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Some Thoughts on 5Ks, Colon Cancer, Charity and the Redemption of Friends

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I ran my first 5K last Sunday.

Anyone who knows anything about me will likely have two reactions, in this order. One: no chance. Two: anything is now officially possible, not excluding world peace.

I’m here to tell you, it happened. And now that my body has finally stopped aching, I can talk about the experience.

First and foremost: I had the type of epiphany one might expect or at least hope for during a state of heightened consciousness. Mine was simple: I’m not a runner and never will be.

And yet. I’ve already signed up to run another 5K. Soon (as in: less than two weeks soon).

Have I gone insane?

No, I have found a way to get more involved with fundraising and awareness. As anyone who follows my blog or has attended one of my readings will know, I’ve made an effort to engage with cancer-related organizations. Indeed, every one of my readings doubled as a fundraiser, and I am thrilled to have raised a few thousand dollars for some very worthy folks, including Hospice of the Piedmont and The Lombardi Cancer Center.

It was, in fact, while speaking at The Lombardi Center’s annual cancer symposium in December that I met the leadership team from Chris4Life. In short order, I happily associated myself with this incredible group of people and am donating books that they can sell, with all profits going directly to the organization. I also look forward to reading/speaking at future events, and doing pretty much anything I can to endorse and assist their work.

Which brings us to the 5K. Every spring Chris4Life sponsors the Scope it Out 5k. Everything about this event is special: the participants, the volunteers, the locale (the run occurs in downtown D.C.) and, of course, the cause. I had modest aspirations, both in terms of the funds I could solicit and completing this race, at least without walking. Against my own most optimistic projections, I did in fact complete the race (an 11-minute mile pace; I’m not going to threaten any Olympians but this is respectable, I reckon, for a 43 year old non-runner), and much more importantly, I raised over $4.5K.

This spectacular amount is entirely due to the generosity and support of my unbelievable network of friends and family. Period. It became almost ludicrous, watching the donations pour in, a stream of solidarity one dollar at a time. And while every penny counts and it’s not appropriate to name names, suffice it to say that some folks truly went above and beyond: I was humbled to the point of being staggered by the generosity on display.

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And this gets to the heart of why I wrote the memoir, why I hope to share it with as many people as possible, and how I’ve (mostly) been able to turn my despair at losing a beloved mother so young into an outlet for positive action. Annually, I have the same message to share on New Year’s Eve, and I’ll repeat it here: Don’t be cynical: find a charity you can feel good about supporting, endorse the efforts of our great artists, tell your parents you love them, appreciate –and savor– the friends who always have your back. Be good to strangers and be better to yourself: you deserve it.

There are myriad reasons I’ll never resort to cynicism; life is too short and there are too many good people and reasons to remain engaged, active and positive. But seeing the marker on my website climb to $7,080 raised means two things: my goal of $10,000 by end of 2014 seems suddenly reasonable, and doable, and that I can’t—and won’t—stop here.

And so: more action, more fundraising, more…running.

Speaking of the run, I was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other to think about much, but of course many things ran through my mind as I busied myself running. Foremost, what I was there for: my mother’s memory, certainly, but also the other people we’ve lost. And the people who are presently fighting for their lives. And for the amazing people who have literally dedicated their lives to eradicating cancer, or at least fighting it more effectively, more efficiently. The doctors, oncologists, nurses, scientists, and especially the folks who felt the call: the people who work with Hospice or at organizations like Chris4Life. Raising money, getting out of bed early on a Sunday and running a few miles seems, truly, like the least one can do.

And even as I ran with my sister and her family (by each other’s side, once again, as it’s been from the beginning) and some beloved friends, it filled me with a pride and sense of accomplishment. I have somehow managed to live a sufficiently purposeful life and have been lucky enough to surround myself with remarkable human beings. I know that has made all the difference. As I ran, I thought of the people who had taken the time to support my cause, the people who have read—and responded—to my memoir, the people who encourage me and offer me solace and inspiration. In his poem “Ulysses” Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote “I am a part of all that I have met.” You feel that when you reflect on your life, and if you’re fortunate, you are far greater a person having so many others helping comprise what you hope to become.

In my memoir I recall the difference it made, seeing so many of these people there during the darkest days:

Looking out, all my familiar faces: my father, my sister, her husband, my nephew and niece, the two aunts—my mother’s sisters—who had been with us for those awful, awe-inspiring final two weeks, and behind them the confidantes, colleagues, childhood friends, grown-up acquaintances, friends’ parents, and all the less recognizable faces I hadn’t seen in so many years. This is the closest we come to witnessing our own funerals. The same people there to support us, smile and cry with us, becoming part of the moments that become memories; an event that connects us and brings us closer, no matter how far away or disparate our lives might otherwise be.

Looking out at my family and understanding that they helped shape me, that I wouldn’t change anything even if I could. We learn to put away childish things and earn the chances we’ve been given, the responsibility to carry on the work that has already been done on our behalves. Equal parts fate and good fortune, we look at those familiar faces and understand what they have done, and what we need to do.

This past year has solidified a sense of purpose with a sense of urgency. I want to do more, because it’s the least I can do. When I think of all the gentle and gracious souls that surround me (and live on, inside me) I’m reminded, yet again, of what I’ve done, and what I need to do.

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“Sean Murphy brings a poetic voice and insightful contemplations to the largely unexplored territory of dying and death. With deep compassion and philosophical curiosity, he processes his individual grief while confirming the universality of loss.”

—Roy Remer, Director of Volunteer Programs, Zen Hospice Project

May 27, 2015