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The road

13 mins read
Francesca finishing the Florence Marathon, November 25 2018

When you’re one step away from the finish line, you look up and stop watching your running legs. You look up and seek for the number of miles to go.
Suddenly, around the corner or at the top of a climb, there is always more road to go. At least most of the time there is. Straight ahead of you. And at the bottom, you see it—the finish line.

Francesca at the Italian half-Marathon championship, October 2018

A lot of people are cheering. That’s when you feel that you’ve overcome fatigue and pain and that now you’ll find someone to hug. Hugging a stranger will work just fine too. It’s OK. It’s all good.


I remember the light of that day.
Outside the building, my fist holds the crumpled outcome of the histology.


She comes from a distance and has a scarf rolled up over her head; she gets closer and closer. Her eyes are glowing…
Excuse me, may I ask you a question?” I tell her.
Sure, if I can help!” she smiles at me.
What’s it like?
She looks at me; she doesn’t understand.
What’s it like? The chemo?
She smiles; she is beautiful. She has a line of lipstick and drawn eyebrows.
She looks me straight in the eyes. She understands.
Come closer,” she says.
And she hugs me.
I burst into tears. I stand there with her arms around me. She holds me tight without speaking and waits for me to stop.
I free myself from her hug. I feel ashamed, stupid.
I wonder: am I dumb? Am I crying in front of a stranger who is already fighting for herself?
Are you feeling better?
All I can say is thank you. A small, shy thank you.
It’s not so terrible. Just don’t give up. Mentally, I mean. Learn the names of the drugs. Shave your hair now. Don’t be ashamed of your bald head. Joke about it, and you’ll get over it sooner. Rest as often as you can. And fight. Fight with every weapon you have. Whether it’s smiles, whether it’s your job, whether it’s your family. Fight – nothing else. I’m leaving now; I have therapy. Hopefully, it will be better this time. I have it in my sternum… It started from the breast.” She smiles. “This morning, I’ve put my scarf on my head because I feel colder than usual.” She walks away. I breathe.


My legs are soft. Motionless.
The starting pistol fires inside my head.
Damn, you’ve done some racing.
It’s time to go, girl. Now you must run.
I close my eyes. I breathe the cold air with my mouth open.
The sternum, I think. Fuck.
I try to remove the wrinkles from the crumpled paper. I read, I reread it. Twelve months.
OK, calm down. Start dividing. Like when you run. Divide the road. Divide the miles.
Split the route. The first 10 kilometers (6 miles) pass quickly; you don’t even feel it. Four cycles of therapy equal 10 km.
In a marathon you must wear light clothes: a tank top, shorts and hair tied up, so your body can cleave the air.


Hair.
The noise of the clipper bothers me. Nineteen days after the first infusion, now, it’s coming off in bunches.
Fuck it, I think. Shave! And don’t give up. Think about running.

19th day of chemo, December 2019

My daughter can hardly look at me. She’s scared; maybe I even gross her out a little. But I resist. I look her in the eyes and don’t give up.
I tell her, “I have chosen to do this treatment because we will be free afterward. You will be a woman, my love… you must learn to fight.” She hugs me, she cries. I don’t give up. I tell her – I tell myself – everything will be all right- everything. And we will hang a shiny medal around our necks.
I know it; I feel it. I do feel it.


How’s my Wonder Woman?” Marta saw me running in training. She nicknamed me Wonder Woman before all this. She says I’m indestructible.
Well, dear Marta… I have a bald head, and I feel out of place, out of context, out of everything.”

Francesca and her friend Marta training together, July 2019

Breathe, Wonder. Breathe. I’ll be your running hare if you want. I’ll give you air, I’ll give you pace, so you get less tired.
You’re on, Hare. Let’s go!” Every Friday starts with the running metaphor, the road metaphor.
What about today, Wonder? Long route or short route?” The long one is the Taxol, the short one is the biological. Every Friday is different, every day is different – each time, you have a different route to take.
Lace your shoes up, Hare. It’s on.


