Ruoyun, Nov. 2, 2023
Aaron, this past Tuesday was Halloween. On the Halloween evening of last year, you were playing chess in a tournament at Annex Chess Club downtown while I took Angelina trick-or-treating in a nearby neighborhood. I don’t remember much of the evening except that it was a bit rainy and chilly and that on the way home you complained to me about your pain in the tummy. You described the pain as something you didn’t think any of us had experienced. I still remember the tightening in my heart at that moment. What could it be? A few days before, you had just visited SickKids Oncology in a follow-up session when the nurse practitioner assured us that everything was great. So I took you to see the family doctor again, who, though not suspecting anything, ordered an ultrasound test. The most ghastly test result, the most ghastly journey back to SickKids… the most ghastly Halloween.
I woke up on Tuesday morning and took a deep breath. It was a weird day to live, having to prepare for teaching the next day and to bring Angelina to trick-or-treat in her favorite Elsa costume in the evening while trying to fend off all the overwhelming memories from the last Fall. I finished my lesson plans in the afternoon before leaving the house to pick up Angelina. In the schoolyard, she and Noreen, her best schoolfriend, announced to their moms that they were going trick-or-treating together. I fixed a quick supper, placed two trays of candies and chips outside the door, and lighted up a pumpkin light. When it was dark enough outside, I took Angelina to Noreen’s house. Noreen is one year older than Angelina, but they are both in Ms. Ng’s JK/SK class at Bridlewood School. The two spent two full hours running from door to door and asking for candy in their newly acquired English. They each had a bucket and a tote bag. They used the bucket to receive candies and the tote bag in their mother’s hand to dump the candies in before running away to the next house. Now and then, they ran into other kids from Ms. Ng’s class. Suddenly I was greeted by a voice from behind a mask, “How are you?” As I was trying to decide how to respond, Mary’s mom took off the mask to identify herself. We don’t know each other very well. Our only connection is that Mary was Aaron’s multi-year classmate at Bridlewood. I remembered that at Aaron’s tenth birthday party, several months after he was diagnosed, the whole class attended, and Mary’s mom was there taking lots of pictures. She was warm and kind. I also like Noreen’s mom. She also grew up in Beijing so in the way we speak Mandarin, we sound alike. I always smile to myself when I remembered a student of mine once telling me, “Professor, do you know that when you say “ay-yo-way”（哎呦喂）,you sound just like my classmates from Beijing.” This student grew up in East China to the south of the Yangtze River, where people do not speak 哎呦喂; and I had never known哎呦喂was not universally spoken across the nation. (BTW, I have many U of T students who love to talk with me in Mandarin during office hours.) Though Noreen’s mom only recently immigrated to Canada, she knew her neighborhood as if she’d been here for many years. Along the way, she would point to me every now and then what’s special about this house, who live there, what they do for a living… In two hours, the two girls had each collected a solid bagful of candies/chips/toys. It was not a weird day after all. It was just another day, filled with responsibilities, hopes, memories, pleasures, and heartaches. I felt sad and at the same time, the day was just fine. I used to watch a Netflix show titled Young Sheldon with Aaron. In one episode, the science prodigy Sheldon couldn’t go to sleep because of an upcoming big change in his life. He asked his twin sister Missy what he should do because he’s so scared. Missy replied, “I guess, be scared and still do it.” This line became increasingly alive to me these days. Instead of trying to fight the feeling, why not make peace with it, be okay that it’ll always be there, and just live on?
Two weeks ago, I ran my first half-marathon at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon Event, after completing an 18-week marathon/half-marathon training plan with a group of amazing coaches and friends. It was absolutely fun to run with so many people of all ages, genders, and sizes. That’s right – marathon runners do not all have the “runner’s body”, i.e. “lean muscle mass, low body fat, and a defined physique, especially in the legs, hips, and core” (McGovern, 2023, “What Is a Runner’s Body?”, www.crusadersac.ie). My massage therapist couldn’t believe his ears when I told him I was going to train for marathon. He said that I didn’t have a runner’s body, meaning that I was too heavyweight. I forgave him; he’s never PC. But he’s not just politically incorrect; he’s factually incorrect. My fellow runners and I proved him wrong, haha! I was feeling great in the first 16 km; the remaining 5 km, however, was an ordeal. Why am I dragging my legs? Who are these people running past me? Did they start from halfway? Why are they not tired? Why does 1 km seem like forever? Why isn’t there a water station every 100 meters? Water station volunteers, the most beautiful people in the world, where are you? Why am I doing this? What’s the purpose of life? As I was just about to lose my mind, a 4’20’’ marathon pacer, a friend from the same running club, came up to me and said, “Follow me and you should be able to finish at 2’05. Other Chinese runners who passed me told me to jiayou (“keep it up” in Chinese). I also heard shouts of “Jiayou” from the cheering crowds, which would surely have brought tears to my eyes if I had had enough body water to produce tears. My body was tired, grumpy, and uncooperative; my mind told my body, “It’s okay to be tired; being tired is part of the race and you knew it. Can you just still do it?” (the Cartesian body-mind dualism suddenly made sense to me again). In the last kilometer, my hurting legs and feet regained some speed; in a sense, I think I finished strong. 2 hours 5 minutes. Did our pacer have a power to prophesize or something?
A short video made by Li in Oct. 2023 (including screenshots he took when watching Ruoyun's half-marathon from Beijing)
These days, I try to keep in mind the power of acknowledging and living with your feelings, especially those feelings that we normally want to get rid of, such as fear, hurt, and sadness. Ironically, the more you want to fight them, the more you empower them to torture you. But they don’t have to be your enemies; they can be your allies if you just give them some space. I have carved out a space in my heart for grief. Since the hurt will never leave me, I might just as well give it full recognition and respect. Recognizing that this hurt is part of my life allows me to direct my energy away from the hurt itself to living, or living with the hurt. Not only does it give my life more energy, but it also transforms these seemingly negative feelings into insights and perspectives. Be hurting, and still finish strong. Not “but” but “and”, because hurt is not antagonistic to life; it’s part of life and makes it fuller.
P.S. The day before the half-marathon, Ruoyun was still trying to recover from a severe cold and coughing for a few weeks. Concerned about her health, I tried to talk her out of the race but she insisted on doing it regardless. She not only finished it but finished it strong despite all the difficulties (her record would have been much stronger if she were in better condition before the marathon). I have no doubt that Aaron will be very proud of his mom for her determination and resilience, as we all do, including Aaron's former teacher Ms. Tessier who represented Canada to finish 9th in the 2019 IAAF World Championship Marathon a few years ago. Aaron and we have always regarded her as our inspiration, and somewhat unexpectedly, she sent Ruoyun a really heart-warming, fairly long message to congratulate her for finishing her first half-marathon. That certainly means a lot to Ruoyun and me. One thing the few of us all understand now is that life itself is a marathon and we will have to find our own way to finish strong despite all the obstacles and heart-breaking pains. Li, Nov. 4, 2023.