That was the worst part about having cancer, sometimes: The physical evidence of disease separates you from other people.
I know my wife, Kim, felt that way. Maybe it was the filter mask that gave it away, a particular hair do or the PICC line. Kim passed away nearly six months ago, from an aggressive form of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). She had been battling it the prior two years earning brief remissions through chemo. She survived the stem cell transplant from her superhero sister Jess, a perfect match. At the end, her will to live never succumbed, knowing that I and our twin three-year-old daughters wanted and needed her, but the chemo was too strong and the leukemia, too stubborn. After being in love for the past fifteen years, I feel flattened missing her every single moment of every day.
In the ensuing weeks condolences, support and hugs came flooding in. But none of it hit the pause button on my feeling of loss. As the one left behind, I felt separated from all others without any physical evidence of the disease, just the sole inward facing loneliness and melancholy. Our friends Tom and Deanne, both Team In Training (TNT) veterans, suggested that we put a team together to honor, remember and celebrate Kim. As a runner, I had often seen the TNT purple jersey at races but was unfamiliar with the mission and the program. Deanne discovered that should we fundraise over $100,000 as a team, we would be able to name a research grant in Kim’s honor. Furthermore the research grant would go towards The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) Beat AML initiative, with the aim of curing AML with advanced targeted therapies.
It made sense on many levels. Kim was a runner, was invested in her treatment and became knowledgeable about new clinical trials. Kim was also a uniter. The idea that groups could come together to do something positive would be right up her alley. It sounded almost perfect, though the idea of talking, or blubbering, about Kim and her story to strangers felt uncomfortably raw. Still it was the first time I could see the tiniest bit of daylight breaking through the gloom, the seed of which would become Team Kim.
At the kick off meeting for the TNT Peninsula team, I recounted Kim’s story and shared the nascent journey of Team Kim. Preventing my voice from cracking was challenging but I quickly saw in the gathered group of other participants, volunteer coaches and team manager, understanding, compassion, drive and community. People whom I had never met were moved and I in turn began to feel some peace that Kim was continuing to inspire people, the way she did for me every day. I haven’t stopped missing Kim, but with each Mission Moment, track practice and fundraising event, I feel less separated from others. I found some measure of solace in the sprints and the pauses, the shared words and understood silences.
Team Kim has now swelled to 71 runners and walkers nationwide and together we have raised over $170,000 to support AML research. We will run the Nike Women’s Half Marathon in San Francisco this October. I am proud of our accomplishments as a team and very hopeful that our efforts have helped raise awareness, will help find a cure and bring people together when loss has separated them. Undergoing this journey has united me back with old friends, new friends and myself.
Team In Training is about possibility, relentlessly realizing new cures for hematological malignancies and driving people to accomplish endurance events they’d never imagined they could do. In the aftermath of losing Kim, I could not imagine a life unscarred. In the end, tragedy and loss unfold before all of us. As Edward Hirsch writes in Gabriel:I did not know the work of mourning Is like carrying a bag of cement Up a mountain at night … Look closely and you will see Almost everyone carrying bags Of cement on their shoulders That’s why it takes courage To get out of bed in the morning And climb into the day.
As one of too many left behind, carrying those bags, it can feel unbearable. Climbing with Team Kim and TNT is having a family help lighten the burden each step along the way as we begin our ascent to a new normal.
Ben Wang is a Team In Training participant and founder of Team Kim, a nationwide group of TNT participants dedicated to raising money for AML research. Follow Team Kim’s story at www.goteamkim.com and learn more about Kim at www.kimbwang.com.