The second 10 kilometers of a marathon are tougher. Your legs are slowing down, and your head tells you there are 30 more to go.
At this point, you must be smart. You have to screw your brain by engaging it with something else.
Four cycles of three. Twelve infusions plus four.
Keep running.” Every morning I tell myself so.
Physical pain, you feel it. The mattress hurts, getting up hurts, walking hurts, hugging hurts. Even the soft spring quilt hurts.

Spring has arrived; herbal teas, vitamin C, and no additional medicine.
Don’t give up; carry on.
Sometimes the road is tiring. You must be used to running if you choose to do a marathon.


42km (26 miles) and 195 meters (213 yards) are about resistance.
I love this word: Re-Existence. It’s like you were allowed to exist twice, and if you endure then you are entitled to. That’s the prize. That’s my shiny medal. Re-existing.


Keep splitting—less road to the finish line.
Another 10 km. Keep going… keep your head up… breathe…
Between 20 and 30 km your body changes a bit. You feel your muscles swell from the effort, your hands and arms get sore. You don’t feel the fatigue because your mind has moved on.
You don’t have to think.
Don’t think there are still 20 more to go.
You don’t have to think. Just run.


I don’t sleep much anymore; I can’t stand the chemo port. Everything around me has started to move again. I miss running; I miss the wind.
On the other hand, my hair is growing back, it’s soft, so sweet… I’m constantly running my hand through it. It will come back – I tell myself – my long “Amazonian” hair will come back…
I walk in.
Doc, can I say something?
She nods.
Emanuela is amazing. The whole department is; their smiles brighten the day.
“I miss running so much. I don’t know any other way to say it, but I miss it.”
She looks at me.
“We can take it off, now that you’re out of chemo.”
My eyes swell with tears.
It’s a gift, an unexpected gift.
Cursed, and blessed, chemo port.
“You have to win a race for us, though.”
“You can count on it, Doc!”
You can count on it, I think.
Being able to feel the wind in my face and to hear the sound of running shoes on the road: this is the most significant victory.

At the 25th km of a marathon, you have the refreshments. You find bits of chocolate. You must slow down and grab a couple.
The taste… that taste… when you get it between your teeth, it makes you realize how much you’ve taken it for granted.
You thank God, or your guardian angel, or whoever is there in that moment. Even a stranger, that’s OK… That’s OK, too.
And you’re never alone, ever.
You feel like something is pushing you forward.
Strength? Love? Life?
I don’t know.
I don’t know if I want to look back.
I don’t even know if I’ll ever be able to find a proper way to express what I felt.
I think no one can do it. It takes no small amount of processing time.
They say a marathon takes six months to process.
What about an Ultramarathon?
Also, how long does it take to chew an experience up and spit it out?
I don’t know. I don’t have an answer.


My race began at the sound of the starting pistol. I started running in a storm. A storm in which sunny days were not enough to catch my breath. The clouds, the bad ones, were already lurking.
I’m a marathoner, though. Marathoners don’t quit.
We don’t give up; we know the road and count the miles to the finish line.
Just a few left to go.

Last day of chemo, May 25 2020


In the last few, the legs accelerate; no one knows why. But they accelerate. The road doesn’t challenge you. Instead, the road welcomes you because it shows you the direction and brings you where you want to go. I know it; I know where I want to go.

Francesca today, December 2020


In a while, there will be that red 42 sign (26 miles sign), and I’ll see it.
In a while, around the corner or at the top of a climb, there is a piece of road. Straight ahead. At the bottom, I’ll see it: the finish line.
I’ll find someone to hug; even a stranger is OK. It’s OK. It’s OK…
It’s sunny today.
It reminds me that I’m alive.
That I’m a Woman.
That, like me, there are others, and others, and others…
That all, all, all of us are Wonder Woman.

Story written by Francesca Di Meo, translation by Carlo Marongiu. Francesca is the founder at the Italian Theater Academy TeatrArt – take a closer look at their website: https://www.teatrart.com

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