those I didn’t know, because outside of that café my heart had filled like it does at yoga. I recognized the shared effort among the runners, even though I’m sure they had each set their own intentions when they jumped into the Hudson at the start of the race.
There were almost 3,500 triathletes and just as many or more spectators, and standing there I loved them all! Suddenly, my son ran by, and I reached up with the others to give him his high five. He was grinning and feeling good, and I wondered if maybe he could feel it, too, that feeling that he wasn’t in it alone.
At the time of our loss and since, I’ve been struck by the overwhelming amount of love and support that’s come our way. In the aloneness of our grief, we’ve been touched by so many others who have generously reached out from every single part of our lives from as far back as I can remember. And this is what stays with me, and it’s what I was reminded of as I watched the race and experienced the shared spirit and universal love that made everyone there a part of the plan.
We saw my son again near the finish line. He sprinted home on his own and brought every one of us along with him. And then we didn’t leave! All of us spent the rest of the day together, sharing food and drink and laughter, and some of us even shed some tears.
Later that evening I asked my son what he had thought about during the race. For me the race had been quick, but for him it had lasted two hours, 47 minutes and 10 seconds! I imagined that was enough time for a triathlete to think. And he told me that, in addition to this and in addition to that, what had come to mind was the one we had lost, and that he had thought about him the whole time.
Jeff Bart and Ben Samit planned to do the New York City Triathlon together. To make a donation in Jeff’s memory, please visit Ben's link here. All donations go to St. Jude Children’s Hospital.