The ephemeral quality of consciousness implies an existential cost of living that manifests itself in cruel ways. Ill-equipped to process the eternal losses of others, we rush to effect lasting remembrances with grave collections of words and images while exhibiting an easily rationalized conviction: The idea of dying is so unacceptable that if we arrange things just so, mortality can be eliminated. At once shocked and blase, we marvel at the death tolls reported in wars and in the wake of natural disasters, perhaps knowing that until our own terminus encroaches, we can’t have any concept of it.
Regardless of individual notions surrounding divinity and the afterlife, stripped of contrivances and grief rituals and celebratory hokum that devolves – as it perhaps should – into a solipsistic circle jerk, the departures of friends, foes and strangers all render us as human as we can be, stark naked in spite of our various metaphysical costumes.
In this odd carnival of behaviors and beliefs lies true beauty.
Hope Machedon of Bethesda, Maryland was a 2:55 marathoner with little discernible talent. Enigmatic to an eyebrow-raising extent, she was an MIT graduate who thought herself dumb as a box of Nikes. She was irascible, often irrational, and had a heart of 100-karat gold. Her primary passion appeared to be running, but that was her primary need. Her chief treasure was really her son, Radu. That Radu will progress through his teenage years without his mother is devastating to consider.
She was ill for three years – badly sick with breast cancer that ultimately metastasized. She tried experimental drug treatments. Near-remissions and relapses traded roundhouse punches. She was on an ever-shifting cocktail of toxic medications for a thousand days of supposed fear, yet literally never missed a step, logging over 8,000 miles of running in the years 2003 and 2004. She endured several turns for the worse, surviving all of them with her usual tenacity, but eventually cancer had its way and Hope’s race through life ended.
When someone in your life dies, inwardly there’s nowhere to hide from deeds undone, promises not kept. I either made that phone call I’d been considering for a week or more or I didn’t. I either eked out a goodbye I can satisfactorily own without belaboring the obvious or I squandered the chance. There’s simply no role for rationalizing when a friend disappears and is never going to check in with family photos from the Utah ski slopes or a yearly total mileage update or a fugg you!
I knew Hope was going to die – until, that is, she went and did. Then I understood I had been convinced – not hopeful, certain – that she would beat it. Cancer, that fearsome visitor that rips the arrogance from the boldest of souls, would not stand a chance in the long run against the likes of the energetically angry Hope.
Hope was incapable of being anything other than utterly honest. People often champion this quality in others without, I think, giving credit to its potency. There are times when people such as Hope – amusingly blunt as she was – tell us things we simply need to hear, but that others, harboring assorted reservations, would never broach.
She was driven, plumbing the heights and corresponding depths of neurosis and its indelible, often incredible output. She ran 80, 90, 100 miles a week on a Landice treadmill always set at the required 1 ½ percent grade, her body simultaneously bloated and chewed to its gristly roots by a combination of drugs and disease that was equally implacable. She soldiered through these runs holding the treadmill’s handrails for support, with red cell counts and a cardiac output less than half of that enjoyed by people in good health. She wore a lead shield over her heart during radiation treatments so she could continue to batter her ‘mill.
Through it all, her sources of vigor, though duly labeled by her and others, remained a mystery.
I have put in 130-mile weeks, alone, in heartless New Hampshire winters, at six thousand feet above sea level, in the thermonuclear swampiness of alligator country. I’ve rocked and rolled through some crushing workouts in same. I’ve done track sessions that have left me dazed, stumbling and febrile, unable to do much more than shuffle around the next day, marveling perversely at my apparent thirst for masochism. But I know I am kidding myself if I believe I could ever command anything close to the sheer drive and guts of Hope.
Understandably, in trying to take care of the demons that dogged her every waking moment, she perpetrated her share of f*ckups, some of them serious. She really wasn’t supposed to hit the wine bottle, not as a bearer of multiple malignancies, not as ill as she was. She did anyway, often with egregious aplomb. But there are no what-ifs in this; to pretend at any time that Hope’s gradually worsening dream would unfold on any terms but her own would be the height of intrusive foolishness.
Those who knew her only from her florid words on Web sites would likely have been surprised to hear her voice, which served up not the staccato shriek of a Gilbert Gottfried but a controlled, deliberate, reserved, even meek delivery from a spirited woman who listened as eagerly as she spoke. And Hope Machedon, who did me a huge personal favor at a time I was hurting, is one of the few people I am honored to have known.
She lived a remarkable, wonderful life. Nothing was wasted in her world. I’ve spent half of my adulthood as a sometimes tragically self-destructive screwball. Lots of us have wasted potentially enriching time on wildly counterproductive bullshit. Short as Hope’s time with us was, she is a clear exception.
I tried at least six times to get through this without crying. No success.
Despite this overarching effort at reconciliation and closure, there is no solace, not now. But I take some comfort in this: Hope, for all of her aggressive stances and mercurial behaviors and tortured output, never wavered, and not just in terms of her running. She harbored no illusions about what the next sunrise, should she last long enough to see it, might bring. She simply continued to be – fireball and supermom – what she was and with an energy that few of her brothers and sisters could ever summon and none could feign. Thus she died with more dignity than most of us could conceive of.
Mama always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun
But mama…that’s where the fun is.
– Bruce Springsteen/Manfred Mann
(Originally written March 17, 2005. Hope passed away on March 3 of that year. She remains the one thing who, when all else fails, is guaranteed to get me off my ass and out into the cold and the doubt.)