Twenty

By Sara Beg, 19
Teen Voice Magazine

Sweat drips down my back and I hear nothing but my own labored breathing, the blood roaring in my ears. The muscles in my left leg seize up in a cramp, forcing me to stop running, and as I double over, the pain is so intense it makes me want to cry. But I know that if he sees a single tear, he won’t let me finish.

As my breaths begin to calm, I hear his voice, cheering me on. I have to do this, for him. The cramp sends another stab of pain shooting through my leg and I cringe. “Come on,” I say to myself, ignoring the pain, “come on. Just five more miles. I can do this.” Taking a deep breath, I think back on how I got to this point, how I, the girl who used to be an expert on getting excused from gym, was now running a marathon.

I opened the front door to find my Uncle Jared, my dad’s younger brother, watching TV in the living room, his green eyes practically crazy-glued to the screen. “Uncle Jared!”

The moment he heard my voice, a huge grin overwhelmed his face. “Mina! Your favorite show is on, the one with the doctor who starts babbling about random stuff.”

“What’s going on?” I asked, leaning in for a hug before flopping down beside him on the sofa. “You usually go to the gym after work.”

“Got a doctor’s appointment, Meen,” he explained. “Just a physical,” he added, seeing the look of worry on my face.

“Good.” Wrapping my arms around one of his own, I rested my head on his shoulder, watching the screen as the show went on to a commercial break. When Dad died in the car accident five years ago, Uncle Jared stepped in. Mom and I were the only family he had left once Dad was gone, and we would have gotten crazy depressed without  him around.

“I’m thinking of hitting the gym afterwards, though.” He squeezed my shoulder. “Want to come? Your mom makes an awesome gym buddy, but whenever she gets on an elliptical she thinks she’s Bill Clinton and decides we need to have a political debate to pass the time.”

“Um…” I made a face, and he laughed. “No thanks. Have fun training for your marathon.”

“Right, the marathon.” He smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. It was the mirror image of my dad’s smile, one I’d willingly do the hokey-pokey on a pogo stick to see. “I’m going to get to the 20th mile this year.”

“Mm-hmm. That’s what you said last year,” I reminded him. “And you stopped at 17 because … oh yeah, you were convinced that your legs were going to fall off if you took another step.”

He gave me an exasperated look. “You can remember that but not a single formula from the Algebra test you took last week?”

“At least I aced it,” I said defensively. “So, when is your doctor’s appointment?”

“Uh …” He lifted his arm to look at his watch. “Fifteen minutes,” he said, eyes widening. “It takes 30 to get there.”

“Nice, Uncle Jared.” I held back a giggle.

“Lunch is on the table; make sure you eat,” he said quickly, shooting up off the sofa, grabbing his coat from the closet beside the front door. “Bye, Mina.” He waved, closing the door behind him.

Now, I close my eyes, remembering how happy I was to sit back and watch TV. It never occurred to me that the doctor might find something.

I looked up when Mom and Uncle Jared walked in that evening. “Hey …” The greeting died on my lips when I saw their faces. “What’s wrong?” Neither of them had looked this somber since Dad’s funeral.

“Why are you awake?” Mom asked, coming to sit beside me on the sofa.

“It’s 7:00; I’m not five years old anymore.” I looked to my uncle. I could trust him to tell me the truth. “Uncle Jared, what’s wrong?”

With a sigh, he sat beside me, on the opposite side from Mom. While he got settled, taking off his coat, Mom picked up the remote and clicked off the TV, her hand coming to rest on my knee as she looked at him.

A muscle in his jaw twitched. He was trying to look like his usual self, confident, happy, but I could see the sadness in his eyes when he looked at me. “It looks like I’m not going to run the marathon this year.”

“Why?” Mom squeezed my knee, but fear was squeezing my heart.

I wipe the sweat from the back of my neck as I run, hoping to run the cramp out. I can’t let anything stop me.

Uncle Jared knocked on my open door later that night. “Hey, Meen. Mind if I come in?” Seeing my nod, he came in and sat across from me on my bed. “Doing homework?” he asked, gesturing to my laptop.

“I Googled coronary artery disease,” I replied, crossing my arms over my chest, unable to look him in the eye.

“It’s not as bad as it looks, Mina.”

“It’s noted as the number one killer in America.”

He shook his head. “The doctor said I should be fine with regular checkups and some lifestyle changes. I can still exercise.” He smiled, but it was a ghost of his normal smile.

“As long as it’s not too strenuous; you’re not going to be able to run the marathon.”

“And that’s okay. I’d rather spend time with you and your mom than run in a straight line for over 20 miles.”

I studied him wordlessly. Normally, I’d believe anything he said, but I just couldn’t believe that. The marathon was three months away; every time he came back from the gym, there was a smile on his face.  His eyes lit up when he talked about finally reaching the 20th mile.

“I’m running for you this year. You’re getting to the 20th mile, Uncle Jared.”

“Meen, you don’t have to–”

“I’ve already registered,” I cut him off.

The sun beats down on me and my bangs flop over my sweaty forehead, but all I can see in front of me is the smile on my uncle’s face when I hit the 20th mile mark. I’m so close, I can’t give up now. I push myself, force my legs to keep going even though they’re heavy as lead.

I’ve trained every day for the past three months to do this, running a little farther every day, doing push-ups every night before bed to keep up my endurance. It wasn’t easy, getting into shape when I’ve been out of it for so long, but it can’t be easy for him to make all these lifestyle changes either.

His cheering gets louder; I see Mom try to calm him, but he just cheers more. “Go, Meen!”

For the first time since I’ve started running, I smile. My legs kick it into high gear, and then I’m over the 20th mile mark.

“Yeah, Mina! You did it!”

“No, we did it.” I turn, and his smile, my dad’s smile, lights up my world.

 

Teen Voices is an intensive journalism mentoring and leadership program for teen girls in Boston. We create an internationally distributed print and online magazine. Teen Voices has 45,000 print readers and our website receives more than 275,000 page views from 179 countries annually. Founded in 1988 by two young women who believed in the power of girls to create social change through writing and art, our goal is to encourage teen girls around the world to speak out on issues, create positive and powerful media, and lead change in their communities.

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