It was August, and the temperature was only a couple degrees cooler than Hades. We’d been home-schooling Adele since kindergarten, and she was heading into sixth grade. It was time to get her moving, but we wished she didn’t have to do it in a forest-sized oven.
I’d never run cross-country before. The thought of a sport without a ball seemed absurd to me. But our girl was game for it, so I decided to run with her. Despite the heat, everyone took off from the shady pavilion and into the anvil-beating sun.
The coach had called for a 40-minute run. After a few minutes, Adele’s cheeks turned bright red and she slowed, as if running through honey.
“Keep it up, Delly, you’re doing great,” I said.
She’s usually a talkative kid, but she was giving everything she had. “Just don’t stop running,” I encouraged.
She was bearing down inside. The other kids all raced ahead, more experienced featherweights.
“This is the hardest day, Delly,” I said. “There won’t be a harder practice than this one.” Her face was drawn, her cheeks pulled down, as if every effort were in her legs.
My heart went out to her. A part of me wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to do it. No need for this strain, this pain. We could come back on a cooler day or just quit and never do this again. The other part of me admired her passion. I wanted to see what she was capable of.
We wound around the paths, passing by cheerleaders and football players, dog-walkers and softball games, a fisherman and a painter at the pond. We saw two deer in the woods on the East Cleveland side and the bluff where the Rockefeller mansion once stood, before an angry worker allegedly burned it to the ground.
It was like another world, that park, straddling two cities, a whole hidden history and a natural eternity.
She was the last kid to arrive back at the pavilion, but she never stopped running. It took every bit of her will. She gulped down her water bottle and more afterward when she got back home.
“Do you want to go to practice tomorrow?” I said quietly.
“Yes,” she said.
I couldn’t believe it. Our girl had fire inside.
A few practices in, the coach took her aside and told her that she could do this. She just had to keep working on it. With a faster turnover in her stride, she would improve her time. He could see how she would slow herself down, trying to pace herself, overthinking the race and not letting her body do the work.
After a couple races, he pulled her aside again. He pointed to his watch and said, “This is your time.”
“That’s my time?!” she exclaimed, staring at a new personal best. “That’s my time?!”
She worked her way into the middle of the pack, allowing her mind to relax and not predetermine her limit. She never stopped running.
At the end of the season, we gathered for the final race at Edgewater Park. At the starting line, facing the tall buildings of downtown beyond the park, the gun fired. A huge line of girls stampeded toward the horizon.
Parents shouted out their final encouragements, and then everything went quiet, as the girls narrowed into a line, growing as small as the future.
I felt myself fill with emotion. This is how it goes. This is how they go, our very hearts running outside of our own bodies beyond us.
She kept running that season. In eighth grade, she was a top-three finisher on the runner-up team for the league championship, shaving a full minute from her personal record.
Now in high school, she’s still at it. Her Hawken School team finished fifth at the state meet. Her younger sister, Leila, joined a year after Adele began, and we’re still going to Forest Hill.
The end of the season always sneaks up on us. It’s too hot in August, too busy in September, but then October comes and Forest Hill is gorgeous. The air is cool and the trees color-lovely.
At the duck pond, an Orthodox guy in front of an easel paints the duck pond and the man fishing (even when the man is already gone, he still haunts the painting, still searching for fish).
Under the pavilion, the East Cleveland cheerleaders shimmy their hips in time with each other, and the deer stop stock-still, curious at our pack of two-legged runners.
We lope past the place where Rockefeller’s house burned down, down the hill and past the abandoned apartment building, and up again and past the 8-year-olds in helmets and full pads that still crash against each other as they learn their new football plays.
The days grow shorter by the hour, and those final weeks we leave with the sunset sweetening the sky, until, all too suddenly, we’re gone for good.