Jenna Parlette collapsed within sight of the finish line in this field and, days later, she was gone. The medical anomalies that led to her death were complex. So are the emotions that ensued.
The heart is only 20 years old, but it’s weary. They strung wires through it when it was 16, merging it with a machine that keeps it steady and will shock it back into stride should it insist on resting. So that 20-year-old heart, as much apparatus as organ, is still beating. And because that heart is beating, the 20-year-old girl is still running. She’s tearing over grass and gravel; she’s slicing through the 90-degree Midwestern sun.
Jenna Parlette is going to win this race.
She’s not worried about the heart or the seizures that have shaped her life since she was 12 or that searing sting – the lactic acid seeping, unchecked, from her muscles. Of greater concern is that freshman from Vincennes, the girl with the long legs who is somewhere behind her on this trail just south of Franklin, Indiana. Jenna cruises past her coach at Wilmington (Ohio), Ron Combs, who begs the young woman who has transformed from his biggest worry to his biggest star, to ease up. The finish line is close, he says. The race is hers.
She will do anything her coach asks. But ease up? On the cusp of her first college cross country win? He should know better. In high school, she returned to the track two weeks after they cut her open and implanted a pacemaker. And she ran two days after its internal defibrillator mistakenly fired near the finish line in her first race after the operation, shocking her twice immediately after the win. She endured agony that the paramedic assured her makes grown men blubber as she sat in the back of an ambulance, eyes dry. So, no, there will be no easing up today, coach.
She doesn’t realize that ignoring those words – surging forward against the pain, the epilepsy, the fear that her heart will fail or that the electricity will kick her in the chest – is the silent earthquake that triggers the tsunami. How can she fathom that making the same subtle choice she always does will wash over the lives of the mother who defines herself by caring for her child? Of the coaches who regard her more as a daughter than pupil? Of the teammates who use her smile, slightly askew, as the mortar that binds them together? Of the opponents chasing her? Of the complete stranger who happens to be standing near the finish line?
She knows only that her heart is still beating. So she keeps running.
She reaches a hard right turn, but bolts left. There’s a voice in the distance, calling above Jenna’s heavy breaths. You’re going the wrong way. Turn around. So she doubles back to her right and scurries past Franklin’s coach, Paul Sargent. Only 200 meters left, he tells her.
Entire body burning, she meanders up a gentle slope and follows the tree line’s slight bend. Once the trees and nearly five kilometers are behind her, all that remains is an open field funneling into a chute marked off by ropes that will guide her to the race’s end. She’s slowing now, staggering, stumbling as that freshman chews up the ground that separates them. Achingly close, the finish line beckons.
It’s the last thing Jenna Parlette ever sees.
The seizures and the irregular heartbeat were merely symptoms of something hidden, something worse, something far more complex than most doctors are equipped to detect. So they treated each ailment and cleared her to run. So Jenna keeps running. So, a few breaths short of the finish, Jenna falls.
And the aftermath of that fall is as complicated as her disease. Symptoms like tears and silence might yield convenient diagnoses like sadness and grief, but probe deeper and find guilt. Find motivation. Find loneliness. Find doubt. Find inspiration. Find fear. Find those whose love for her forces them to reshape ugly truth into beautiful fiction.
The ER nurse near the finish line is trauma’s reluctant companion, but not here, not today. Aug. 31, 2013, is the escape, the Saturday in the sun, the time to coach the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods cross country team and scream for her girls and forget the daily heartaches of her other life. Then she sees Jenna emerge over the crest of the hill. Then she sees her veer away from those ropes. Then she sees her body submit, flopping face-first in the grass. Around her, Danelle Readinger sees only frozen expressions. In front of her, she sees an old man ambling to the convulsing body, falling to his knees, muttering the same few words again and again as he pats her blond, sweaty hair.
“Come on, Jenna girl, you’re all right. Come on, Jenna girl.”
