Sunday, May 26, 2013

Today Is Memorial Day

            This Memorial Day I find myself at Greer Stadium where I’ve come as a volunteer to help the Nashville Striders hold their Memorial Day Dash 5K, as I did on this holiday last year. The race starts here and then ends in the Nashville City Cemetery.
            Last year I remember talking with Joe Dunkin here. We exchanged news about ultrarunner Angela Ivory. At the finish line area, I saw Congressman Jim Cooper, who’d run the 5K himself. After my job was completed that day, I drove to Shelby Park and made a twelve-mile training run.
            Once the race has started, my job today is to help disassemble and stow the starting line equipment, scaffolding, fences, and so forth. Then we’ll go to the finish line down in the cemetery and after the last runner has finished, we’ll do the same at the finish line. “Teardown,” the Striders call my assignment for today.
            This race meanders through a good portion of the cemetery. It occurs to me that some might view running in a cemetery as disrespectful. The Striders disagree. I do, too. The sport of running exists at the intersection of good health, friendship, charity and even love. We honor the fallen heroes when we bring these qualities to their resting place. Demonstration of our life-affirming behavior honors the fallen more than any solemn speech from a politician.
            It was there in the cemetery last year that I saw Congressman Jim Cooper. After the race he was talking with another runner, probably a constituent of his. Living outside his district, I didn’t interrupt to talk with him myself. I had no need to. Now I do.
            Not a year would pass before he would propose voting as a constitutional right, a 28th Amendment to the Constitution, and argue its need in a speech which I later read. The speech is poignant, personal and powerful. It ranks among the best documents I’ve ever read. If I see him today, I want to tell him what runners always say: “good job.”
            He tells the personal story of his father, a three time governor of Tennessee, who, he claims, would be a racist by today’s standards. Yet, “like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird,” he had once defended a black man accused of raping a white woman. A lynch mob burned the Shelbyville courthouse down and killed two bystanders. The Congressman’s father, Prentice Cooper, narrowly escaped with his life.
            He further talks about how Tennessean Wilma Rudolph could go to the 1960 Rome Olympics, where she won three gold medals, and yet could not have lunch at a Nashville lunch counter, or ride a Greyhound bus, or go to the women’s restroom, and other indignities. Here at home, the fastest woman in the world was not accorded the full rights of citizenship.
            He talks about John Lewis, the civil rights leader and U.S. Representative from Georgia, who, like Rudolph, attended college in Nashville. Only recently, while attending the second inauguration of the nation’s first black president, Lewis stoically ignored “birther” jokes from opposing congressional colleagues, during the very ceremony itself.
             All citizens deserve the rights of citizenship. The heroes we honor today fought for that principle. Though much has improved, the struggle continues. By various strategies, the vote was historically denied people of color. A constitutional right to vote would guarantee that no adult citizen’s right to vote could be infringed.

