We left the condo at 6pm in a blur of pre-race excitement. The double stroller was packed with water bottles, jackets, and a few non-essential essentials. Bud and K-Mad were buckled in and already cheering for their big sister.
Lady J was dressed to match me, per her request, in her running outfit, pink hat, with a ponytail braid. “Mom, when I’m old enough for a phone, like 7 or 8 or 16, can I get an armband for it like you have?” She was a jumping bean of ecstatic enthusiasm, “Mom, in the race I’m gonna run like this!” She bolted down the hall to the elevator like an Olympic gymnast sprinting toward the vault.
We walked one mile down the boardwalk to the library to register for the race. Lady J was practically bubbling over and racing already. I wasn’t sure who was more excited at this point, her or I. This was our first race together and her first “distance” race.
“Mom, maybe when I’m big enough like in a year or a week I can run in a race by myself and you’ll just cheer for me and meet at the finish line, like when I’m 15 or 8, maybe 9 or 12. Those seem like good ages, ya know, when I’ll be old enough.”
We registered and I pinned our bibs on. We checked, one last time for ‘sneaky pee’ before heading to the starting line.
On our way to the line we talked about what to expect during the race and how it works. I made sure she knew that she could run ahead of me but I would not run ahead of her. I assured her that I could keep up with her, even if she sprinted the whole way, even with the stroller. And I told her there were only two rules she needed to know for the race:
Have fun & Try your best.
I looked down at her, as we took our place towards the back of the small pack of racers lining up and saw that Lady J wasn’t her usual bubbly self and any trace of pre-race excitement was nowhere to be seen.
“Mom, I’m scared,” she looked up at me and spoke with the blunt honesty that most lose as we age, “I don’t think I can do this.” Looking into her steely-blue eyes I could sense the knots in her stomach and feel the flutters of her heart.
And this was the moment. A defining moment that, as a parent, you have a choice to validate or ignore, teach or observe, be present or absent.
I am generally of the ‘old school’ belief that children need to be taught to just do it, suck it up, follow through, and a whole host of other notions that modern society is just beginning to (hopefully) re-embrace.
But this brief moment deserved so much more attention than a simple acknowledgment and brushing off with a quick, “I’m right here.” or “I’ll help you.” and especially, “Of course you can!” Although all would have been truthful, none would have been appropriate, nor what she needed to hear at that moment.
I knelt down and leaned in toward her, “Can I tell you a secret?” “Uh-huh,” she answered nervously. “I am too,” I whispered those three little words into her ear. “You are?” she gasped in total disbelief. “Yup! I get scared before every race. My heart beats super fast and my legs feel wobbly.”
She reached out for my hand in understanding and solidarity and lined up next to me. “Mom? I think we can do this together,” she put on her shield of bravery, “I know it’ll be awesome in the end. Let’s have fun and try our best, even if we don’t win.” “You got it,” I winked as we crossed the start together.
Lady J sprinted out in front of me, slowed to catch her breath, quickened to a jog, and walked briefly to rest. By the half way point, she settled in to a moderate and consistent pace.
We passed a few participants along the way and were cheered on by bystanders. “Go 321!” the onlookers shouted and clapped. “Who’s 321? Who are they cheering for?” she inquired. “You, Lady J! That’s your bib number. They are all cheering for you!”
She beamed, grabbed my hand again, and quickened her pace with pride. “It kinda makes my heart feel funny when they clap for me, Mama. Like it’s getting too big.” “I know exactly how you feel, J.”
We ran the rest of way, holding hands and cheering for those we passed. When we saw the finish line I let go and told her to go and “finish strong, J!”
Man, can that girl can fly!
“We did it, Mama! We did it together! You were great! Thank you for this awesome race and running with me!” she leaped into my arms with pure joy. Tears of pride and awe fell from beneath my sunglasses for both her achievement and her overt selflessness in her moment of accomplishment.
We high fived other finishers, offering our congratulations and stayed to watch the end of the racers finish. No one cheered them on with more enthusiasm and sportsmanship than Lady J.