The moment – the panicked inhale when she transforms from a cross country coach to the ER nurse tasked with keeping a young girl, one her daughter’s age, alive – strikes like lightning. Not today. I’m not ready for this today.
Readinger and Franklin College’s athletic trainer soon hover over Jenna. The ER nurse takes charge, barking orders to get ice and to give her oxygen in those brief moments when the seizure relents. The girl, eyes rolled back in her head, won’t stop shaking.
A blond woman scrambles over, frantic, screaming that it’s her daughter, that she’s epileptic, that she’s memorized the rhythms of her seizures, that this one is different, that they never last this long. Readinger tries to reassure the panicked mother and the stricken grandparents: We just need the medicine; we just need the Diastat; where is the medicine?
The nurse doesn’t know that Pat Carroll, once Jenna’s teammate at Wilmington and now an assistant coach there, has bolted onto the course. Coach Combs will have the medicine, he knows. Carroll runs a quarter-mile to find the coach, only to learn that Combs doesn’t have it – it’s back near the finish line at the Wilmington team tent. Carroll sprints back, and five interminable minutes later the medicine is finally in the nurse’s hands.
But the medicine doesn’t work.
It’s supposed to work. It always works.
Jenna is still quivering. This is not normal. It doesn’t ever last this long.
The nurse tells the frantic mother and grandparents that everything will be OK. She has seen this before.
But she silently begs for the ambulance, somewhere out there, to come save them all.
Tricia Steffen, the girl who runs with Jenna every day, the one who bonded with her over all those laughs between gulps of air, crosses the finish line, but is perplexed by the second-place card in her hand. She is certain that Jenna was winning and someone else had been in second. The other girl must not have finished.
Of course Jenna won. This is the girl, accustomed to seizures and a belligerent heart, who refuses to complain at practice when others shudder at the miles ahead, who keeps the epilepsy at bay by getting in bed early, by avoiding alcohol and a typical college life. This is the girl who, despite those burdens, tries to make sure everyone else is smiling by Snapchatting cross-eyed faces or recording a rap song dedicated to the lost toenail all those miles have cost her. This is Jenna, brittle but unbreakable. The other girl must’ve given up.
Then Steffen sees Cameron Combs. The coach’s son, 11, has been robbed of his usual dynamism. Jenna didn’t win, he says. Jenna is down.
Jenna is down?
It sounds like another language. They approach the cluster to the side of the chute, and Steffen sees Jenna seizing on the ground, surrounded by a wall of bodies. For Steffen, the scene blurs, save for Jenna’s face. It should be flushed from the run, cheeks rosy like always. But her best friend’s face is blue. Jenna’s face is blue.
Cameron watches. Steffen slinks away from the tumult, whispering a prayer.
She is the mother who called the gas company when her daughter’s subtle spasms began. Why was she dropping all of those plates and glasses? There was no leak, they told her, and, not long after that day, Lisa Parlette found Jenna trembling on the bedroom floor. It happened again today – eight years later – but this time it didn’t stop; Jenna didn’t slowly creep back to her.
It’s not supposed to last this long.
Now Lisa is riding shotgun, but it’s not in the Jeep she and Jenna drove the night before when they stopped for Italian food on the two-hour trip from Ohio and Jenna texted her friend, shocked, that mother and daughter had treated themselves to a $50 dinner on the eve of the race. Instead, Lisa is in the front seat of the ambulance. Rides like this are the cost of letting Jenna do what she loves. But how can Lisa stand in her way?
Jenna earned her right to run every morning when she sat in the silence, barely moving on the couch while she waited for the epilepsy medication to rouse fatigued neurons, for her body to start listening to her mind, for the smile everyone relies on to return. She put that smile on slowly, letting it stretch over her face like a mask until it hid her private struggle and the solemn morning routine. So Lisa wouldn’t be another obstacle in her daughter’s life, even if it meant forever dreading the next ambulance ride.
