So, baby, are we doing this thing, or what? he said, rapping on my car window.
It was 5:58 on Friday, September 30, 2005, two minutes ahead of our agreed start time of six o’clock. He was always early; I was always late. It was part of our familiar routine. On this particular day, though, I was irritated by his early-start insistence because I wanted to listen to the end of story, Susan Stamberg interviewing Joan Didion about her then-recently published book, The Year of Magical Thinking.
I probably wouldn’t have been so engrossed in the interview had I not gotten engrossed in the excerpt from the book that had been printed in the New York Times Magazine the previous Sunday, a Sunday when I somehow had the rare privilege of staying in bed until I had read both the local paper and the Times cover to cover. I read that particular book excerpt twice, unable to put it down.
Didion was a writer whose work my mother, as I recall, did not like, though I can’t remember the specific reasons. Since my mother disliked Didion’s writing, I had decided in advance that I would also dislike her writing, because I had not yet separated myself fully from my mother. So I had never read any of Didion’s work until that Sunday, and then only by mistake. I started reading the piece because the photograph printed with it had caught my eye; I had skipped right past information about the author and jumped straight into the words.
The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s exploration of grief after the sudden and unexpected loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, one winter night, at dinnertime, after they’d come home from the hospital to visit their only daughter who was gravely ill. It is a deeply personal story, told without sentimentality or self-pity.
So I wanted to listen to every second of that exquisite interview, which was as riveting as the writing, both because of Didion’s poetic resilience and because of Susan Stamberg’s artful questioning, her ability to bring out poignant, utterly human details without being intrusive or maudlin. It was spellbinding; it made time stand still.
I might have continued to sit in my car, transfixed, only I had the thumping tails of two impatient dogs in the cargo hold of my Passat wagon, and I had the thumping knock of my running mate at my window.
We met, as I mentioned, promptly at six, despite differing definitions of prompt, by the golf house, near the gate that closed the road to thru traffic. We ran on the open grassy area, home to holes three and four. We skipped Sundays and most, though not all, rainy days. But all non-rainy, non-Sunday days were fair game.
We had started this particular chapter of our running partnership in late May or early June; I can’t remember the exact date, only that the weather was already very hot. I had woken on a Tuesday or Wednesday feeling completely miserable and fat and listless and lost, enough so to email an old friend, my old running buddy, and ask if he were still hoofing it in the park in the mornings the way we had done many years before, back when I was young and single and lived in an apartment across the street from the park, beholden to no one but myself. Yes, he’d said, come join me tomorrow.
And I replied: yes! I’ll be there! 7:00, right? only to learn that in our many years apart the starting time had turned back an hour, and I would be expected to appear at a time I considered indecent. I haven’t run in years, I added, and I probably won’t make it a full loop. He said he wasn’t worried, said we’d just walk until I was ready to run, or else I could walk and he could run, but we’d both be out there together because being out there alone in the dark in the early morning wasn’t safe for me by myself.
So I slipped out of bed the next morning, before anyone in my house was awake, and I pulled on some too-tight running shorts and worn out shoes, and I drove to the park, to the golf house, where the early morning people parked.
You showed up! he exclaimed. And he gave me a big hug and said: well come on, let’s get after it. So then we ran for a little bit, more like Clydesdales than Arabians; and then he ran and I walked; and somehow or another we stayed out there for 30 minutes until I was sweaty and tired and ready to go back home.
Ok, that’s one. See you tomorrow, and we’ll do it again.
When I first started running, a long time ago now, I ran with a group of women who’d been putt-putting around together for many years, slow and steady, and who invited me to join them because they thought I might need some companionship and a new hobby after an unexpected break-up. I dragged along behind them for a month or two, and then I got to where I could match their pace, and then I got to where I wanted to run faster, because I was 25 and everything in the world revolved around getting more and better and faster.
So I started looking for a new running group, because relationships didn’t mean the same thing to me then as they do now. My friend Paul suggested I join a small group that met in the park every weekday morning at 7:00. There was a woman in the group who played tennis and had a career and ran, Paul thought, about the pace I liked to run; so he thought she and her crew would be a good group for me; and that’s how I first met Melanie and Sue and Lyn and Robert and Hud.
How it ended up being primarily Hud and I, running together, I cannot reconstruct with any precision. Here’s what I think I remember:
There were early days, when he and I were the only two who showed up to run and thus ran together.
There were days when we were well-matched for pace, slower than the rest of the group, and happy to have company.
There were days when we talked about photography, because he was a master photographer, mostly portraits although also catalog work.
