Monday, March 8, 2010

What's In a Tattoo?

Last Thursday, I went with my 20-year old son, Zak, and a friend of ours and we all got tattoos. This was my third ink, and they have each been special, but this is the first time that I have branded myself with a declaration of commitment and personal passion. This tattoo is not a declaration of just one person; it is a declaration of my passion for thousands of people, and thousands of miles. My new tattoo declares forever my passion for The3Day walks. Adorning my leg is a blue 3 entwined with a pink ribbon. It feels great to have it there, like it has been waiting to be born.

The decision to get my tattoo at the same time that Zak was getting his first started out just as a mom being there for and with her son. I’d been thinking for a few years of getting this design in ink and when he started talking about getting a tattoo, it seemed like good timing. Funny thing is, I didn’t realize until we were there how perfect it was to have him along for this particular declaration. As we shared the tattoo party, I reflected on my son’s connection to my 3Day experiences.

Zak was part of my journey to The3Day from the very start. My first walk was dedicated to my friend Mary Kaye, who was battling breast cancer in the wake of having lost her husband to pancreatic cancer just a year before her own diagnosis. My friendship with Mary Kaye was really borne of our boys’ friendship with one another. If not for the persistence of my son and hers in their need to stay connected it’s possible that Mary Kaye and I might have missed the chance to be in one another’s lives in a deep and meaningful way. If not for Zak and R’s friendship, it’s probable that Mar and I would have only been once-in-awhile friends. So because of his role in the start of that friendship, Zak was a part of my 3Day journey from before it even began.

When I started training for my first walk, I was unprepared for the amount of hours that one must dedicate to walking. My son quickly turned the training from a chore into a pleasure by joining me on our local bike path. He’d ride his bike for miles up and down the path cycling past me, then riding alongside me then falling behind me. And then he would start all over again. He could have been out with his friends; he could have been home playing games. But instead, my 11-year old boy was keeping me company and cheering me on so I could train. When I hit the streets on my first 3Day event and saw the bike safety crew patrolling our route in the same looping manner, I would smile each time thinking of my own safety crew back home.

Above all, Zak holds a vital role in my 3Day memories. He made it possible for me to complete all 60 miles of the most physically demanding 3Day I have walked yet. Each event has had it’s own challenges and demands; but the most intense for me was the Boston 3Day of 2002. As any New Englander will tell you about our spring weather: anything goes – and that weekend it sure did.

Day One was a perfect, sunny, clear day around 70 degrees with a slight breeze. I walked most of that day with Matt, celebrating our “walkaversary”. It had been one year since we had met on the 3Day. A lot had happened in that year and I was so grateful to have him along as my walking partner, and rapidly moving towards being the life partner that he is today.

We had a perfect day for walking, and at the end of our day relaxed on the lawn outside the dinner tent playing cards with some other walkers. At dinner that night the announcements included a weather forecast that sounded a bit threatening. Rain was coming in and was expected for all of Saturday. They advised covering our tents with extra layers of plastic and to be prepared for a wet walk.

I made a phone call to my ex-husband, Mike. Our hometown is about 2 hours west of the route planned for Day Two and he had offered to bring our kids eastward to cheer along the walk route. I was really looking forward to seeing them among the cheerleaders. I called to see if the forecast might be impacting his/their plans. He laughed and told me that since they could sit in a dry car and we’d be the ones walking in the rain all day, he didn’t see any reason for their plans to change. I was happy to hear it and reflected on how fortunate our kids are that we have been able to be friends in the wake of the end of our marriage.

The rains whipped in during the night and by morning, it was pouring in earnest. Back in those days, walkers packed every thing up each day to have our tents and personal belongings moved to the next ‘tent city’ site. We dressed in everything we could, packed up our stuff and our tent and headed out for the day. Less than an hour into the walk, Matt’s wimpy windbreaker was failing and the temperatures were dropping. I called Mike again to check in about his plans with the kids. He confirmed that their plans were the same and that they were on the way. I asked him to bring a raincoat for Matt to borrow and he agreed. We kept on walking. It continued to rain and the temperature continued to drop.

It was getting cold for May, but as long as we were moving, it seemed okay. There were a lot of walkers dropping out from the cold. I called Mike again. He said, “You’re still walking? It’s snowing here on our drive!” I was shocked at the thought of snow in May, glad that it was just cold rain for us. And then just minutes later the sleet started. I could continue to share all the details of that morning’s walk, but you get the point. My brand new gore-tex raincoat was soaked through, stuck to my icy skin. When we stopped for a lunch break, I changed from old wet socks to fresh wet socks, huddled in the shelter of a high school’s doorway overhang. The 3Day offered warm buses and options to get dry and head back to camp. But we were stubborn and determined to keep walking. Looking back, Matt and I have reflected that it was unwise for us to keep walking. We were cold and wet and not making the clearest decisions. But we also determined to finish what we had come to start. At the most difficult points in that day, I couldn’t help but think of Mary Kaye, and think of all the times that she didn’t have a choice about when to give up. If she could keep fighting to survive, surely I could walk through one cold wet day.

