“Running Away,” New Era, Apr. 1999, 40
Two days after Ryan’s accident, my brother Clay became a marathon runner. He started tugging on his gym shoes without a word to anyone and disappeared for hours. Each time he returned, his T-shirt was soaked through, and his hair was in wet spikes.
I think he ran to try to outrun the pain.
I stayed home and cried, reliving the accident as though it had been caught in a series of snapshots, frame by frame. First I saw Dad’s white face on the phone. Then we were driving to the hospital silently, and I could only stare at the armrest on the car door. I was afraid to look outside at the dark road, afraid I might see Ryan’s mangled bike still lying there.
At the hospital, I memorized every brand of candy bar and potato chip in the vending machine. They said when they found Ryan, he was lying in the road by a torn sack, with loaves of bread and grapes scattered around him.
The news that hurt so much was that they also found an Almond Joy (Mom’s favorite), a bag of peanut M&M’s (Clay’s favorite), a packet of sunflower seeds (Dad’s favorite), and a Snickers bar (my favorite). We knew he had spent his own money on the treats because he had a couple of pennies in one pocket and a folded receipt and six dollars and some change in the other pocket.
Ryan was in surgery when we arrived, and I remember staring at the TV screen in the waiting area, watching a pretty girl on a soap opera pout and plan to get her boyfriend back. She acted like it was the most important thing in the world. Eons later, we were allowed into intensive care. Ryan was difficult to recognize under the bandages. The doctor rattled off his injuries like a grocery list: a broken patella, femur, clavicle, and spine, a ruptured spleen, and a lacerated liver.
A broken this, a low that, a positive test for something else. All the news was negative. I was impatient, wanting to say, “Just tell us what isn’t broken.”
Ryan wore a metal brace, a halo, around his head, which kept it perfectly still, though he never moved. The only thing that moved was the ventilator, filling the air with a hiss. The IV kept up a quiet, steady drip. The heart monitor blipped ceremoniously.
Ryan would have liked the sounds, the rhythm of the IV and the steady beeping of the heart monitor. He used to sit at the table with a fork and spoon, tapping out a rhythm. He found patterns of rhythm in everything—the only person I know who appreciated a flat tire because it went “ga-WHUMP, ga-WHUMP, ga-WHUMP.”
I remember when he got excited as we watched rain fall one day on a long trip to Yellowstone. “Katie,” he said, “hear that?” He noticed little things, like the way raindrops hitting the windshield looked like miniature cat paw prints. Even though he was 15, he still had playing cards clipped to his bike spokes.
We were all there when the monitor stopped, the drumbeat fading to one long beep without rhythm or motion; Mom with red eyes, clutching a shredded tissue, Dad clenching his teeth; and Clay sitting near the bed, his head in his hands.
So Clay ran. And ran. I never saw him cry, but I think he must have done it during his runs. He was running miles and miles every day. Mom and Dad were quiet. No teasing or laughing or even music was heard in our house. Mom cried and cried when the drum set she’d ordered for Christmas came. I signed for it, and the delivery man went back to his truck, bewildered and apologetic.
I started to cringe whenever the doorbell rang. Who would be the next to blunder into our grief? A life insurance man? A boy Ryan’s age selling candy bars to finance a band trip?
Clay was out running the day the two young men, not much older than me, knocked on our door. I was surprised to see them in serious-looking suits because I couldn’t see a car. Instead, I saw two bicycles leaning against the porch. They wore nametags: Elder Martin and Elder Weiss.
Mom was in the kitchen cutting up vegetables for dinner. I didn’t call to her, and I had the two guys sit on the front porch in lawn chairs. They said they had a message about families, but I think I listened to them because they reminded me of Ryan—kind of young and innocent-looking, like they were playing at being grown-up in their father’s suits and ties, still riding bicycles.
They looked young, but they sounded wise and they had the kind of light about them that Ryan had. I didn’t tell them about Ryan, but their words were gentle and kind. They talked about a plan God has for his children and how he wants us to return to him.
I was intrigued, wondering how they knew so much. And as I listened, the porch, the lawn chairs, and the bicycles melted away and I felt like I was dreaming a comforting dream. Ryan, alive again. All of us happy again.
Suddenly Clay stood at the foot of the steps, breath coming out noisily, sweat dripping from his forehead.
“What are you guys trying to sell?” he demanded.
They looked at him. “We’re not selling anything. We’re teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Clay sat down and unlaced his shoes, jerking at the laces.
“Get out of here. There is no God.”