Lisa spends 15 minutes in that front seat, body rigid, jumping out when they pull into Johnson Memorial Hospital. Soon, valium has stopped the seizures, but Jenna’s eyes stay shut. The defibrillator never fired; her heart isn’t the culprit. They need to transport her to the neurological ICU at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, they say. Lisa isn’t allowed in that ambulance, though. Suddenly, a dark feeling deep in her stomach – something she hasn’t felt through all the other scares – overcomes her.
“Why can’t I go?” Lisa asks anyone who will listen. “What sort of questions do I need to be asking?”
“Will my daughter wake up?” a nurse replies. “Will my daughter be the same girl I knew this morning?”
Three days pass as Lisa, wondering why she can only see black and gray, sits by her only child’s bedside. She watches, helpless, as what she hoped was a typical seizure transformed into another monster. The doctors told her that Jenna’s body shut itself down before the finish line because Jenna, forever undeterred by pain, had refused to do it herself. Lactic acid, the poison oozing from Jenna’s muscles, which begged her to slow down, reached unsustainable levels. Ammonia had, too. Jenna isn’t metabolizing either properly, they say. Her liver can’t filter out the toxins.
Physicians treating Jenna called in a specialist Monday, but it was too late for Dr. Bryan Hainline, a geneticist with Indiana University Health, to solve the mystery or reverse the damage. There must be an underlying condition hidden somewhere in her genes, he deduced. Something else caused the years of strife and panic, something that had slowly let the lactic acid build and eat away at her organs.
But it is too late. They had connected the dots too late.
Hainline believes Jenna has a disorder of energy metabolism, meaning that her body struggles to convert proteins and other fuels into the energy she needs to function. It is ill-equipped to break down toxins like the lactic acid that built up from all of those long runs. The decision not to ease up on that hot day in Franklin – before the race, Jenna asked Lisa if she should try to break Wilmington’s 5k record – unleashed the damage that plotted against her for years.
She introduced Jenna to baby goats and marveled as Jenna played with them and laughed for three hours. Annie Cekada is a Wilmington graduate, two years Jenna’s senior, now back home working on a farm in Pennsylvania. And she is giddy about showing livestock at the weekend’s town fair – the one she would always drive home for after the Franklin meet.
Cekada crossed that finish line first two years ago; Jenna, a freshman, finished 12 seconds behind. Cekada is anxious to hear whether Jenna won this year. The race must be over by now, but why hasn’t she heard anything? The phone finally chirps – a text from Elise Bernhard, another Wilmington grad: “Have you heard anything? Is Jenna OK?”
Is Jenna OK? No, that means … Cekada calls Lisa. No answer. She calls Combs. No answer. And her former teammates only have more questions. Eventually, word from Lisa: Jenna is in the hospital; no one is sure what is wrong.
Suddenly, the fair and the animals don’t matter. All Cekada thinks about is the friend she left back in Wilmington, the one Lisa entrusted to her and teammate Brittany Gibbons. They were the surrogate moms who made sure that Jenna had her granola bar and her water, that she took the medicine that brought her back to life in the morning and that she got in bed early every night. Then they graduated. Then Cekada moved six hours away.
Sleep evades her as Saturday turns to Sunday turns to Monday. Bits of info trickle in from Gibbons and others – bad news; speculation. Jenna had a seizure, but why is she in a coma? Now there are liver problems?
Cekada burns to get to Indianapolis, but work tethers her to Pennsylvania until Tuesday. She wants to be with the friend she hasn’t seen since April, when she surprised Jenna by showing up to watch the Ohio Athletic Conference track championships. And Jenna surprised Cekada by asking permission to break her school record in the 10,000 meters. Of course you can, Jenna.
So Jenna did. But Cekada owns other records – including the one Jenna chased through that Indiana field – and as the hours grind on and the tears tumble down, Cekada begs that, one day, Jenna will shatter them all.
She was Jenna’s first roommate, her only roommate. She remembers move-in day freshman year, when Jenna and her army of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends poured into that small room. She remembers the incessant laughter and thinking how much they all must care about this girl.
Veronica Burnam moved out of that freshman dorm room, though, not because of a teenage squabble, but because Jenna’s sleep schedule – in bed by 10 at the latest, then sleep for at least nine hours – wasn’t fair to either of them. Burnam had friends to Skype with, after all. She had a life of her own. Two years later, the friendship endures. And now Burnam is in a van with her Wilmington teammates bound for Indianapolis three days after Jenna’s stubborn body quit on her a few yards from the finish line.
Burnam doesn’t know what the men’s team is thinking in the other van. She isn’t pondering what a few of them have deduced and whispered to each other, but won’t dare say to the girls. She isn’t thinking that she is on her way to say goodbye. Feel better soon, Jenna. We miss you. That’s why she’s taking this 2½-hour trip on a Tuesday afternoon.
When the team floods into the hospital and to the edge of the ICU, Burnam sees the familiar faces of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends, just like move-in day. The laughter is gone. But look at their twisted faces – yes, they still care so much about this girl.
No, you can’t see Jenna, Burnam and the runners are told.
Go, they hear, to the chapel.
This moment, now, by this bed, is the end for a mother and a daughter. With Jenna’s father mostly absent, those two ran and worried and lived and loved for 20 years with so much help along the way from the grandparents in that hospital room, the family in the waiting room and those brothers and sisters down in the chapel.
All these tubes and wires and Jenna’s bloated face and hands – she doesn’t look like the daughter Lisa knows, the one whose bedroom at home is 10 feet down the hall from her own. She doesn’t look like the daughter she would call to, saying the same few words every night before they both went to bed early so that Jenna could sleep, so that Lisa could be there in the morning when her daughter needed her most. She doesn’t look like the daughter who always repeated Lisa’s words, her tired utterances trickling back to her mother through the walls.
Once more, Lisa whispers those words. This time, Jenna doesn’t call back. This time, Jenna is silent and still. This time, straining to imagine her daughter’s voice, Lisa says goodbye:
“Jesus loves you.”
Jesus loves you.
“God loves you.”
God loves you.
“You’re my best girl.”
You’re my best girl.
“I’ll see you in the morning light.”
I’ll see you in the morning light.
He is the old man with the slight frame who drove Jenna to all of those volleyball practices, the one who taught her how to use a combination lock before she had a locker at school so her clumsy fingers would never embarrass her. He is the one who never seemed impressed with how fast she had run or how long she could jump rope, even though it made him glow inside, so that she would always try harder in a hard world. He is the one she wanted to walk her down the aisle someday.
Three days ago, he was in a field, pleading. Come on, Jenna girl. You’re all right.
Now, a few hours after they took his Jenna off life support, Charles Parlette, Lisa’s father, who spent 31 years working for Chrysler in Dayton and was elated with his new career when Jenna came along after he retired, is lying in a hotel room in Indianapolis, alone, longing for sleep.
Epilepsy prohibited Jenna from driving, so he was her lifelong chauffeur. Lisa worked late most nights selling LexisNexis services to clients on the West Coast, so he was there after school and there at dinner. Jenna took none of it for granted – there’s a note from her grandfather still pinned above her bed at home: “Fix a peanut butter and jelly. Call my cell if you need me. Love, Papa.”
The thought eats at him – she won’t ever need him again – and soon he’s reaching for that cell phone. He assumed he needed to get some rest after three days of trauma, but the loneliness smothers him. The 73-year-old can’t get the damn phone to work. He’s away from home, and he doesn’t realize he needs to dial the area code this time. So he’s trapped in that small room waiting for someone, anyone, to come hurt with him.
The phone rings when Jenny Schoenberger is somewhere on Interstate 70 east of Indianapolis – 30 minutes down the road on the ride back to Miamisburg, Ohio – a stretch of highway she’ll never want to remember but can never forget.
She taught Jenna language arts and science in fourth grade. She taught her how to run in high school. In turn, Jenna taught her about grit and optimism when she kept bouncing back from ambulance rides, seizures and electric shocks, or when she finished her workouts and raced back to help the slower runners finish theirs.