There were days when we had Memphis talk, when we compared notes and learned that he had gone to high school with the husband of one of my tennis partners.
Here’s what I know very clearly:
He was Sagittarius to my Leo, maturity to my youth.
I know that I somehow conned him into helping me train for the Memphis marathon by running hill repeats in front of the Brooks Museum, even though he’d already run a marathon or two, had already checked that box.
I know that I asked him to photograph me, to take a head shot for a conference brochure even though I hated hated hated having my picture taken, because I trusted him with a camera.
I know that I heard from the very beginning the story of his new love, the love of his life, who arrived like a spontaneous, magic miracle in his world, and who also became my dear friend.
I know we once, just before dawn, narrowly avoided stepping on a pair of baby copperhead snakes, and that we said great thanks for being alive.
I know that in the months between October 1991 and November 1994, running the part-gravel, part-paved loop at Overton Park, Hud and I became lifelong friends, that he helped prepare me to turn the corner from my 20s to my 30s, that I drove from Omaha to Memphis just for the weekend to attend his October 1997 wedding, that he was one of the very small handful of friends I introduced to Bernard a few years later, that he was one of only three friends invited to come tour the Money Pit because I knew that he wouldn’t say we were nuts, even if he thought that we were.
All of which is why I emailed him that day in May or June of 2005.
My mother had died the January before, after a long illness. In February Bernard, the children and I had moved, prematurely, into a house that wasn’t quite ready for any family to call it home. In August I was going to turn 40, miserable and fat and listless and lost. I was very much in need of the kind of friend who could offer gentle wisdom and tough love and unconditional support and constructive criticism, absent a single trace of judgment. Also, I needed exercise.
And so we started running together, again.
Over many years we’d had a patchwork friendship, Hud and I, the sort in which some squares were made of elaborate patterning and other squares were completely blank. With every loop we ran, summer into fall, we connected the pieces, both patterned and blank, and we started incorporating a few new ones. We talked politics and religion and art, counting our laps while making sure our dogs didn’t escape our sight.
When we ran out of other things to talk about, we always had the dogs to fall back on. Hud brought Carmen and Zoe; I brought two of my three, Ella, Magoo and Tidbit, depending upon which ones needed the exercise most. Carmen was a street rescue; Zoe an auction prize; Ella and Magoo were shelter rescues; Tidbit simply arrived on my scene at the right moment.
Carmen, the doyenne of the group, would keep watch mostly in the middle, where she could see everything and everyone. Zoe would run right with Hud. Ella would wander in and out. Magoo would escape to see if anyone walking the outer loop had food. Tidbit would prowl the treeline for coyotes and flashers.
The dogs, in fact, were the primary reason for our daily commitment. Give a dog the hint of getting outside to run free at a certain time of the day, and the dog will ensure you never miss an appointment.
Thus we, Hud and I, would make our rounds, round and round, with our dogs as witnesses. Hud, still, was Sagittarius to my Leo, maturity to my youth. I wanted to know: Was I a good mother? Did marriage get easier? What was it like to be 40? Was I on the right track with my job? Was this going to be it, forever?
By November we were running fast, pushing each other to perform. On November the Last (that’s how he always said it), I gave him a bottle of Heinz 57 sauce for his birthday, to celebrate 57 years of adding great flavor to life. For Christmas he gave me a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking, remembering our discussion from a few months earlier, contemplation that required four full loops, not our usual three.
We ran through the holidays and the early spring, through fierce storms and forecasts of snow and the time changing back to long days.
In the late spring Ella began to grow weary, and she had trouble from time to time with her hind legs when she ran. She didn’t wake me up to run, and she needed help getting to the door and out to the yard. My morning routine changed to help her, and I started taking time-outs from morning runs with Hud. Our appointments in the park together grew sporadic. I took mid-day walks during my lunch breaks instead of waking early to run. I took my career in a new direction and I enrolled my children in preschool, both of which changed my routine even more. I turned the corner from my 30s to my 40s.
Hud’s life turned in new directions, too – new business, new travels, new realities. We saw each other less and less frequently. We shared a few holidays, a few meals, a few unexpected twists and turns. We had more blank squares than patterned ones. In a blink, a decade disappeared.
Last Friday a mutual friend called to tell me Hud had died, suddenly, very unexpectedly, in the arms of the love of his life. And I was transported immediately back to Friday, September 30, 2005, sitting in my car, listening to Morning Edition while my friend beckoned, impatiently, for me to join him, round and round and round, in the here and now.
So, baby, are we doing this thing, or what.
“…we are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. as we were. as we are no longer. as we will one day not be at all.”
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking.