Sunday, October 16, 2016

Telling my story: The beginning (Event 3)

So now you know that my thirst for adventure comes from my desire to create new memories where adversity allows me to perform optimally.  Today, I have a more somber event to recount but, perhaps, the most profound event in my life.  

Event 3:  My greatest loss

After college, I felt directionless so instead of pursuing a job, I decided to enter the Peace Corps.  Why not?  I figured.  Well, a few snafus later and that option went away.  The options seemed rather dangerous with the Peace Corps and my mom wasn't too keen on the idea of me being shipped off to some far-away place and get killed.  We agreed that I could live with her for a summer, train for triathlons and volunteer at the hospital she worked while I figured out my next steps in life.  She really wanted me to get a job and start acting like an adult.  I had other plans...or rather no plans to be an adult.  I did what I knew how to do, learn.  So, I decided to stay with her and learn what I could about my options.

That summer was great.  I swam every morning with my youth swim team and masters group at Roberto Clemente State Park.  After practice, I would head up to Montefiore and enjoy all the great food the Bronx offered at the time (bagels, fresh fruit, and egg sandwiches).  Every work day, my mom and I would meet for lunch and then travel home together from the office.  I am sure she treasured that summer as much as I did; we had a ton of fun.  The weekends often revolved around my triathlons.  She drove me up and down the east coast in search of better competition and more interesting race terrain.  I recall many instances post-race where she offered her candid and sharp feedback.  Given her sacrifices, she wanted me to do well and her feedback was often tough to swallow.  Regardless, we still laughed a lot and I learned to really enjoy my mom's company.

That summer was the last time I really had much time with her alone.  Late that summer, I decided to move to Tucson, AZ sight unseen and go to graduate school - one of the best decisions of my life.  While there, I met Kat (my wife), dedicated myself to triathlons and science, and became who I am today.  Two years after my move out west, my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  She asked us to fly back to NYC in August 1990 so she could tell us the news in person.  She died 15 months later.  

I still find myself choked up when I recount her last year.  To say that her dying was the single most significant event in my life doesn't do justice to her.  She was my critic, defender, supporter, cheerleader, apologist, and all other roles that ever boy needs from his mom.  I never really thought she would die.  Seriously.  The thought never occurred to me.  When she was diagnosed with cancer, I thought she was in good hands at Montefiore Medical Center and that the cancer specialists would find a way to save her.  We all watched helplessly as she wasted away.  I couldn't bear her suffering but I wanted to be around her to tell her how much I loved her.  In fact, during the past few months of her life, I divulged every wrong I ever did and told her that if she lived, I would dedicate myself to making up all those wrongs to her by doing something good for her.  For her.  Yes, for her.  I never got the opportunity to make good on my promise.  In December, 1991 she passed away.  She never had a chance with that cancer.  I was devastated.  I couldn't even bear to be around my family so I left NY and didn't return for a while.

Mortality:  My mom's death forced me to confront the one thing I never comprehended - my own mortality.  I was young.  Before she died, I was 25 and still had the sense of immortality; afterwards, I realized that life could be short.  Time was of the essence to experience things that life had to offer.  Every day counts.  Be kind to people, soak in what life offers you (good and bad), and be grateful you have the opportunity to gain that experience.  

Make every day count:  I am not always a good practitioner of this motto.  Some days seem to flit by without any importance.  I know this because even to this day, I recall what happens each day and at the end of each week.  My memory game really sheds light on the importance of each day for each week.  Still, some weeks go by and I don't feel like I am doing much at all.  I write, work with my students, analyze data, train, and read but those things seem trivial to the big picture.  One event really put things into perspective for me.  I qualified for the national championship triathlon - a race held every year and that year was hosted just outside of Chicago (Gary, IN - not far from Notre Dame where I went to college).  My race went horribly wrong.   I just didn't care any more about competing.  The thought of my mom struggling with cancer made racing seem so trivial.  I couldn't muster the drive to compete any longer.  That race was the last one I ever did as a way to best others.  From that moment forward, I realized I had to race against time - make every day count by not doing things that mattered to others but not to me.

My legacy:  My greatest sense of accomplishment these days comes from my son (below) and my students (too many to count or fit into one picture).  If you think I am adventurous, compare my son's exploits with mine.  Before he turns 21, he will have been to more countries, watched more crazy events, and camped out more times than I ever did at his age.  Hopefully he takes to adventure like his dad. 

Since birth...
Patrick logged countless hours in the jogging stroller,
Probably logged 2000 miles in heat, rain, wind, snow, and sleet
Driving from Tucson to Portland, OR - every year, twice a year.
Coming back from the UK after my EC swim.  First class...of course.
On the boat during my Catalina Channel swim - at the finish
Aboard SUVA before my EC swim

Patrick on Aconcagua among the penitentes
Cool dudes on Rainier in 2013
and back yards:

Not happy with me at the moment....because I asked him to help me clean up the back yard.  Oh well.

Every time they succeed, I feel successful.  Each step they make along the road to improving, I feel productive.  Their failures are opportunities for advancement and I tell them that repeatedly.  They are collectively my legacy - something I learned from my graduate advisor (Lee Sechrest) and from my mom.  Lee taught me that it is far more productive to model and reward scientific productivity than to merely practice it yourself.  I subscribe to that model as I subscribe to all methods of leveraging my time and energy.  My legacy comes from modeling how to deal with adversity.  Only through working hard, trying new things, and extending myself beyond what I thought possible will my son and students realize their own potential.  My pursuits provide a legacy that my mom would be proud to follow.  She might find it a bit harrowing at times but she would realize that I need to do this to feel alive.  I know it and hope she is following me now.

Every day I reflect on my memories, the opportunities that adventure offered me to optimally perform, and thank my good genes and dedicated preparation for more adventures in the future.  The three events recounted in these posts keep me focused and keep my thirst alive.  

An obvious follow-up question is..."isn't this just an adrenaline addiction?" or maybe you are asking yourself "will he ever find himself?"  The answer to the latter is easy - I found myself a long time ago.  My answer to the first question shall be detailed in my next post and it my surprise you.  Stay tuned for rest of my story.

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