I was never cold as a kid. Max, on the other hand, was freezing all the time. Maybe it was because he was skinny, but Max would wear sweatpants and turtlenecks outside in the summer, and I’d be in my short-shorts with a tank-top stretched over my stomach. Eventually I noticed that Max said he was sick a lot. I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t that I thought he was lying, I just thought he was interpreting some discomfort as sickness and settling for that. I believed in mind over matter. I thought of myself as the Mickey to Max’s Rocky: surely if I told him to “shake it off,” he’d charge right back into the ring.
Everything changed when I stopped being able to breathe. Some people said it was a cold, others suggested bronchitis – even the Doctor’s diagnosis of allergy-induced asthma didn’t change the fact that for years I couldn’t get a full lungful of air. I felt like the bottom two-thirds of a barrel of sludge, and my breath eked out of me like water from a sponge, leaving my lips blue. I’d sneak up on my sister or brother and force the air out of my lungs in their ears, making a horrific wheezing sound like a dozen beach-balls being deflated.
I no longer thought Max was pretending to be sick; I know I wasn’t pretending to cough and hack my way through winter. After too many years and even more allergy shots, I decided to try something different. I figured I’d run a mile.
Could a wheezy adolescent boy whose diet consisted of buttered bagels and pasta really make it a mile? One day I jumped into my slip-ons, stuck my glasses in my pocket, and just took off. It was the best feeling in the world. I felt like I was floating above the road, moving past the countryside on a conveyor belt with the wind whistling in my braces. This went on for nearly a minute before I stopped, clutching the stitch in my side and panting like an old horse. I knew I had to achieve this goal.
Success did not come quickly, nor without more gasping breakdowns on the side of the road. But I’ve started to appreciate the idea that if I get tired, I’m only imagining it. Now, if after four or five miles I feel out of breath, I remember that I only need to breathe deeper.
And I no longer think Max was giving in to feeling cold or sick. I think he made the choice to put on a sweater when he was cold, and to drink soup when he was sick – then move on. I still believe in mind over matter, but I know that thinking won’t stop the stitch in my side after five miles. Instead, I believe that if I go another mile, next time it won’t hurt at all.
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