Friday, April 8, 2011

Strong Spirits

A few weeks ago my partner David and I went out to cheer for the runners in the NYC Half-Marathon. The day was clear and cold, the air extra-chilled, as it blew in off the Hudson River on the west side, where we had found a good viewing spot. We waited for some time, stamping our feet to keep warm, my hands pulled up inside the sleeves of my coat. And then, without fanfare, without even an accompanying bicycle (as all the other leaders would have), the first athlete on the course came through. She was alone, cranking the hand cycling apparatus of her racing wheelchair with ferocious energy.

She set the standard of athleticism in the race. Though there were many fine runners who passed by a short time later, the beauty of their gaits, their power and almost surreal speed, was eclipsed by her spirit. We whooped and clapped as she sped past; and when David and I glanced over at each other mid-cheer, we couldn’t help but laugh—we both had tears in our eyes. The same question had occurred to both of us. Would I have the same courage or spirit?

I thought of an expression my mother uses, “There, but for the grace of the universe, go I.” Indeed.

When I met Yolanda Jackson, a week or so later, I recalled the expression again.

At sixty-four years old (you would never guess it!), Yolanda radiates a slow burning, steady energy. From her red, red lipstick, to her spikey short hair, to her signature Mexican silver bracelet, which attaches by long-link chain to a matching ring on her middle finger, Yo (as her friends call her) is one of those women you see and want to hang out with.

We’re lucky she’s still around to hang out. Three years ago she was diagnosed with Stage 3 pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly iterations that disease offers. Yet, much against the odds, Yolanda is not just still here, she’s a force. “I didn’t lose one night of sleep over that diagnosis. I just said to myself, I’m not giving in to this. I’m not going to feel this badly. I’m not going to look like someone sick.” Despite surgery, chemo and radiation, she only missed a few weeks of work. She was hit with every side effect in the book, rashes, peeling skin, pain, nausea, fatigue, the walking-on-hot-coals feeling when her feet touched solid ground. Instead of focusing on the severity of her discomfort, she focused on work, on living life as normally as possible.

She continues to work at the Women’s Sports Foundation, where she’s been for more than twenty years; and she’s still physically active, going to the gym 3-4 times a week, and walking, often as much as 7 miles, on the weekends, staying tuned to what her body will allow on any given day, but at the same time not giving up on her body, because some days its awfully tired.

Where does such strength and resilience come from? In Yolanda’s case, it started with her father, who always told her, “Remember, you’re a Jackson, and a Jackson can do anything.” Yolanda started proving that on the sports field.

As a girl, sports started for Yolanda in the summer recreation program’s Playground Olympics. At the tender age of six years old, she was competing in the then-called “midget” category, sprinting to victory in every foot race, winning more trophies in long jump and the softball throw. She went on to play softball, basketball and volleyball through high school. She learned to play tennis in the convent, and later still she took up cycling, squash and golf.

Yes…You read that right…Yolanda was, for a period, Sister Helene Marie. That’s a whole ‘nother story. Don’t worry, I won’t leave you totally hanging. Here are a few tidbits. Yolanda was “called” to be a nun when she was in high school. So straight after graduation, she drove up to the convent, where, surrounded by friends and family, she entered the order. With a short break, precipitated by an illness, Yolanda committed herself to the cloistered life and became a professed nun. As a nun, she attended college, studying sociology, in preparation for what was to be her work at an orphanage on Staten Island. But her studies, as studying can do, began to raise questions, and with the questions came doubts. Birth control was a big issue at the time, something the Church forbids. Why?—classmates of Yolanda’s asked her. And she found she couldn’t answer, at least not to her own satisfaction. She began to investigate what else in the doctrine made her uncomfortable, and Yolanda found that her questions and doubts could not be allayed. She left the veiled life.

Yolanda still goes to church. “I’m not an A&P Catholic,” she says, referring to Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday, the only two days many Catholics show up for.

She goes on weekday mornings, when the spirit moves her. “It fuels my soul.” And she goes for the community, much like the community she finds at the gym, on mornings she’s not at church.

Yolanda’s reservoirs of strength and resilience run deep, from family, to sports, to church.

On that last, I found myself resisting its importance, as I was writing this, not being a huge fan of organized religion. But then I thought about the beautiful film I saw this past weekend, Of Gods and Men, based on a true story of eight French monks in Algeria, who were caught up in the brutal civil unrest of that country, and ultimately died for their pacifism (the provocative question of the value of their sacrifice is one I continue to wrestle with); and I was reminded how important it is to believe in something outside of ourselves—for me it’s the gorgeous mystery of the universe’s complexity and the energy we create through our existence—for others it may be the more specific tenets of a religion. Ultimately, we make our spirituality, and in that making, we connect ourselves to the world (assuming religious belief is not used to elevate or separate the believer above or from others). And I believe that connection gives us strength. Yolanda is evidence of that.

My bailiwick though is the connection between sports and resilience; and on that, Yolanda says, “Not only did sports ensure that I was physically strong going into the cancer treatment, so that I could survive the disease; but my participation in sports meant I had the mental and emotional strength I needed to get through.”