“I have pure Joy.” That’s what Laura Allio said to her husband on her 32nd birthday, as she watched over their six-month-old son—just two days before she discovered the lump that would be diagnosed as triple negative breast cancer, 21 months before her death. But I won’t speak of Laura as though I knew her, because I didn’t, learning of her story just days before her passing and knowing her only through a digital archive of Facebook Live videos, Caring Bridge and GoFundMe updates, blogs, and news footage. Still, she’s the reason, at least in part, why you’re reading this.
Having taken and then left an overly-demanding job, I longed to return to the activism and volunteer work I had engaged in for most of my life. Laura’s story pushed me to revise my own; the vortex of urgency and devastation in which she found herself, her honest tears, her grace, and her perseverance motivated me to take a position that now seems like kismet: InStepp’s Communications and Social Media Volunteer. In this position, I sometimes feel feeble in my attempt to once again find my voice as a writer, though, ironically, that feebleness wields power to connect with the raw souls of others. So, while I never met Laura, I have shared many moments with the spirit of her legacy over the past few months.
One such moment was on April 28, on a wooded trail in Longueuil, Quebec, while embarking on my first 5k trail run. I had forgotten my inhaler; I was not prepared for my body to work against my aspirations and my efforts. The cold air (a little above freezing) made it feel as though the gravel that had accumulated in my shoe had worked its way up to my lungs, maiming them with every breath. Moreover, I had not packed clothes appropriate for the weather; I was not prepared for the harshness of the elements. I watched, disappointedly, as the distance between me and the last runner increased, until that runner finally disappeared from sight. I had participated in a handful of 5ks, never finishing last; I was not prepared to finish last this time. Despite months of training, I was not prepared, it had turned out, for my journey.
As I contemplated the unexpected circumstances, I thought of the very different, yet unexpected, path that Laura had navigated. Weary and defeated, I wanted to quit. But I never quit. More than a 5k, this event was another representation, another piece of evidence, of who I am, and who I have yet to become. I remembered the Phil Ochs quote associated with the mission of the The L4 Project, the apparel line established by Laura’s husband in her honor: “It is wrong to expect a reward for your struggles. The reward is the act of struggle itself, not what you win. Even though you can’t expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt. That’s morality, that’s religion. That’s art. That’s life.” With Laura as my inspiration, I’d like to think that I will someday embody the words of Phil Ochs, and that my own written words will enter the mind of a fellow traveler, in a time and place in which she unexpectedly finds herself alone and unprepared to re-conceptualize the path ahead, needing a message to help guide her way. So, I kept moving forward despite the pain and frustration.
Eventually, I heard runners coming from behind me. At least momentarily, I found new travelers with which to journey. They navigated their way around me, never speaking. But the sounds of their shoes on the gritty, muddy trail provided a soundtrack to my progress, to the mental and emotional labor of taking one step and then another, to composing one line of this work and then another. After the runners, I encountered volunteers, clapping and cheering me on in French, a language of which I know little. I didn’t understand their words, but I got the message: They were there for me. Life has taught me a lot about loss; but life has also taught me this: Someone always comes along to help you find your way.
When I crossed the finish line, my significant other was waiting with his toothy grin and a cell phone that, I’m sure, captured some unflattering video footage. He informed me that I had actually beat my personal best time for completing a 5k (which the official results confirmed). I had learned, in 3.1 miles, that when we adapt our purpose, when we conceive of ourselves as a presence along someone else’s journey, we become our best selves. I have deep respect for those who pass (and surpass) me. But there is no standard unit of measurement for success. Though I had come in last, not only had I completed the 5k faster than I had ever completed 3.1 miles, but by the end, I had a message to share, words eager to take rest on the page and in your response to them. And I hadn’t been prepared for that either. Anxiety, worry, comparison and competition, and the routine of daily life often leave our hearts and minds as unprepared for pure joy as they are for the circumstances that break us.
Laura had found—and created—pure joy. She was unprepared for cancer, unprepared to die so young, unprepared to depart from her husband and young son. I thought of her on that trail in Longueuil, as I sympathized with her need to revise a life she had already considered complete in fulfillment but not in years. But she adapted her purpose, and seemed to find a way to live in the moment while fighting for one more. I suppose that’s what we do: we transcend purpose. If we can live like Laura and the countless others who come along to guide our way, then when the circumstances call for us to do so, with the courage and grace we can muster, we transcend what we are prepared for.