And so, on the farm in Brooklet, Georgia, returning to the start simply meant another run through the patchy weeds, the worn and tire-rutted trails, the forest made awkward by roots, the shadeless field’s expanse, the horse pen, the pig pen, the pup pen, and the chickens goofing wild around it all. Keep returning to the place from where you start again until you lose the prefix, and then the verb, and you just are. Breath. A body in space.
And so I did not know what would happen in a 24-hour race because I had never run a 24-hour race. I know that I arrived the night before to the embered glow of faces sitting around a barrel fire, roasting marshmallows and hot dogs. I know that such an arrival, and the decision that it was predicated upon, meant I was not normal. And so I know that I ate a hot dog and drank a few beers and met the fellow runners, all of us speaking, all at once, almost as a realization, without worry. I know now that the best way to imagine a day is to unimagine it, to sever yourself from the notion that certain things might fit within it and certain things might not. It’s best to believe in a world that makes no sense than to make sense of what little you can. Save your energy, there’s a long day ahead.
And so few things, if any, resemble a closed circuit, a loop. Even those that do — the turn of a clock back toward the day, the lap of a track, the dog’s endless chasing toward its tail — are changed by the irrevocable. The dust gathering upon the minute hand. The lactic acid built up in the legs. The grey hairs whiskered round the snout. It’s no secret to say that most of who we are is change.
And so tonight, I am on the bus home to visit my father. The road to him is a near-straight line, south on 95, huffing out of the city before rolling down the highway past the great puffs of smoke-stacks lining north Jersey, and then the long monotonous rumble of yellow lines rolling beneath the wheels. He is aging, and every attempt to put him into words is an attempt to say yes, he was here once, like this, like this. Last week, a surgeon removed his hips — cartilage weathered by seven decades of laps around a track — and replaced them with something other than his body. When I saw him the next day, bent over his walker, he looked aged by motion no longer his. Call it wind. Call it a weight, falling from the sky, heavy and invisible. Call it coming back around, hoping you’d be the same, and knowing you won’t be.
And so, in Georgia, I began just after dawn and came back around lap after lap. Just under two miles each time. And the laps added up until time began to be measured in ache. Because time isn’t real, we learn to fill it up with things that are — what is both measurable and not: The buildup of pain. The slow destruction of the space around a bone. Distance traveled. Distance re-negged. Distance overcome and distance not.
And so, when I say miles, please understand, I mean a kind of shattering of all I’ve come to know. Kierkegaard says, “The beginning is not that with which one begins but is that to which one comes.” The laps in Georgia measured 1.9 miles and we had a day that felt nearly unmeasurable to complete as many as we could. Each arrival at what would become the finish line meant only a new departure to find the finish again. Repeat this long enough and you learn to live in the space between getting and there. What is there but a new there? The same place, only beyond. The same love — only, this time, and then forever, and beyond that forever — beyond.
And so let us consider the variables of love. In order to determine this, it might be best to determine the variables of life. We know that there is a beginning and an end. We know that the end places us back into the beginning, not simply back into a state of nonexistence, but back into a state of infinite potential, where we who were become a we who is dreamed of, or considered, or negated, or wished for. As such, we know that life is not linear, but rather a loop, where, in beginning we begin to end and in ending we begin to begin again — as a thing named but not found. Life is a journey, we hear. Life is a marathon, we are told. But what name for life is there other than infinity, where all you try to see becomes all you cannot see? As such, life becomes x, as in: unknown, unsolved, infinite potential. And yet this does nothing to soothe us. We ask how can I love, knowing x is x and must be x forever? Asking this question soothes us, because in this asking we assert that love is dependent on life and therefore is, like life, both infinite and unknown. If life is x, then love must be, too. And if the map of life is the map of love, then it neither progresses nor diminishes. It simply returns.
