When my sister Colleen turned 5, my mom wasn’t home for her birthday. She was in the hospital having our baby sister Val, who had the temerity to be born on Colleen’s birthday, April 4th. It was bad enough that Mom wasn’t there for Colleen’s birthday, but from now on she’d have to share it with Val. It took Colleen a long time to get over it — years, actually.
The reaction was much different on April 4th, 1983. That’s the year our daughter Kelly was born — the middle of five children and the second of four daughters. Colleen and Val were ecstatic that they now shared a birthday with Kelly, and Barb and I were overjoyed as parents.
It was a significant sports day as well. The Orioles opened their 1983 season that day, losing to Kansas City but going on to win their last world championship when they defeated the Phillies in five games. By then, I was working in Philadelphia after accepting an editing position in the Philly Daily News’ sports department. I sometimes wore the Orioles T-shirt I was given as a goodbye gift by my Baltimore News American colleagues and was warned not to go into the composing room because Philly fans took their sports very seriously.
On the night of April 4th, 1983, North Carolina State, coached by Jim Valvano, upset Houston in a national championship game that has only grown in magnitude. I was home from the hospital and watched the game with my friend Dan Broadwater, a pastor who had preached on David vs. Goliath; it sort of felt like that.
Today would’ve been Kelly’s 37th birthday. We lost her on January 30th, 2010. She was born in the warmth and light of spring, and she died in the cold and darkness of winter. After she died, the frozen ground retained a covering of deep snow. I remember trying to clear the driveway one night. The task seemed overwhelming as I started to remove it one shovelful at a time. It’s the way we would have to do life — one step, one day at a time. When the snow finally melted, Barb said she couldn’t see the colors of spring. Life was going on around us, but we were absorbed by grief.
Grief isn’t linear. It isn’t like training for a race where you see steady improvement. It hits you when you least expect it and pulls you back to the most painful time. Little by little, though, the steps become lighter. You recognize that a family that could’ve been torn apart has gotten even closer. You realize how much your friends care, even if they don’t know what to say or do. You begin to see all the blessings amid the pain, and that life is bittersweet. You accept that you’re broken, and that you always will be.
As the 10-year anniversary of Kelly’s death was approaching, Barb and I were trying to think of ways to honor her memory. When I saw that the Salisbury Marathon would be held on April 4th, I viewed it as a sign that it was time for my first marathon. For the past five years, I’ve been running with Athletes Serving Athletes, assisting those who can’t run on their own. A similar organization, Team 360, helps disabled athletes in Salisbury. Its president, Jill Fancher Fears, knows about brokenness and how helping others can be healing; she was going to set me up with a team to run with that day.
Then COVID-19 entered our lives, and everything changed. Almost everything stopped. This time, life wasn’t going on around us as if nothing had happened, as if people had moved on before we were ready to. No one was braced for this, which is how we felt the day we lost Kelly.
What we came to realize is that we couldn’t lose hope. I also realized that I didn’t want to become bitter. Still, there were plenty of times when I wanted to surrender, when I didn’t care if I took another step. Family, friends and faith carried me in those times.
On my last serious run in preparation for the Salisbury Marathon, a 20-miler on the NCR Trail, I struggled on the final few miles, lacking sufficient hydration and nutrition. I thought of Kelly, and the courage it took to live with the severe anxiety and depression that accompanied her every step, especially the last 10 years of her life. I tried to draw on her strength, reminding myself of why I was taking on this challenge.
I reminded myself that it’s one step at a time, one day at a time. It’s the way Barb and I have lived since we lost Kelly. It’s the way we’re dealing with the pandemic. It’s the only way we know how to go on in our brokenness.
It’s a lot like running a marathon. I won’t be doing that today, but Barb and I will find another way to honor Kelly. And we’ll wish Colleen and Val a happy birthday. They’re good with sharing it, and sharing life with all its bittersweet moments.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.