Now, Schoenberger is sitting in a car on the side of an exit ramp alongside Kevin Walsh, the man who coached Jenna through middle school and who can’t bring himself to put the car back in drive after the phone rings and they learn that grit and optimism weren’t enough.
Thirty minutes ago, they held Jenna’s hand and touched her foot. Thirty minutes ago, they were sure they had seen her take a breath on her own; they were sure they had seen her heart rate spike. Grief forced them to find tiny glimmers of light in the darkness, tiny breaths and tiny heartbeats, as the girl they loved so much – not because of what she’d been through, but because it never seemed like she’d been through anything – faded.
So they weep for the girl Schoenberger pointed to when other runners complained, for the girl she handed over to a college coach like a parent at a wedding altar, for the girl who blew her kisses when she ran by, for the girl who still texted her race results and pictures and “Thank you for letting me run, coach.”
Wilmington coach Ron Combs calls his wife, Kelley, and tells her Jenna is gone. Kelley tells their two boys, including Cameron, who was in that field three days ago watching Jenna writhe and struggle until his father corralled him. Cameron, unfazed, tells his mother he is going outside to play with his friend, Calvin, from two houses down. Five minutes later, Calvin’s mother is on the phone.
“Cam was here in the garage telling us about this girl and how amazing she was and then he started crying. He’s hysterical.”
Combs does his best to keep his composure as he drives his team home from Indianapolis. He does his best to disguise the anguish. He drops them off at Wilmington and returns to his family. As soon as he walks through the door, he collapses into Kelley’s arms, his violent sobs shaking both of their bodies. Once again, Cameron is watching.
The sun set long before those two vans pulled back into Wilmington. But together, the teammates decided they would run past brick buildings on empty streets and onto the trail that hides under a canopy of trees. All the runners wear vacant faces, their tears expended in the hospital chapel and in Lisa’s arms.
Sarah Murphy doesn’t want to run tonight. But everyone else craves the catharsis, and her need to be near them overpowers her need to rest. So she charges forward into the night, desperate to keep pace with Burnam and Steffen and the other girls after the boys – in all their rage – disappear into the darkness ahead. She tries to savor the stars. They’re so bright.
Words are inadequate, so they breathe together in the gloom.
Brad Kline doesn’t go on that run with the rest of his teammates, choosing instead to stay in Indianapolis with his parents and Jenna’s family because he is different from the rest. He is the one who would tease Jenna in front of his friends but bring her cough medicine in the middle of the night. She would return the favor, ringing his doorbell and sneaking away before he could thank her for the soup she left behind. And now she is gone, but he isn’t going to leave her until he has to.
The next day, Kline and his teammates, a knot of limbs in T-shirts and running shorts, cram into Combs’ confined office. They’re not going to stop, they say. They’re going to keep pushing like she did, they insist. Lisa wants them to run at the meet in Hanover, Indiana, three days from now. They agree that they will, even if they understand that the lead in their hearts will slow their pace.
He is the coach who dashed off into the woods, roaring obscenities in his mind, searching for Combs and the medicine. He is the man who spent a life running but regrets he wasn’t fast enough in the only race that mattered.
If I had gotten it to her in 45 seconds instead of five minutes, then…
Pat Carroll doesn’t realize that the medicine didn’t matter. He doesn’t realize that the lactic acid building up in Jenna’s body through her most diligent summer of training – a summer in which she cataloged every mile in a journal and made frequent entries about heavy legs and fatigue – had already begun its onslaught.
He is with the Wilmington runners when they arrive at the Hanover meet four days after their friend died. She was the freshman who accompanied him and Cekada and Gibbons on a trip to Duke to run a 10k his senior year, who sang off-key for most of the eight-hour ride, who insisted on trying to touch the crossbar on Duke’s football field, not realizing her feet were barely leaving the ground as her friends laughed with her. And she is gone. How will they be able to run? He doesn’t know if he could.
