The last time I set foot in a gym (before last month) was September 2015 when, full of anticipation and a tentative hope for the future, I was determined to lose the 25 pounds I’d gained since my daughter’s cancer diagnosis in 2012. The weight gain was a particularly hard blow for me because I’d spent most of 2009 and 2010 losing 50 pounds from a combination of diet and lots of exercise, including cycling 80 to 100 miles per week.
I’d managed to keep most of it off for two full years by sticking with a vigorous exercise routine. But, after my daughter’s diagnosis at the age of 11, I stopped exercising completely. My entire focus was on her survival, her needs. Treatment included chemotherapy, oral medication and, ultimately, a liver transplant in early 2013.
The transplant was successful in that her tumor was removed and she was considered cancer-free. But after six months of remission, her cancer returned.
We switched oncologists and my daughter started a series of experimental new drugs in 2014. By 2015, she’d stabilized. Her cancer wasn’t gone, but it was moving slowly.
I remember finally stepping on the scale to see how much of my weight had returned. I’d gained 25 pounds in two years. I was crushed. I went back to my gym, determined to lose it again. I was 44, but I didn’t want to look 44.
I hired a personal trainer and spent more than a thousand dollars over the course of three months relearning how to find my core and condition my heart. As fall turned into winter, I recognized that my head wasn’t in the game. What had once been a cherished ritual of self-care and “me” time became torturous.
Eventually the new drugs stopped working. My daughter had a CT scan that showed advanced progression. I canceled my gym membership the very next day.
I became completely sedentary as my daughter’s cancer continued progressing. Tumors were removed but grew back almost immediately, multiplying throughout her lungs, abdomen and pelvis. In July of 2016, just two months after her 15th birthday, her doctor spoke the words we’d been dreading.
“There’s nothing more we can do.”
From then until March 22 — the day she died — I didn’t think about my body (or exercise) at all. I bought bigger clothes. I ignored the scale. I ate too much. I drank too much (wine, always at night, always after the girls were in bed). I focused on being with both my daughters, giving them my time, my attention and every drop of energy I could muster.
The stress was incredible. I fell into bed, exhausted, each night. For the first time in my life, I had trouble waking up in the morning. My daughter was dying. Her left lung was collapsing. She was losing weight, wasting away.
My lungs worked just fine. But I wrapped myself up in the comfort of doing nothing, going nowhere, dropping all expectations of my future self so that I could exist in the present moment with my daughter.
About a month after she died, I grew tired of being inside. The silence coming from her empty room felt like it would kill me. I felt hollowed out, like I was going to collapse inward from grief as the spring landscape bloomed outside my window.
It began to feel like an insult to my daughter to waste my perfectly healthy lungs on nothing but grief and self-pity. I felt compelled to escape the house that she couldn’t escape and see the new growth that she would never see again.
I live in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley, an area blessed by a network of reclaimed rail trails. They run for miles through scenic woods, along old cement mines, shaded by outcroppings of rock, stretching across rivers and tiny streams.
Instead of meeting people for lunch or coffee, I asked whether they would walk with me. And so, in this way, I began to reconnect with friends — old and new — beneath a canopy of sugar maples, birch and hemlock trees.
Walking. It’s so simple. It seemed impossible when my daughter was dying. For her, it was impossible. And so, in an inadvertent kind of camaraderie, I stopped walking, too.
Walking is how I reintroduced my overweight, underconditioned body to exercise after years of crippling stress and worry. In the first two weeks, I walked every day. I watched the trails transform as spring brought the trees back to life. When I was alone, I wept. I imagined my daughter beside me. I brought her tiny dog (now my dog) with me and carried him when he got tired. My clothes got a little looser. I stepped on the scale again after nearly two years of avoidance.
I’d gained 45 pounds — all the weight I’d lost since my cycling days. I felt a surge of disappointment and shame when I saw the number, but it passed quickly.
My legs might be fatter, but they worked. My lungs, hidden beneath a new roll of blubber, still felt strong. I kept walking and weighing myself. The weight has begun to come off very, very slowly. I cut out fast food and snacks. I started limiting sugar. Still, the weight wants to pad my body, but now I don’t have the energy to dwell on this failure. I can still walk, and so I keep walking. The hell with how I look.
I didn’t intend to join a gym until October, when the temperature will drop and the walks will become uncomfortable. But my 13-year-old daughter had other ideas. She wanted to work out with me. She wanted to go every day. So I joined and we started going together a few weeks ago.
Joining a gym is like buying insurance for good intentions. The membership exists, looming over you, enticing you to fulfill those intentions but not requiring it.
My strength abandons me sometimes. I’ll be lifting a heavy weight or sweating on the treadmill when I’ll think of my daughter’s ashes on my mantel, and whatever I’m doing becomes too hard. The grief swirls around me and my strength evaporates. I hate the gym in those moments. I hate feeling weak.
And yet, I can appreciate the fact that the gym is a place where you can’t escape your body or the purpose of your visit.
Sometimes I look at all the fit people from my perch on the treadmill and think about how they’re all so much stronger than me, so much further along. But then I remember my daughter’s strength. I remember how she climbed the stairs even when her lungs were collapsing. I remember how she held on to her dignity right up until the very last day of her life. I remember that we all turn to ashes and soil in the end.
I remember how much strength it took to return to the gym in the first place and think (briefly) that maybe I’m stronger than I look.
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