And so, at home, I wash my father’s body for the first time. The backs of his legs are bruised and his thighs are swollen near-double their size. They balloon, and the skin stretches translucent across the deep night of his blood pooling just beneath the surface. I sit on the floor as he stands, leaning on his walker. I begin with his feet, rinsing the washcloth in a pot made for cooking, wetting and warming the spaces between his toes. His legs are shaved for the surgery and the hair seems as if it will never grow back and his muscles tremble at the feeling of all this standing and he is wearing a long t-shirt and nothing else and I remember that I had tried to prepare myself for this moment, had stayed up dreaming of what might be his shame and how I might say something quiet yet reassuring. Become a kind of father to my father, but I would be lying if I told you that, sitting on the floor, I feel nothing but a sense of belonging. I did not journey to this place. I simply arrived. I cannot ever have known this love — I can only, simply, religiously, with burden and without, know it.
And so it was with pain. In Georgia, among the tall strands of wheat tickling the sky and the forest trail’s snakes I never saw and the horses whipping their tails at whatever invisible phantoms came at them from behind, I circled the farm through the morning as the minutes and miles counted off their own kind of certainty. While running, pain arrives in degrees, and the body learns to live in these increments of feeling for times extended and not. But, after a time, say, 20 miles, or 30 miles, the pain that has arrived is the pain that never leaves. It neither grows nor diminishes. Rather, it is. It is a whole-body ache, as if your flesh and all it contains has become the nail at the very moment the hammer strikes its head. Never the digging-in, and never the releasing, only, in one long moment suspended, the striking. I run largely to live as long as I can.
And so, because all of life is an arriving at a beginning, I dry my father’s legs. I move the towel up from the same places between his toes. Around the hairless caverns of his calves. Along the bruises decorating his smooth and blue thighs. Over the bandages, checking for any bleeding. He does not wince, only trembles. When I finish, we pull the shorts up to cover his body, and then he sits and raises his now-clean feet for me to cover with socks.
And so, at a certain point, I became the pain that became a part of me, and, as such, became all that I ran through. I became the fields catching the sun’s last rays toppling atop the tall grass. I became the roots and the rabbits darting through them. I became dirt and I became the night when the night came. I became the light from my headlamp illuminating the space before my feet and I became all I could not see but could hear, like the lone frog’s warble and the endless parade of singing crickets. I became, then, in that moment, in the ether, all that wasn’t there. I became someone missing someone else, and longing. And I became fear, and anxiety, and not knowing what I was doing or if I could or why. I became what I wanted to become — simple passage through the night — and also what I feared the most: a night I could never escape. All at once, I became all at once.
And so, because there is pain in love, I believe we can become love, too.
And so, because of this, I believe we can become, each of us, places of arrival, where there is nothing to be journeyed to other than a deepening, as if the map of our lives, and our love, contained depth rather than length, where the question is no longer how much do you love me but how deep, how deep, how deep?
And so I help my father into bed and ask what else he needs and he tells me only the light from the room outside, how it shines a sliver of itself into his room. And I smile and leave the door a little ajar and see, right before I turn, the way the sharpness of the light juts up against the dark, and I know that there must be both, the light and the dark, the way I understand my father might die before I am ready and the way this fear, this pain, and this unknowing live alongside the soft hush of his breathing tonight. It will always be both. And it will always be hard. And I will live here for as long as I can.
And so I sleep tonight with my door open. My father does, too, and we are joined by breathing. And so if you want to come, too, you don’t have to knock. When you arrive, you will let the light in. It will be like morning. There are fields here. I have been running through them for as long as I can remember. You can join if you’d like. There are no endings this time, just beginnings. If you have to stop, I’ll return. And if I must stop to rest, will you only promise that you’ll come back around? There are no minutes here, only miles, and by miles I mean breaths. One breath, and then the next, and how it will be like this forever, I promise, because I do not know forever, and so forever must be life, and if forever must be life, forever must be love, too. And all it contains. Welcome. In this world, we know only dawn.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (Civil Coping Mechanisms). He is the winner of a Best of the Net Prize, and his work has been published or is forthcoming in The Guardian, LitHub, Catapult, Diagram, Redivider, and more. He lives and teaches high school in New York City.
There's a bridge here, not a particularly special one. It carries the roar of I-95 across the Susquehanna. Ever since I was a child, the very act of crossing this bridge, my nose pressed against the passenger window's glass, summoned something in me. It felt, in many ways, like home. Or what should be home. The way the river's mouth widens into a bay as it escapes your vision. The way the last town along the river is named Havre de Grace, which means, “Harbor of Grace,” which is what, I think, I hope, I want to become. For whoever. For anyone.