Wilmington sets up its tent, and other teams approach with condolences. One team stays completely silent as they offer handshakes and hugs. It’s eerie, Carroll thinks. This isn’t what we need. We have a race to run. They mean well, and Wilmington appreciates the gestures, but every hug elicits a memory. How can the other teams know? How can these 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds know how to address tragedy with tact? How can anyone?
Before the race, Steffen tells Carroll that she hasn’t slept in a week and is struggling to eat. But, for Jenna, she runs those five kilometers. When the men take the course, Carroll watches senior Alek Erwin, the runner who made a pact with Jenna to break school records and make nationals, tear off from the line. Carroll sees only fury on Erwin’s face as he sprints out to a lead at far too fast a pace for the 8-kilometer race. He wants to make this run hurt, Carroll thinks, to suffocate the rest of his pain. He sees Erwin finish 11th. Meanwhile, the other members of the team move like they’re running in sand. Carroll sees them struggle, with each stride, to use Jenna as inspiration – she would’ve kept running – instead of falling apart.
Why are they clapping?
Burnam and her teammates, still sweaty and shaken from the race at Hanover, walk into the gym at Miamisburg Middle School for Jenna’s memorial service and are greeted by hundreds, all applauding. We didn’t do anything. It was all Jenna.
The town that raised her claps because they want them to feel welcome. They don’t realize that Burnam and many of her teammates want to be invisible. It’s the same feeling Burnam had when Jenna was honored on Wilmington’s campus two days before, when they had to summon the strength to put on nice clothes and say nice things in front of hundreds of students.
So she listened as sophomore Dominic King recalled one of his first training runs as a freshman, when he started walking midway through the 12 miles and Jenna blew past him, turning to remind him that “walking is for the weak” as she pushed on. A year later she was there again, on his heels the entire way, as he refused to walk. They finished the run side by side.
People laughed and cried and remembered as King and others told their stories. It is too soon for Burnam, Walsh and Steffen. But what can they say? The administrators and coaches mean well. They want to tackle the grief head-on, but have no playbook for this. How can they know Jenna’s teammates aren’t ready to hear stories and force smiles?
The semester wears on, and Burnam can’t cope. A team grief-counseling session does little. Her grades slip. She needs to go home and start fresh in January or risk failing out. So she has no choice but to leave her teammates behind. I don’t want to be by myself.
He walks into Wilmington Athletics Director Terry Rupert’s office several days after he lost the young woman who used to tell him to go home and spend time with his family when he was wound tight. Ron Combs tells Rupert he is finished. He tells him he feels so much guilt, that a sweet soul perished on his watch, that the resulting chasm has broken him.
How can I look mothers and fathers in their eyes and tell them their children are safe with me?
Rupert reminds him: They all knew the risks. They sat in that office with Jenna and Lisa two years before and digested every bit of her medical history. He reminds Combs that mother and daughter were content with the consequences of running because the consequences of not running would have been unbearable. Rupert reminds the coach of the hundreds of lives he has helped mold in 19 years at Wilmington, tells him that losing one of them doesn’t negate a life’s worth of good.
When Combs emerges from Rupert’s office, he is still Wilmington’s coach. But he is still weighing whether the euphoria Jenna found on the track and the school records bearing her name were worth the cost.
He hears media, alumni and locals ask one question: How could they let her run? They don’t know about all the practices where that question tortured Combs as he watched Jenna vanish into the distance.
“Should she have run?” Wilmington athletic trainer Brian Dykhuizen asks Combs, both men wrestling with their choices and Jenna’s.
“That’s a decision she had to make.”
As the season wears on, Combs can’t stroll across a field at a race without people stopping to say they’re sorry, that they can’t imagine what he must be going through. He offers half-smiles and appreciates the gestures but loathes the reminders of seeing Jenna, prostrate, seizing. But how can they know about the dark side of a kind word? How can they know what to say to a coach who has lost the runner he admires most?