The missionaries rose but stayed where they were. Clay stood up too. He looked ready for a fight, but they calmly spoke to him. One of them said, “I know God lives and he loves us. He wants us to be happy.”
Clay became more angry. “That’s a bunch of baloney.” He shoved viciously at the bicycles, and they fell over like dominoes.
“Why did he take my brother? He was just a kid. Just a sweet little kid!” He threw his shoes at the house as hard as he could, barely missing the missionaries.
One elder looked ready to cry, but not out of fear. He said, “I felt the same way when my sister died of leukemia. But death isn’t the tragedy. Sin is. The gospel has taught me that I will see my sister again someday. Her spirit still lives on.”
His voice faded and he almost whispered. “Sometimes I can feel her near me.”
Clay stared at him for a moment, then brushed past him into the house. The elders thanked me for listening to them and asked if they could come again. I wanted them to. I wanted to know more. I wanted the comforting feeling they brought.
They did come back, and they gave me a blue book. As fall deepened into winter and it grew more serious and cold, the only thing that was in motion in our family was Clay, still running every day. The rest of us went through our routines. School, work, housework. But that was all. Anything extra took too much energy. But I did read the blue book, the Book of Mormon.
I brought the elders inside, and sometimes Mom listened briefly at the kitchen door, dish towel in her hands. She’d been a cleaning fanatic before, but now she cleaned twice as much, vacuuming twice a day.
What the elders said made so much sense.
“To every thing there is a season” (Eccles. 3:1). They said there is a pattern, a rhythm in life, and “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).
Clay saw me reading the Book of Mormon one day and said, “Those guys think they have all the answers, don’t they?” I told him I had been reading and praying, and that it was helping.
“I feel closer to my Heavenly Father, and he is helping me, one day at a time, one hour at a time,” I said. “And I feel closer to Ryan too. Sometimes he seems so near that I talk to him and tell him what I’m learning.” I was surprised to hear myself telling Clay such a private thing, but maybe I did it for a reason. Clay turned away and went to his room.
In March, Elder Martin told me and Mom, “I love springtime. It comforted me so much after Michelle died. I saw the plants die in the winter and be buried in snow. But in the spring, everything came alive again. I believed in the Resurrection. I believed in God’s purposes, and I finally trusted in his wisdom to take Michelle, even though we missed her so much. I knew Michelle was free from pain and that I would see her again.” He looked earnestly into our faces. “You will see Ryan again.”
Clay had come in from running and stood quietly as Elder Martin finished speaking. It had started snowing, but I could still see the daffodils, crocuses, and tulips Mom and I had planted the week before Ryan died, their yellows, blues, and reds brilliant against the pasty sky.
The elders smiled at Clay and shook his hand. Clay dropped his hat, and Elder Martin picked it up. He scooped a tiny bit of snow into his hands and it immediately melted.
“Look at snowflakes,” he said, looking at his wet palm. “No two alike, but they each have a pattern. You don’t see it unless you have a microscope. You have to look closely. If God gave something so small a pattern, he certainly gave us, his children, one. We can’t see it always, so we have to trust him.”
Clay said quietly, “I ran the marathon today. Twenty-six-point-two miles. It was a killer.”
“You should have told us!” Mom said. “We would have come to cheer you on.”
He looked at me. “I thought about what you said about praying. The whole time I was praying that God could help me understand why Ryan died and help me know that he wasn’t gone for good. Near the end of the race, I was the only one in front. I don’t even remember passing the other runners. It was like Ryan was running next to me, saying, ‘Go for it. You’re gonna win. Listen to your feet; keep up the rhythm; keep up the pace.’ And I won. I think I understand now. Ryan was like a sprinter. His race was quick, over in a few seconds. The rest of us are going for distance, though we don’t know when our own race will end.” His eyes filled, and he rubbed them with the back of his hand.
His voice dropped. “Ryan’s alive. His spirit is still alive.”
Elder Martin turned to Clay. “You’re right. You will see him again and be with him.” His eyes shone.
Elder Weiss said, “Hey, Clay, you’ve inspired us to start running every morning. What if we come by here on our way and pick you up? We can do some running together, and you can give us some pointers.”
Clay nodded. His breathing had slowed. He looked more healthy and alive than he’d looked for a long time. “Yeah, sure. That’d be okay.”
I watched the elders pedal away, smiling and talking like brothers, their long coats flapping behind them, ears already red with cold. Even though they wore dark suits, they seemed as bright as our flowers against the dull sky. Part of the pattern was becoming clear to me, and I knew those two young men would be connected to our family forever.
The snow changed to sleet, hitting the window with a pinging sound Ryan would have liked.