Many years ago, I read The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield and although I couldn’t now tell you many of the book’s details, I did take away one part that suggests that sometimes people that seem randomly placed in your life actually have a much larger purpose from which you should learn. I’ve seen that truth played out many times in my life, but most recently in my chance encounter with Tonia Smith.
In following the local running scene, I joined a small Facebook group comprised of runners in hopes of keeping up with what’s going on, as well as possibly finding some running buddies to accompany me when I get a wild hair and actually decide to get out and run. It was here that I first began to see Tonia’s name appear occasionally as she would respond to other people’s posts looking for running partners or simply for support. Not long after, Tim Bergsten of Pikes Peak Sports.us published an article about Tonia detailing her recent fight with pancreatic cancer and her road to recovery. Admittedly, I didn’t read the entire article that day, but somehow the name and brief circumstance stuck in my mind because she was around the same age as me, a mother, in perfect physical condition, very healthy and active – and it all changed in an instant. This is something I’ve contemplated in the past, but seeing it strike an athlete in my local community somehow seemed to bring it closer to my own backyard.
As time went on, I actually met with Tonia twice for runs on the Santa Fe Trail through the Facebook site as she was undergoing weekly chemotherapy sessions. I wasn’t fully apprised of her situation at first and just found myself enjoying her company and the numerous similarities we had in common, not only in age, but also own life experiences. Discussions about her ongoing treatment were brief, and I knew enough to admire that she was still out on the trail – while also understanding the desire to retain a part of yourself no matter what trials you undergo at the time. I admire her because she refused to become the disease – but instead worked to become a better version of herself through it all. She seemed more aware of the world, more grateful for each day and more introspective on who she is and what she desires out of life. I left each run feeling inspired and contemplating my own efforts to improve myself and live every day to the fullest.
Today, I travelled to Denver with my family to participate in the Purple Stride 5K as part of Team Tonia in celebration of her last chemotherapy session and freshly earned title of Survivor. (I would argue that Tonia has been a survivor all along, but that would be a topic for another time.) My older son and daughter came as cheerleaders, while I ran the race with my 10-year-old son, Eric. Although Eric is typically very competitive with his step-brother (and only runs for ice cream), he seemed content to shuffle along the course with me as Tyler and my husband, Andy, cruised way ahead. We discussed the purpose of the race earlier and while we jogged most of the course, on occasion, he would slow down and grab my hand, indicating he wanted to briefly walk and talk, still trying to grasp the situation and understand the impact and consequence of this strange disease. I’ve always admired his never ending curiosity and love his youthful perspective on various topics. In this case, after a lengthy jogging spree, he slowed down, grabbed both my hand and his side and said, “I need to slow down. I think several of my organs are hurting.” I looked down at him as he followed up with, “But probably not as bad as cancer!” We agreed that in fact it was not, as he watched numerous runners pass by with placards pinned to their backs. He proceeded to read each one out loud and we both began to acknowledge the individual names of the people who others were running to support or remember. He asked if Tonia was wearing an “In Honor of Me” sign, which made me laugh a little, and we both agreed that she definitely should.
As we continued the rest of the race looking at the parade of names, I became intensely aware of how much I cherish that little hand in mind as we walked and how much each person wearing those placards must also cherish their loved one through such a challenging time. I realized the incredible power of so many people in one place, coming together for a cause with different names, but the same kind of love, care and support. I suddenly understood that this event wasn’t only about my friend and it certainly wasn’t only about cancer. Although sometimes it takes extreme circumstances or brushes with our own mortality to wake us up to our emotions, I’ve decided that even in the absence of this circumstance, to be fully aware of the gifts I am given each day because many times, that gift is a strength and resilience that I don’t get on my own. Those gifts arise for me in the generosity, care and support from others. I get these gifts daily through my husband, my family and my friends and the real journey in life is making a conscious decision to find ways in which I can give that same gift to others.
So in the spirit of The Celestine Prophecy, my brief encounters with Tonia have affected me deeply in ways that I could never have imagined. I see a thoroughly beautiful lady that is able to freely give and receive love through both sunshine and storms. She is my hero not because she fought cancer, but because she lives her life with grace, humility and humor that I will always admire. I am thankful for knowing her and the lessons I’ve taken along our little path. May we all keep our eyes and hearts open for experiences such as these.