Wayne Stacy, Combs’ friend for 24 years and assistant track coach at Wilmington, had never seen his friend cry until Jenna died. Through the rest of the season, he sees him well up dozens of times. Combs softens in front of his team, trying to savor each interaction in that small office, the one where photos of Jenna radiate amid the clutter.
At meets, Combs can’t quell the selfish thoughts. He wishes his mind would quiet itself, but, every weekend, there they are. How much better would the team have done if Jenna were here? Where would Jenna have finished?
Jenna would have won this race.
But she isn’t there and she doesn’t win and he needs to rebuild his team. So the coach who wanted to quit endures the hurt like Jenna taught him. He goes back on the road – more than 100 visits – to convince parents their sons and daughters will be safe with him. He goes back on the road to convince himself.
TaPring Goatee, the long-legged freshman who crossed the finish line first at the Franklin meet, doesn’t cry when she learns that Jenna – a stranger – has passed. But Goatee feels a twinge in her chest. She wonders if she could have caught Jenna if she had made it to the finish line. Then Goatee tells herself it doesn’t matter.
She takes the green and white ribbon – Wilmington’s colors – that her coach gives to the Vincennes’s runners. They wear it in their hair when they run a race at Eastern Illinois a week after Jenna fell. Then Goatee puts the ribbon in her wallet, where it will remain, always reminding her of the stranger she chased on a Saturday in August – the girl who was willing to risk her life to keep running. The ribbon isn’t a memorial.
That’s how I should run.
Allison Zorman crossed the finish line four minutes after Goatee and didn’t know the girl they had to take away in the ambulance. Forty-eight days after Jenna fell, Zorman, a Franklin senior, stands amid hundreds of runners who are taking part in a meet Wilmington hosts in Jenna’s name. Zorman hands Lisa a check for $1,500, which Zorman raised selling shirts at Franklin’s campus, and gets a hug in return.
It’s not the first hug she has received from Lisa. That came when the Franklin team made the half-hour trip north to Indianapolis two days after Jenna collapsed at their meet, bringing Lisa gifts and telling her they hoped her daughter, the one they had never really met, would pull through.
When Lisa saw the runners in the hospital lobby, the black and gray shroud lifted – if only for a moment – and they were a collage of bright colors and the smell of sweat and the sounds of youth, just like Jenna. And she hugged each one tight and thanked them for bringing some color to a world that had gone dark, and, suddenly, Jenna didn’t feel like a stranger anymore.
She is the coach who had to become the ER nurse. Her voice drops low when she remembers that day, squeezing the words out of her throat like the last bits of toothpaste from a tube. Now, Danelle Readinger brings an automatic external defibrillator to every meet. Now, she’s trying to find a portable oxygen tank to tow along.
Jenna needed oxygen.
Now, she knows she can never simply be a cross country coach, cheering and clapping and smiling on Saturdays as summer fades to autumn. What she was thrust into that day, what she was powerless to prevent, has forced her to perpetually be the ER nurse at the finish focused on each runner’s breath and gait, wondering, as they cross the line and vomit or fall from exhaustion, if they will need her.
I wish I could have done more.
When she dares to feel sorry for herself, she will dial her voicemail and listen to Jenna.
You’re coming around the corner now and I have to go cheer for you! Good job! I’ll see you at the end of the race.
Jenna left Annie Cekada that voicemail during Wilmington’s regional meet in 2011 when Jenna was a freshman and Cekada a junior. Jenna had contracted mono and couldn’t run that day. And because she couldn’t run, she couldn’t compete for a spot in the national championships.
Still, Jenna cheered for her friends and left them voicemails as they galloped by. Three years later, Cekada listens to Jenna’s optimism pour out of that tiny phone speaker, and she lets the tears come, and then the smile, and she tells herself never to despair when the world pushes back. Jenna didn’t. Jenna was cursed from birth, and she kept running and kept laughing at those baby goats. Cekada will never forget that lesson. She will never delete that voicemail.
