I’m not writing this as a reminder to hold your loved ones close and cherish your time with them. If you have basic human instincts you already know to do that. Frankly, I’m writing this because Maureen Hennessy is a person worth reading about.
Anyone who received a doctorate of clinical psychology at 80 years old, ran a 24-hour race on the track, helped forensic teams with crime solving through victim hypnosis and broke her back rollerblading in her late 60s is someone worth reading about.
Maureen was the first runner I ever knew. I can recall early mornings in my childhood when granny was over for a visit. I woke up and searched the house for her only to be told “oh, she’s out running again” by my non-running family at the time, almost as though her athletic inclination was some sort of mental illness we must tolerate bravely.
I can’t pinpoint the time we went from grandmother and granddaughter to friends, but it happened sometime in my first year of college. We began to talk on the phone every week, and soon she was driving up to spend weekends with me in Bellingham.
I cried to her at 19 when the first guy I ever loved broke my heart. I looked up to find her face in the stadium as I crossed the finish line and broke my first WWU school record. She drove halfway across the country to watch me win nationals and no one cheered louder when I lifted my trophy over my head.
In 2010 we drove to Seattle, took a ferry across the sound to a tiny island named Vashon and stayed in a little bed and breakfast called the Lavender duck. We watched cheesy horror flicks while we ate lukewarm Pad Thai and on the way back down to the ferry on our last day, in the early hours of the morning, my tires skidded on the rain-slick pavement and we went flying off the road in my tiny Pontiac, smashing head-on into a concrete barrier before I even had time to hit the brakes. The hour-long ride across the sound in an ambulance on the ferry was the longest hour of my life. I thought for sure I’d killed my grandmother as they cut through her clothes, tried for a vein and missed and a pool of thin, bright-red blood grew bigger on the floor.
One spring break we flew down to Daytona Beach and stayed in a little boutique hotel right off the ocean. We lounged by the pool and took glamour shots, laughed our heads off on a fan boat ride through the Everglades and held a baby alligator. Granny asked the handler if she could take the tape off from around its mouth and he looked at her like she had just sprouted a second head.
A year later we took an impromptu road trip around southern Oregon and checked into a ritzy spa, had our bodies smothered in honey and clay and giggled over trashy magazines in the lobby. We walked along the rugged coastline there where the waves smashed into black rocks and sprayed high into the air and she let me gush about Michael, the incredibly cute runner I’d just met who would become my husband.
Granny and I traveled together to New York City for my first professional marathon and walked arm in arm down Broadway, sat up in the nosebleeds for an afternoon showing of Chicago, solved a murder at a fake CSI crime lab and had awful street food on the way back to the hotel. I’m sure we walked far more than I should have the day before a marathon, but we wanted to see everything. In Times Square, the “Naked Cowboy” hoisted granny into the air and swung her around and she laughed and laughed along with everyone who was watching.
Maureen was a sleep walker and a sleep talker and in her sleep she sometimes spoke in other languages. She was fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and several others. Once we stayed in a hostel crowded with people and she woke the whole joint at 2am, singing in her sleep.
Either I had an old soul or she had a young one for we met perfectly in the middle.
Somewhere along the line I grew curious about her life before I was born and I began to learn about the incredible sadness and trauma she’d been through and the remarkable strength with which she persisted through her years. I sat at the little glass table in her cozy Portland apartment and over sangrias I listened while she told me about her broken childhood, her love and loss, her miscarriages and divorce, the fire that burned down her house, the long hours away from her kids while she sold pharmaceuticals on the road to keep her family afloat and the times that running was there for her as the most raw and beautiful form of therapy she had. She told me about the good times too, about her whirlwind romance with my grandfather, a fellow instructor she met while teaching dance at Arthur Murray and married only weeks later.
The next adventure granny and I were planning was a cruise to Greece. We looked at tickets, we mulled it over, went back and forth on dates. And then Granny had the stroke. That was nearly four years ago and she was never the same. I’ve been grieving the loss of my friend for nearly half a decade. Every time I went home, I watched her shrink into herself a little more. I listened to the spaces between her words grow longer and longer as she fought to understand what I was saying.
I wish I could have her back, but I don’t wish her back into that room she hadn’t left for years, back into that body that withered away until it could no longer keep alive the brilliant mind inside it. I celebrate her now and toast a glass to the ceiling because her feisty, funny, wicked smart spirit is free. Somewhere up there, my granny is sprinting across heaven at full speed with nothing to hold her back.
And someday I’ll walk arm in arm with my own granddaughter right up to that cruise ship and we’ll take that trip to Greece.
Please, wherever you’re sitting or standing at this moment, take a moment to smile, tip a hat or toast a drink to the memory of Maureen Hennessy.