Running for Kieran

Coping with a colleague's cancer

Street at Night
Photo: Logan Johnson

It was an early summer evening when I approached my co-worker’s home. I was stopping by to drop off some paperwork that needed completing.

He had been away from work for quite awhile and I didn’t have much contact with him. In fact, I didn’t even know he was away from work. We work out of different offices that are on the other side of the city from each other. But, every once in awhile our paths managed to cross and when they did we inevitably spoke of all things running. Kieran was an Ironman and a marathoner. Not only that, he was an accomplished swimmer that saw him gain a spot on the South African swim team. He was just an all around great athlete — and a very good guy. So when I was asked to deliver some papers to his house I was a little concerned as to why he had been sick.

When Kieran answered the door, he didn’t look anything like the man I had once known. He had lost a lot of weight and his complexion was very pale. His eyes were deep, dark sockets where his sparkling blue eyes had been. He clutched his bathrobe around his frail body and pushed his door open to invite me in. I was in shock and it must have registered in my face because he smiled at me and asked if I had just seen a ghost. He laughed knowing that what he said was what I was thinking. He turned and shuffled to his couch and waved me to take a seat opposite him on the other couch. He asked if I wanted anything and called over his shoulder to his girlfriend to bring me a tea. He reached for a package of cigarettes on the side table and banged one out, placed it between his lips, and lit it. He then gazed at me for a few minutes, smoking his cigarette and running his hand over the top of his sparsely covered head.

“Well? What do you think?” he said at last. I hadn’t spoken anything, afraid to hear what he had to say. I stuck out my hand, which held the paperwork that needed completing.

“I brought this over for you,” was all I could manage to say.

He took them from me and looked them over. “Won’t be needing these soon enough, mate.”

He looked at me again and smiled . . . I didn’t return the sentiment. “Kieran, what’s going on?” I finally asked him. Kieran’s girlfriend entered the living room and placed a cup of tea on the table in front of me.

“Thanks, Love” he said to her and she retreated to the kitchen.

“Cancer’s got me, mate” he tapped the side of his head to indicate where it was. “It’s throughout my brain.”

I was dumbfounded and lost for words.

“Kieran, I’m so sorry,” I said.

He waved the comment off while taking another pull on his cigarette. “No worries, it’s all good.” He went on to tell me that he had been battling cancer for a year and had been losing. I apologized to him for not having visited sooner, but he let me know that he made sure no one knew what was going on. He needed both hands to pick up his cup of tea — his motor skills had given way. He watched me looking at his cigarette, “What’s the use now?” he said, “I’m going to enjoy life while I can.”

I stayed at Kieran’s for the better part of the evening. We talked about how his cancer progressed and how it made his friends disappear. That bothered him the most. His best friends were unable to handle what was happening to him and one by one they slowly vanished. He told me how afraid he had been and how his fear had turned to concern for the ones he was leaving behind. We talked about sports, how his soccer team was doing and of the Boston Marathon. We talked. That’s what he wanted to do. Just talk. I listened.

Time came for me to leave. He told me he had made arrangements to travel back to his home in South Africa. He intended to live out his final days on the family farm. He had already picked out his burial plot. I didn’t want to leave because I knew I would probably not see him again. I told him that I would come around in a week’s time to see how he was. He didn’t know if he’d be there, he was deciding when he should go home.

I wished him well and he took my hand. He looked into my eyes and said thank you.

It wasn’t a thank you for coming to visit; it was a different kind of thank you. It was a thank you for talking to him about what other people were too afraid to talk about. In my heart, I knew that thank you also meant goodbye. I released his grip and put my arms around him. Kieran had once easily outweighed me by 80 pounds, but now I could have lifted him from the ground. My eyes welled up, but I managed to regain my composure and I turned to go back to my vehicle.

The rest of my night was filled with busy work-related items and it was easy to push my meeting with Kieran to the back of my mind. When I found myself dwelling on our visit I would quickly busy myself to occupy my mind. The evening crawled along but finally the time came for me to punch out. On my drive home I decided I needed to lace up and go for a run even though it was nearing midnight.

My family was in bed when I arrived home and I quietly changed into my running gear and slipped into my runners. I let myself out the front door and started my journey into the streetlit night. I ran from one pool of light into the next, listening to the sounds of my footfalls. I felt the need to purge myself of something. I needed to feel the pain of pushing hard. I quickened my pace and kept a cadence, my breath coming in shorter and shorter rasps. Soon, I was soaked in my sweat and I could feel a thin river flowing down my back. I ran hard.

As I reached the riverbank along my route, the thoughts of the day’s events flooded into my mind. I didn’t even try to keep them from boiling to the surface. I needed them to spring loose. I thought of Kieran and of our talk. I felt his pain the harder I pushed. I wanted to feel his pain. Then the tears came. They flowed down my cheeks and under the collar of my shirt.

My tears mixed with my sweat and were washed away with the torrent of my perspiration. I ran hard. Harder than ever before. I was running for more than ever before.

My route looped me back to my home where I collapsed on my front door stoop. I was exhausted. Both physically and mentally. My tears had stopped some time ago, but my body and mind had not been ready to quit just yet. After a bit of time, I opened my front door and slipped into the bathroom for a quick shower. I crawled into bed and snuggled up to my wife. Thoughts of the evening were still fresh in my memory but I was too tired to do anything else but sleep. My wife reached behind her as she was sleeping on her side and gently patted my leg to acknowledge she knew I was there. I drifted off to sleep.

The following week, I made a trip to Kieran’s home. I knocked on the door and saw Kieran’s girlfriend through the window as she approached the door. I asked if Kieran was home when she opened the door and she told me that I had missed him by a day. He had flown back to South Africa. His brother had come to get him and take him home. She said that his condition had deteriorated greatly since my visit the past week. My disappointment was evident and she said that he was very happy that I had come to see him when so many others hadn’t.

I left Kieran’s house for a final time and was informed two weeks later that Kieran had passed away quietly in his sleep on his South African farm. I went back to the office where in the late hours of the day I found an empty office. I wasn’t in the mood for company. I thought about Kieran and our final visit and eventually my thoughts turned to the run I had taken when I went home that evening.

I realized that my run that night was what my soul needed. I hadn’t thought much of it until that moment. That run, that night, was to translate what I was feeling into something tangible.

I don’t think I have ever run as hard as that night. I was running to chase my fears. I was running to combat grief. I was running in tribute to Kieran.

I was running for Kieran.