Hi, Annie. You’re running right now and you’re doing wonderful.
Lisa keeps her deceased daughter’s phone inside a white cabinet in the kitchen. She pays Sprint $70 a month because she doesn’t know if she would lose her connection to Jenna if that phone loses its connection to the world. Would the tweets, the Facebook messages, the photos, the Nike app that shows that she had run 1,265 miles, disappear?
So Lisa keeps sending money to Sprint and keeps that phone tucked away and, every so often, hears it rumbling on the wood as a friend sends Jenna a message telling her they love her or they miss her. A few times a week, Lisa sits in the quiet with that white iPhone, touching the screen because it’s as close as she can come to touching Jenna.
Lisa meets with Dr. Hainline two months after Jenna dies. It could be mitochondrial disorder, the inability for her cells to make enough energy, Hainline tells her, but they can’t be certain without further tests. The secret had likely been hidden in Jenna’s genes from birth, he says, and all of the other problems were tied to one underlying cause, one tiny defect in her DNA.
Moderate exercise can help people with metabolic disorders like Jenna’s stave off lethargy, he says. But extreme training can trigger catastrophic events. Even without intense training, it would have eventually caught up to Jenna. Her systems would have started to fail. It could have been five more years. It could have been 25. It’s impossible to know.
Lisa, though, in her continuing search for color in the darkness, hears that running powered those energy-deficient cells and kept her daughter alive. She hears that Jenna would have succumbed sooner if she hadn’t run so hard. She shares the idea with friends and coaches and runners.
Running kept Jenna alive.
Each is astounded and clings to that notion and is quick to tell anyone who asks about Jenna that she would have perished even earlier if she hadn’t run all those miles. Even if they misunderstand that running didn’t keep Jenna alive, they do insist, rightly, that running gave Jenna something to live for, an opportunity to break free for a few moments each day from the grasp of defective genes.
Lisa takes leave from LexisNexis – she isn’t sure when she will return or in what capacity – so she must choose whether to wallow or find a new sun to revolve around. Schoenberger tells Lisa that Jenna would be livid if her mother sat and sulked at home, so she refuses to disappoint her daughter. Lisa starts a foundation in Jenna’s name that funds a pair of scholarships – one for Miamisburg High School students, another at Wilmington – and, she hopes, an $8 million indoor track facility at the college.
Lisa attends nearly all of Wilmington’s meets, cheering like her daughter is still there. Combs and the runners marvel. They wonder how she can be so strong, how she has become the shoulder to cry on, how her soft hugs are better medicine than group therapy or memorial services or posting pictures on Jenna’s Facebook page. How is Lisa always smiling? Shouldn’t she be the one relying on us, not the other way around?
What they don’t see are the long hours in a cozy home that feels so empty. They don’t see Lisa diving into that iPhone or wandering into Jenna’s room, shoes still hanging on a rack on the back of the door, to search for a hint of that runner’s smell. They don’t see Lisa sit still and quiet in that house. They don’t see her slowly stretching that smile and that optimism over her face like a mask, like her daughter did every morning, until it hides dim eyes.
Jenny Schoenberger is the teacher who sits in her classroom and buries her face in her hands, curly hair bouncing on her shoulders, when another condolence email arrives. She is the coach who had to give Jenna to someone else, but never let go. She is the woman who pulled over on the side of I-70 after holding Jenna’s hand one last time.
Her usual run through Miamisburg traverses the narrow asphalt paths throughout Hill Grove Cemetery. She follows those roads past rows of tombstones, descending until she reaches the graveyard’s southeast corner, its lowest point. There, as the trail bends to the right just before reaching a steep, straight hill, she jogs by a tombstone, pink granite, near the road’s edge.
As she passes the grave, she blows a kiss like the girl buried there always did.
Jenna, give me the strength to climb this hill.
Schoenberger strides forward, looking up at the road ahead.
She can’t see the finish line.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Champion magazine.