“Walked a mile to nearest road.” Those six words are the most heartbreaking love story I have ever known.
Our son was “safely surrendered” at the hospital by a mother who did not disclose her name. She did not know who the father was. She stated that the baby’s ethnicity was “other.” She did not give him a name. She hadn’t even known that she was pregnant.
She filled out a half-page questionnaire at the request of a hospital social worker, and then she left. That questionnaire, scribbled out in messy handwriting, is all the information we have. It is the prelude to my son’s entire life, and it is five questions long. There is no family heritage, no story from a grandparent or eye color from a father. There are no pregnancy cravings or belly photos or relatives to resemble. In so many ways, it feels like it will never be enough.
But there is this: there is the story of how fiercely my son’s first mother loved him. It is six words long, in her own handwriting, hiding in plain sight on that photocopied half-page questionnaire.
“Walked a mile to nearest road.”
She was homeless, you see, living somewhere rural outside of the city. Since she hadn’t known she was pregnant, she didn’t realize she was going into labor until the event was well underway. So she gave birth outside, alone, in the middle of the night, underneath a tree. The next day, she walked a mile to the nearest road, hitchhiked to the hospital, and asked the nurses to make sure her baby boy grew up in a family that could care for him and love him in a way that she didn’t feel equipped to. And then she left, alone.
I’ve thought about that mile that she walked so many times. How much pain was she in? How many times did she have to stop to rest? Did the baby cry? Did she? Did his tiny four pound body eventually feel heavy in her arms, no baby carrier or sling to help her?
After I gave birth to my oldest son I needed two grown adults to help me walk to the bathroom the first time. I gladly accepted the wheelchair ride to the car when it was time to leave the hospital, and then I hardly left the house for two weeks. There were painkillers and helpful family members and advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” There was no walking. There were no miles.
I’ve had a burning desire in my heart to honor her, and that mile she walked, since the day I held her baby in my arms and knew that he was my baby, too. I ache to feel connected to her, to keep her spirit alive in our family, to declare in some sort of meaningful way that I see it, that six word love story, and that I am changed by it.
So I’m running a marathon for her.
I’ve been active my whole life, but never very good at any of my athletic pursuits. I’m a perpetual “Spirit of the Game” award recipient — the girl who shows up, tries hard, and leaves little impression. I have finished a handful of 5K and 10K races, always in the middle of the pack, and never with a desire to run any farther. A marathon has never had any appeal for me.
My son’s birthday is always a bittersweet holiday for me; more sweet than bitter, but forever marked by the absence of the mother that brought him into this world. I have fumbled at various efforts to honor her at each passing year: an extra candle on the birthday cake, a pre-dawn prayer, and always - in spite of myself - tears of heartache and gratitude.
On his third birthday, though, I thought again of that mile she walked. I wondered where she was now, if she remembered that it was his birthday, if she was walking part of that mile again today. During my son’s nap, I decided to lace up my running shoes and go for a run. Three miles. One for each year that had passed, each birthday that she had missed. I finished those miles damp with sweat and tears, feeling like it was the most fitting birthday tribute to date. I wondered how many years I might be able to run a mile for each birthday that had gone by. Could I run ten miles for his tenth birthday? Fifteen miles five years after that? And then what? When he is an adult and living on his own, could I ever possibly make it all the way to 26 miles? Could a marathon be the tribute I had been searching for?
Despite feeling quite sure I’d never be able to run a full 26.2 mile marathon, I couldn’t shake the curiosity. I found myself looking up the Big Sur Marathon one day, and was relieved to find that the race was already full. I was off the hook. But then, in tiny print: space available with our charity teams. I clicked the link to find a list of charities, and although I was familiar with many of them, one in particular jumped out at me: Every Mother Counts, a non-profit that seeks to make childbirth safe for every mother, everywhere.
I instantly felt a lump in my throat. I imagined what it would be like towards the end of the race, running those last painful miles. When my legs feel like lead and I can’t catch my breath and I’m convinced that I can’t go on. I think of her. And just like that, it is decided: I will run this marathon.
When I doubt myself and I want to quit, it is her strength that I will summon. I will remember the circumstances under which she walked that hardest mile, how heavy her heart must have been, and how she did it anyways. That last, impossible mile of my marathon? That’s her mile. I will run that mile for her and for the six word love story that connects us forever.