            As a person of color, Angela Ivory, would agree, I’m sure. In her relations with friends like Joe Dunkin and me she’d always seemed apolitical. Perhaps that was a defense mechanism. She’d been a quiet leader, earning BS and MS degrees in engineering from Vanderbilt, in a day when women, let alone black women, were a small minority in engineering.
            Answering a question, she once confided to me that she suffered insults in her life because of her race. Hard to accept that such a sweet unassuming person could be the target of racists. But I know it must be true.
            Though she was apolitical, I once talked her into attending a protest. We listened to some rousing speeches and marched downtown with the Occupy Nashville movement. Later we sat on a bench at the courthouse resting and then walked across the Woodland Street Bridge, a structure we’d both run across many times, to the Gerst Haus. There we occupied a table.
            I ordered bratwurst, sauer kraut and pumpernickel, a meal I had there again only three nights ago remembering Angela. I tried to help her select some items that met her vegetarian regimen. She rejected beans, pointing out that “they are usually seasoned with meat.” Her self discipline was without flaws. It was the discipline that enabled her to run a marathon in every state, which she did twice, and to run an ultramarathon in each state. A handful of states remained in that last task when her time ran out.
            Angela and I frequently attended concerts at Schermerhorn Symphony Center. We’d meet for dinner before the concert. As a practice, I bought season tickets to the jazz concert series, but we attended pop and classical shows as well.
            One time we went to Sole Mio, a white tablecloth restaurant near Schermerhorn. Angela preferred pasta and I thought she’d like the selection there. The dinner preceded a classical concert. We agreed to dress up for that. Angela wore a black dress, smooth and long. It was wintertime, and when she entered she had on a black coat and beret-like hat, both of which she left hanging in the lobby.
            Accustomed to seeing her in running clothes, I expect few of Angela’s friends ever saw her the way she looked that night—strikingly elegant in her black dress. Her head was bald as a billiard from cancer treatments. It didn’t detract, but lent a vaguely exotic look. Angela laughed about it, not the least embarrassed. I was glad. We sat at a table for two. The waiter wore a white apron and a thin mustache.
            I suppose he wondered why the young bald black woman was dining with the old white man. He could invent all sorts of reasons without ever guessing the simply truth: Which was that we were simply friends, that our friendship spanned a chasm of race, age and culture like a bridge, that we were after all two people much alike – alike in temperament, in running, even in engineering training. That we had much more in common than in difference. That we were friends.
            It is by the spirit of such friendship that the runners today honor the fallen in running through Nashville City Cemetery. I’m here to remember Angela.
            Because, in the end, it would happen that we were different in a way neither of us could overcome: Angela had cancer and I did not. That difference finally separated us.
            A friend of Angela’s, too, Joe Dunkin is an old runner like me. Rather than run he mostly walks now, following some heart trouble. He was the one who told me here last year that Angela was “in her last days.” He knew someone who worked with her. Incredibly, she was still going to work, but Thursday was to be her last day, he said.
            After the race last year, on my way to Shelby Park, I gave Joe a lift and dropped him off on the eastside about a block south of the Woodland Street Bridge, near the Titans’ stadium. I can’t remember why he wanted to get out at that particular place. As I drove away he seemed to look around a little uncertain himself.
            After I’d finished my run in Shelby Park, I gave Angela a call. I thought we could get together for lunch, or just visit. It had been in my plans all along, but I wanted to surprise her.
            The phone rang and rang. There was no answer. That wasn’t too unusual. She lived alone in a house she owned, and she did the yard work herself. I then tried her cell phone, but there was no answer on it either. I waited a while before leaving the park, and tried both phones again, several times. Still, no answer.
            From that day on, no one ever saw Angela again. Her sister Nicole from Memphis had visited with her on the previous day. She was trying to call Angela, too. Finally, on Thursday, the day which was to be Angela’s last day at work, police were alerted. They found Angela lying dead in the floor of her house.
            I’d last seen her four weeks earlier, when I came to town for the Country Music packet pickup. We’d had lunch at the Old Spaghetti Factory. She felt good that day, although I could see that her eyes were slightly yellowed from her ailing liver. She had a good appetite and we laughed a lot. Later we walked up Commerce Street to Fourth Avenue, where we had to part. We hugged. “Good luck, precious lady. Take care,” I told her. I watched her walk up Fourth toward the L&C tower, where her office was. It was the last time I would see her.
            Angela died alone. Even as we were trying to call her, she died alone. That fact struck me as infinitely sad. Then I realized a contrary fact: she died like she’d lived, asking no one’s strength but her own. She didn’t die in a hospital connected to tubes. She didn’t even die in bed. They found her in the floor. She died on her feet. And that was the way the extreme marathoner had lived. The manner of her death evinces the extraordinary strength she’d shown throughout her life. It was the last terrible expression of her iron will.
            She finished the race the way she’d run it. Today, Memorial Day, one year later, that thought buoys and encourages me.
            Today I have another duty—to visit with Joe Dunkin. Four weeks ago when he was running the Country Music Half Marathon, he fell near mile 12 a bit before he reached the Woodland Street Bridge. He struck his head in such a way that it damaged his spinal cord and he had to have emergency surgery on his neck. Now he is in Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital learning to walk again. I won’t have to search for that building. It’s the place were my mother was taken following her stroke, fifteen years ago.
            Memorial Day, one year since Angela’s passing—Joe and I together will remember her. And to Joe I want to say, good luck, man, and take care.