I first published this post 18 months ago when my friend Shawna was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. On Friday, her battle ended. It did not end the way we all had hoped, yet we rejoice knowing that the storm is over, the suffering has ceased. Here is a repost with an updated ending. Blessings.
For me, the joy of trail running is in the hills; the burning of my quads as my feet push forward at a deceptively slow pace; the battle between the body screaming to quit and the will determined to conquer; the sound of my breath and beat of my heart pounding against the forest that would otherwise swallow me whole. I run the same hills every day. Some, over time, no longer feel like hills at all. They, though once a challenge to my developing legs, now serve as a warmup. But there are other hills, that show no mercy, despite my ritualistic climbs. The 22 switchbacks of Dan’s trail, the “wall” on McCulloch Peak, the slip and slide through the single-track emerging from the maze; these hills prey on my weakness and force me to dig a little deeper.
On the big hills, I used to direct my gaze solely towards the dirt beneath me and count my steps to distract from the pain. Now I try to embrace the challenge and look up. It is in the looking up that I discovered the trees. At the bottom of the hill the trees are thin and scraggly. Their roots are shallow as they focus on growing up, reaching from the depths of the forest floor towards the sunlight above the canopy. As I run up, the trees change. They become fuller, fatter, stronger. When I grow weary on the run, I look for the trees at the top. They are beautiful and inspiring.
A recent run led me straight into a wind storm. Branches flew wildly above my head, threatening to strike. Trees literally fell moments before my feet leapt across them. The debris on the ground turned my run into a tip-toe. Too far in to turn back, my only way out was up. So I fixed my eyes on the trees at the top, and I climbed. I marvelled as the wind had its way with the trees around me, while those at the top stood firm. They had nothing to ease the storm, no mountain side to lighten the blow, no other trees to break the wind. Yet, they stood more firm than the trees under the canopy.
I have a friend named Shawna. She is my tree at the top, probably unbeknownst to her. I was fourteen-years-old when I met her, and can now say that for over half my life I have looked up to her.
If you rummage through my house you will find old Bibles teeming with notes; notes inspired by things she said. You will find my favorite cookbook stained with tomato sauce; I bought it after sitting in her kitchen watching her cook with an intense love for her family. I still remember the index card taped to the cupboard that read “better is a meal of herbs where love is, than a fatted calf with hatred.” That verse plays in my head every time I prepare a meal. Her’s was the first face I saw the day I graduated from Highschool, the moment I emerged from the dressing room on my wedding day, when I brought my daughter to church for the first time. The faith that I have to press through the hills of my life, exists because of the faith that she inspired in me.
Shawna has lived a life unsheltered from the storm. There has been no mountain to lighten the blow nor other trees to break the wind. Yet she has clung to God, moved in close to His side, and now stands a little closer to the top. Her entire presence is beautiful, her love: inspiring. I have never known a single moment with her that did not also include great joy. In knowing her 18 years, there is not a single moment that I can recall where there was even a hint of animosity or anger or frustration between us. She had a way of being so present in the moment that there was no room for anything less than love and friendship. She loved deep and wide, there was no space left for anything else.
In the spring of 2011 Shawna was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She was 35. It was a moment that caused the world to stand still. A dear friend wrote on her blog: “I will scream at God, and then I will pray.” He expressed the sentiments of anyone who knew Shawna, who knew her story.
As the winds of treatment whipped and ravished her body, as the cancer stubbornly refused to respond, as hope dimmed in the daunting shadow of reality; Shawna dug her roots deep into the ground and fought hard. She fought with unbridled passion for her children and a precious trust in her God.
Shawna ran into heaven this past Friday. I refuse to even try to explain why. She deserved more life, her children needed for her to have more life, we all would have benefited from God giving her even one more day of life. All that I can figure is that she was just a little closer to God than the rest of us, so she did not need to be here as long.
She used to tell me “dig your wells deep, you never know when you’re gonna need it.” A mutual friend said to me this weekend in reference to the legacy that Shawna leaves behind: “Dig your wells, and dig your heels.” Good advice I think. And it comes straight from the top.