I was unexpectedly crestfallen last Sunday when I arrived at the kickoff party for the Miles for Miracles Boston team; at the registration table I was told that through some glitch Children’s Hospital had forgotten to pair me with a patient-partner.
[A quick education for those of you who are new to this charity-athletics thing: hospitals that benefit from an athlete’s fundraising efforts offer to pair that athlete with a real-world patient. Having a patient-partner can inspire the athlete when the training gets tough; having an athlete gives a patient something positive and non-treatment-oriented to focus on. It’s the ultimate win-win.]
As my teammates chatted with their patient-partners, I sipped my fourth coffee and tried not to look like the loser first-kid-out during gym class Dodgeball. It was still a great day on many levels: I met the coaches, Jeff and Mike, who will lead us through the 18-week, 500+ mile marathon training program. I chatted with other runners. I heard the amazing story of a mom who has gone through hell and kept on going. I met the great people at Children’s Hospital Trust who said “OK” to my runner’s application. I got to witness my 14-year-old Emma be inspired and declare that she will one day run for charity. I got to buy her a Miles for Miracles team windbreaker, which she has proudly worn to school every day since even though the weather has been more down-parka-ish than light-windbreaker-ish. All that was great, really–don’t get me wrong. But there was something big missing and that something big was my kid patient partner.
Then on the drive home, Emma and I blurted out in unison: “What about Grace?!?!?!?”
I met Grace Briggs-Neal for the first time in September of 2005, on Open Door Day at Jaworek Elementary School in Marlborough, Mass. Grace and my daughter Lida would spend the next 180 school-days together in the kindergarten class of Mrs. Stefanik and Mrs. Konar. I was immediately drawn to the aptly named Grace and her enormous clear blue eyes, contagious smile and long braids a hue of white-blonde that women worldwide covet.
It was clear from the start that Grace was not entirely like the other kindergarteners and this too drew me in. Her gait was awkward and, well, just not “right”. I did not know what she “had” but I knew it was something that “wasn’t good”. Being a bit of a black sheep myself, I have an affinity for underdogs and I immediately wanted to help Grace. I soon found out that while my friendship was more than welcome, anything resembling pity would be unwarranted and unwanted. Grace is no underdog.
I would find out later that Grace has spina bifida, which means “split spine” in Latin. SB is a neural tube defect that happens about three weeks after conception. It means that the spine does not completely develop, and the spinal cord is exposed, many times protruding outside of an opening in the back. She has been treated at Children’s since her birth in 2000. You can read more about her many experiences at Children’s in her mother’s words here.
Long story short: after returning home from the team kickoff, I emailed Grace’s mom and asked how she felt about Grace being my patient-partner. She said she was OK with it, and she’d ask Grace. Grace said “SURE!” And so we’re off to the races, I mean the Boston Marathon, Grace and I are.
This isn’t the first time that Grace has been my saving grace. In 2008, I was recruited to serve as assistant coach for a squad of seven- and eight-year-old cheerleaders here in Marlborough. They needed two coaches per Wildcats team, and had only one for this particular group. Without another adult, they wouldn’t be able to field the team. Since my girls had been Wildcats for years and had benefitted in so many ways, it was time to give back. But while I am many, many things in this life, a cheerleader (or a cheerleading coach) I am not. Still, I said OK lest the team be disbanded. Grace was one of my cheerleaders that season.
Try as I may, I was not the greatest coach. While I was good at leading my “cheer chicks” through laps around the track and calisthenics, all that “candlestick-high-V-low-V-sparkle” stuff kind of escaped me. But Grace always made me feel welcome and wanted. Somedays she didn’t want to cheer; I completely understood that and oftentimes shared the lack of enthusiasm. On these days we were prone to get into a little trouble together—we’d play our “kitty game”, which basically involved her meowing and me responding with a loud and dramatic “AAAACCCCCHHOOO!” (She’s a kitty lover; I’m very allergic.) When I missed practices due to business trips, she greeted me with a scowl and a don’t-you-do-that-again “Where were you?” the next time we met.
Grace and I make quite a duo. I am tickled pink that my former cheer chick will now cheer me on as I raise money for the hospital that has helped her and her family thrive with spina bifida. [An aside: Paralympian and eight-time Boston Marathon winner Jean Driscoll was born with spina bifida. So was rock singer John Cougar Mellencamp. See what I mean? Not underdogs!]
Back in 2008, Grace made me feel like my clumsy foray into the weird world of cheerleading had a purpose. And now, she’s given my already meaning-filled run of the 115th Boston Marathon an added boost. Grace is going to help me reach my goal of a “3:50 marathon” and you, our donors, are going to help “Team Grace & Christine” reach our goal of raising at least $5,000 so the good people at Children’s Hospital can keep doing their great stuff. As you’ll see on my donor page, we’re getting closer to reaching that goal every day. If you have a minute to make a pledge, I would be thrilled. Especially tomorrow–it’s my 40th birthday you know! 😉
Thank you so so so very much. Happy holidays to you!
May your tempo runs leave you upbeat and your running gloves keep you toasty warm,
PS: Here’s a pic of me and Grace…