Running and Dying at Disney World

Memoir by Dorothy Bendel

On a back road around mile three, I turn a corner and see a man clutching his face with one hand, the other hand still swinging at his side as he runs, a steady flow of blood dripping from his chin. He must have fallen face-first onto the pavement. Another man, security or police, glides by on a bike to see if he is okay. Instead of answering, the runner asks: How bad is it? I can keep going, right?

At mile four, I try to remember the last time I updated my will.

At the twelfth mile, my Achilles’ tendon seizes up, but I don’t mention it to my daughter as she runs beside me. I remember the story of how Thetis dipped her child in the river Styx, an effort to make him immortal because, like me, she couldn’t bear the thought of death touching her child.

The day before the race, we receive messages warning of “warmer than expected temperatures.” April in Florida. Stay hydrated. Don’t push yourself too hard. When we run by tables of paper cups filled with water, I hand one to my daughter to drink and pour another over her head so the water flows down her back in a stream. I laugh so she doesn’t know I’m scared.

Somewhere around mile five, I pass by a man in a full Kylo Ren outfit, his entire body covered in dark fabric, and I wonder if I will watch him die. I imagine him collapsing to the scorched ground, one hand reaching out for his fallen lightsaber. I hand it to him and cradle his head as he expires, before men in Mickey Mouse ears rush over to sweep him away with mounds of crumpled water cups and energy gel packets.

Sometimes I wonder if I think about death too much. But how would I know if I don’t have anything to measure it against? We don’t talk about it, as if saying the words will conjure death, like we believed repeating “Bloody Mary” three times in front of a mirror at midnight would bring forth a demon to terrorize sleepovers.

Sometimes I hear about the death of a celebrity, maybe someone I liked in a film, and I say under my breath, Oh, that’s too bad, and then I think: What a stupid thing to say. Would I say that about someone I knew? It’s easier to think of someone as a one-dimensional figure on a screen instead of a figure built of goose-bumped flesh and pulsing blood, someone made of memories and loved ones who will cry over his absence.

Maybe we think of everyone we haven’t touched with this distance. Maybe that’s where we go wrong.

I’ve avoided racing all my life until this day, a Star Wars-themed half-marathon at Disney World. In elementary school, I hid in plain sight, queuing up with my classmates during relays as we waited to take our turn with the baton. As the line shortened, I’d say: Oops, my shoe’s untied, or No, really, you go ahead, or Ooh, shooting pain in my side! Oh, class is over already?

Sometimes, I stepped back to talk to one kid, and then another further back in line, with the technical grace of a principal dancer — the choreography of the desperately non-athletic.

Then, revelation: our uniforms. If I “forgot” to bring my bulldog-emblazoned ringer tee and piped polyester shorts, I was exiled to a quiet corner of the gym where I could relax and watch my classmates sweat.

In high school, I could whisper the word “period” to our coach — a monosyllabic monolith of man-meat — and he would raise his hands, palms facing outward, as though physically warding off an impending scarlet flood, followed by a finger pointed toward the bleachers: home of the ambivalent, the underage smokers, the conscientious objectors, and the girls who forgot it was gym day and wore skirts to school.

We are taught to tell stories from beginning to middle to end, as if life unfolds in a five-paragraph structure.

Intro: birth, or “life as abstraction”
First body paragraph: growing up, or “injuries we will never forgive our parents for”
Second: puberty, or “what we try to forget”
Third: marriage and kids of our own, or “trying to avoid the same mistakes our parents made”
Conclusion: death, or “abstraction again”

If we call the middle bits “the body,” then what about the before and after? Aren’t we our bodies still, when little and writhing and small once again?

I ask too many questions, and I can’t tell a through-line to save my life. Unless I am lying.

A few days before high school ended, I skipped school with some friends and went to the beach. After stripping under the waves, we sat on the sand and said things we couldn’t say until we felt we might not ever see each other again. One boy said to me: “You are the most honest person I’ve ever known. It’s the reason I love you, and sometimes, it’s the reason I hate you.” It is one of the best things anyone has ever said to me.

I sometimes think about what we would say to each other if we thought we would never see each other again, if we realized this is a possibility every day of our lives.

By mile 11, I start to think about what would happen if I dropped dead right there, just like the nightmare visions I had whenever I was left alone with my infant daughter and I was barely into my twenties. Before she was born, I had never held a baby in my arms, but the nurses said I was fine and sent me on my way so they could clear the blood-soaked sheets and lay another woman down and send another nurse in to massage her belly until a burst of red soaked through the fresh pad beneath her.

I think about all the women who sat in the same bed, all the bloodied pads stacked as high as Jack’s beanstalk, a cathedral of life and death.

I initially wrote a line here about how love is all there is. I deleted it because it seemed too simple. I should write with more nuance, with soaring descriptions and clever phrases, but then I think these are lies meant to make people more comfortable. We want complicated answers because it gives us more to hold on to, something to untangle, but they are still lies.

Some runners aren’t wearing costumes but T-shirts with the name of a charity printed on the back. Some raise money for cancer research, cancer like the one my husband has. As we run by the highway, a group of children from a local orphanage hand out chocolates and give us high fives. When we run the last few miles through hygienic interpretations of random countries, people hold up signs that say things like: You can do it, stranger!

I put the line back: Love is all there is.

In a writing workshop I attended, a student wrote about a friend’s suicide, and one of the instructors said it wasn’t believable. I wonder if death is ever believable to anyone except for the very old.

No one said a word.

I don’t care about finishing for myself. I don’t want to let my daughter down. The time I spent training with her is the only reason I signed up in the first place.

Through the last mile, I focus on the people cheering us on; I focus on her. I ask her over and over if she is okay even though she clearly is and I am the one struggling. Classic deflection. She probably sees right through me because she is smarter than I ever was.

Just before the finish line we hold each other’s hands, raise them up, and wave to my husband and son smiling at us from the stands.

The sky is still dark, but it is already warm as we join our corral by the starting line: a herd of Star Wars fans and Disney fans and anomalies who don’t mind waking up at 3 a.m. A large man in a full beard who looks like he just shotgunned several beers stands to my left in a full “captive” Leia bikini costume, a long ponytail caressing his furry torso as he sways in anticipation.

The announcer tells bad jokes to rouse our half-asleep bodies before the race starts. He warns us of the dangers ahead. “Don’t Stop Believing” blares from the speakers, and people begin to sing. A man wearing headphones, eyes closed, sings above everyone, as if he is the only one there. Everyone turns to look at him. Before the song ends, the fireworks go off. The explosion lights up the black sky as though it is already day.

DOROTHY BENDEL’s work can be found in Catapult, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The New York Times, and additional publications. She currently serves as Managing Editor of Atticus Review. See more of her work at her website and follow her at @DorothyBendel.