Just at the point when I was so cold each step hurt, Mike called to say that he thought they were close. I could hear my son exclaim, “Look at all those porta-potties!” We conferred on directions and they were pulling up alongside us minutes later. I don’t usually use my cell phone on the route, but that one time I was certainly grateful to have it along. We ran up to the car and opened the door to greet them, and to get the raincoat that I’d asked Mike to bring for Matt. What a surprise we had! Mike is an outdoorsman, and had brought piles of gear for us to change. We jumped into the back of his small wagon into what looked like most of the inventory from a closeout sale at Outdoor Adventureland. There were dry sweatpants for Matt and big yellow, fisherman style pants and jackets for each of us. The kids cheered us on as we struggled to change in the back of the car. I had to stay in the wet pants I’d been walking in, but everything else for both of us was changed into dry stuff. Hugs were exchanged all around and we asked Mike to drive onto the next rest stop to check in on us before he and the kids turned back towards home.

So on we walked. It felt better, but I was still shivering. The pants I was wearing were drenched to my skin under the yellow rain pants. I was icy cold. I was disheartened that we had made it this far and that we might still have to give in to the elements. Mary Kaye wouldn’t give up, I thought. We approached the rest stop, and I ran over to the car. I looked at my son, the only person close to my size…”Please?” I asked him, “Please can I have your pants?”

I’d love to tell you that it was a Lifetime Movie Special Moment. I’d love to say that his eyes lit up and he rejoiced in his chance to help me. More like, he reluctantly relented. But he handed over the prize of his dry pants and I was able to change out of that icy layer. Dry and warmer now, I hugged my boy and thanked him. I told him that he had given me the one thing I needed most to be able to complete my day. Embarrassed by his pantlessness, he smiled with a new understanding. “You’re welcome Mom. I’m glad to do what I can.”

Warm and dry, we continued to walk. The whole mood of the day changed for us from that moment. We were strong again, and could laugh and share our story with the other walkers who had survived into this second half of a very long day. The sun even came out in the afternoon and we walked into camp (indoors that night) feeling victorious. We talk about that day often over the years. If not for the support of my family, I never would have finished walking that day. I might even have succumbed to the hypothermia that threatened me at lunchtime. If not for my son’s supportive gesture, I would have a different story to tell about my own survivor-day.

There was a moment of connection for my son and I that day. It might not seem like a big deal, but for a 12-year old about to sit pants-less for two hours in a car with his dad and his little sister, loaning me his pants was a very big deal. Zak gave up something he really didn’t want to because he knew I needed it more than he did. And in the years between then and now, I have known that I can count on him for that level of support. I can ask him for anything and he will give me what I need. He is just that kind of person. He gives of himself freely and often no questions asked. People can count on him. I don’t think he’s ever had to hand anyone his pants since then, but I know he would if he needed to.

I trust that every time I look at my beautiful new tattoo that years of 3Day memories will scroll through my thoughts. At the top of that scroll will be the look in my son’s eyes when I thanked him for helping me survive my walk. May we all have that kind of opportunity to recognize it when we have helped another person.


  1. this is your mother crying at the beauty of her amazing daughter! Thank you so much for sharing this blog, and for being the amazing person you are!

  2. Loved your story! It made training in Phoenix in the summer heat in 2006 for me seem like a cake walk! :) And very cool about the tatoo. I've been contemplating getting a 3-Day one myself over the years.

  3. Even though I don't know you, I almost cried while reading this post, on a train! I am going to participate in my third consecutive 3-Day this year, and your blog entries are quite an inspiration. I went through a weekend of rain and 100 degree weather last year during the 3-Day. While the constant wet shoes, wet clothes, and sticky, muggy feeling felt like the worst possible experience, it pales in comparison to what you experienced in 2002.

    My first night of the 2009 3-Day in Chicago was met with forecasts of thunderstorms and high winds. After a day of walking in the rain, and one of my teammates being forced back to camp early due to low blood pressure, a large number of other participants decided to find alternate sleeping arrangements. I however felt compelled to stay at camp. I felt that if I left, I would be failing myself, my donors, and all those who have fought breast cancer. So, I called my fiancé, and his support gave me the strength to stay at camp. Looking back at the situtation, I probably should have left with everyone else. BUT, luckily, the weather did not turn out to be as extreme as the forecast initially predicted, and my decision to stay gave me a stronger sense of accomplishment when the weekend was over.

    SO, with that being said, your story will definitely help me this year if I find myself in a similar situation. THANK YOU!

    PS...I have a tattoo already, that means something to me, but have been considering getting a second one for a while. And the only reason I would, is if it were a tattoo related to this event, and breast cancer. Maybe I'll get it after my third walk.

  4. Thanks for sharing this story. I too cried while reading your post. The tears started to build at the beginning of the post, and when I read about your son giving up his pants, the tears began to stream down my cheeks.

    This will be my first participating in a Komen event, and the emotions are already sky high! I have so many special women I am walking for and know it is going to continue to be a life changing journey!