In my twenties, I asked my parents, why when I was four years old and starting school did they make the decision not to tell me I was visually impaired? I was literally floored with Dad’s response – “Johnny Cash”. Not the answer I was quite expecting, but very “Casey” – unpredictable!! This really does require an explanation. Dad loved Johnny Cash and one song in particular called “A Boy Named Sue”. It was a song that told the story of a father who named his son Sue. Sue was bullied all his life for having a girl’s name and grew up to deeply resent his father who ran out on him early in his childhood. Years later, Sue happens to meet his drunk father in a bar and punches him flat out and it is the father’s response to this beating that for some reason captured my Dad’s thinking:
And he said: “Son, this world is rough
And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn’t be there to help ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you’d have to get tough or die
And it’s the name that helped to make you strong.”
Dad knew life was tough and knew that it would be tougher if his daughter had a disability. He wanted to prepare me for a time when they could not protect or cushion me. He wanted to make me a survivor. He wanted me to be able to stand up for myself.
My parents didn’t give me a silly name however; instead they gave me an identity – they made me believe I could see as well as anyone else.
Catapulting 35 years on, to the week before the 2010 Dublin marathon, a marathon that I had put my heart and soul on completing! Last year, just weeks before the said marathon I had to pull out, due to what at the time appeared to be a simple knee injury. I was NOT impressed. Marathon training takes up a lot of time, requiring you to be planned, disciplined and prone to ridiculously early mornings! The mornings bit I coped with relatively well, but as for planning and discipline – eh, lets call that an area for improvement!
Courtesy of Johnny Cash’s Sue, giving up or giving in is not part of my DNA – banjaxed knee or not. Over the years I had ignored the “stop” signs, sometimes to my own detriment. “No” simply meant “bring it on” and faced with the “impossible”, my job was to eliminate the “im”. But last year I was given little choice because what started as a painful knee threatened to be something far more serious. And even I knew that I had to listen to my body and wave the white flag!
However, I got the all-clear in March and it was suggested I could resume with a little light jogging! Casey translation – what date is the Dublin marathon this year? Gradually over the months I built strength back into my body. The depleted muscles began to rebuild and I started putting miles back on the legs with my co-conspirator and sighted running partner Fiona Mullen. Every time we ran I bounced along like a mad yoke grinning from ear to ear with the threat of “never running again” far in the past.
Personally it has been an extraordinarily tough year and somehow this marathon and crossing that line was that wonderful focus and distraction to get me through, a way of proving to myself that I didn’t give up, that I had the capacity to keep “trucking” and as the last few weeks closed in and we ran the big 23 miler on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning I imagined that I could beat anything. I hadn’t failed.
10 days ago I was in the gym. Something didn’t feel right. My chest felt tight. Several hours later I began coughing. By the next day I had a full blown “something”. No big deal I thought. Uniflu is your only man. I will knock it on the head in days. Of course I will run it. I’m strong. I’m fit. Eventually under much duress I went to the doctor who smiled lamely at me when I talked about my plans. Ordered back to bed, for further bed rest with some sort of virus, I secretly kept thinking “You’re all mad – I’m fine, I will run it, just you wait and see, I’m Sue for God’s sake.”
Well that’s not how it worked out. On a gorgeous October morning the Dublin City marathon began and I didn’t make that starting line. As the good luck texts poured in, I was in my kitchen doing a dance off with the cooker to Rihanna. And I was smiling. For one of the very rare times in my life, I decided to stop fighting, battling, proving, – I decided to stop being “Johnny Cash’s Sue”.
A really good friend of mine, Julie, watched me battle late last week with the idea of giving up, of failing again, of not completing what I set out to do. She understood that running the marathon meant so much more than simply running 26 miles, that it was about proving something to myself after the past year. And when I asked her advice about whether to run, she simply said “Caroline, maybe this time, your greatest success will NOT be to run the marathon; maybe that is the real achievement”.
And she was right. I owe Johnny Cash’s Sue so much in my life. That drive, the relentless optimism, the fighting spirit, the determination to never give up – these behaviours have genuinely made the impossible happen; they even helped me see when I couldn’t. But what I realised as I thought about Julie’s advice is that I need to know when to call on “Sue” and when not to. I have got into the habit of believing that stopping equals giving up. That good enough is never enough. That unless I push myself beyond myself I am not succeeding. That if I don’t, I fail. Slowing down is weak. There is the old sporting adage – “quitters never win and winners never quit” and that is how I have lived my life to date.
But this week I saw beyond the simple black and white of winning and quitting and understood the importance of knowing when to fight, knowing how to fight and knowing when to stop. In essence it’s about timing. Success and failure is not maybe so much about crossing the line at any cost, but about knowing when and how best to cross it.
For some reason my body wasn’t ready to run that marathon. Maybe it was the universe giving me a kick up the ass to say – “lady – you still haven’t learnt – will you SLOOOOWWW down, you’re doing too much.” Maybe Julie was right, that the greatest achievement was knowing when not to go into battle. Or maybe, less of the drama please, I simply got some flu thing!
Either way, it just goes to prove that sometimes no matter how hard you work, or push or strive, or hope, or believe, life just doesn’t work out the way we want it. This year’s marathon isn’t the real issue, in fact it is ridiculously insignificant in the grander scheme of things. It is simply a metaphor for life. It has made me think again of something I learnt a long long time ago when I found out that I was legally blind – you often can’t control your circumstances, but you can choose how to respond.
It’s hard to believe, but over the past 12 months, I have focused solely on the battle and fight of getting through, forgetting the most important thing my parents taught me – something I realised when I decided not to run the marathon this year – it’s not what you can’t do, its what you can do that counts!
So, in honour of Johnny Cash, who never ran a marathon, and my inner “Sue” – anyone want to run the Holyhead marathon on Jan 22nd 2011??? Anyone anyone?