The Heart of the Two-Mile Game


The Heart of the Two-Mile Game

The world ends on a dark Christmas Eve, walking in the rain. The world ends halfway across a wet street, with a car skidding suddenly around the corner in a drunken left turn.

Blazing headlights.

Then the impact …

I wish I’d told her how I loved her …

Dark.

I can’t move.

I can’t feel the wet or the cold. Just a floating feeling.

Is this what it’s like to die?

I didn’t tell her how I loved her …

I can barely hear the starchy voice somewhere above me, but the words pound into my brain like dull spikes hammered in by a sledge.

“His heart just won’t respond. That’s it. He won’t make it.”

The world jolts to a stop.

And ends.

For me …

I never told her …

Three minutes left—the time it takes for the brain to die after the heart stops beating.

Three minutes of dark life.

Three minutes’ worth of thinking left in my brain.

And then the end …

The end!

And I hadn’t even started to live!

Everything I’ve ever done was just a getting ready to live. A preparation.

But not the living.

Why didn’t I live?

I’m dying, and I’ve never lived …

Three minutes.

I’ve done things I wish I hadn’t. But the things I didn’t do …

And now it’s all over with.

All but three minutes.

Why didn’t I tell her how I loved her?

Why didn’t I do a lot of things? Things I wanted to do much more than any of the things I ever got around to doing …

Things that should have been easy.

Like saying, “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have done that.”

Or, “It takes courage for a man to stand up for what he believes in the way you do. I admire you for that, and I want you to know it.”

I could have spent more time with the people who meant the most to me. I wonder if any of them ever knew how much I loved them?

How could I expect them to?

I never let them know …

I could have.

I could have said, “I think you’re one of the best people I’ve ever known. I don’t want anything special from you … I just want to be your friend …”

Why didn’t I?

Maybe I didn’t feel worthy of them. Maybe I thought I had to go out and do something great before I had the right to be their friend.

Maybe I was a fool …

I wish I’d told her how I loved her …

I could have.

I could have talked to her before she went away. Maybe I could have stopped her.

I could have told her I loved her. I wonder if she knew?

I could have said, “I love you. I always have, and I always will …”

I wonder what she would have done, if I’d told her?

I could have written to her after she went away. Maybe she would have answered.

But I wasn’t sure …

I wish I’d tried.

When I was afraid to talk to her, I wish I’d talked to her anyway. When I was afraid to write to her, I wish I’d gone ahead and written.

I never had the time to write letters. I always had something else I had to get done first.

I wonder how long it would have taken me to get everything done that I thought I had to get done before I wrote my letters?

And I wonder how much time I saved by not writing the letters?

And I wonder what I did with all that time?

How many minutes’ worth of time would I have had to pay to write one letter to her?

And what did I end up paying for not writing it?

A lifetime?

I could have spared her thirty minutes sometime out of my success schedule. Or even twenty. Ten minutes would have been enough to let her know I still remembered her …

If I could just have one minute right now, with a pen in my hand!

A single minute!

One minute, out of my last three …

Sixty seconds would be long enough to say something; long enough to tell her how I love her …

FOOL!

I could have told her how I loved her!

Why didn’t I tell her?

Fear?

Shame?

Fear, maybe. But never shame. I was never ashamed of her, and I was never ashamed of my love for her.

And as long as I could remember I loved her, I was never ashamed of myself …

Fear?

Yes.

Maybe …

Yes, I think I was afraid …

Of what?

Something vague.

The vague fears were always the worst. I never knew what it was I was trying to fight.

Why didn’t I tell her?

Maybe she would have laughed at my love for her. I could never have taken the grief of that.

No, she was a gentle girl. She would never have done such a thing, even if she hadn’t loved me.

But she had friends who would have …

Some of her friends could be cruel, in the refined manner in which only aristocratic ladies could be cruel. Maybe she would have told them, and maybe they would have been cruel.

And maybe I was a fool …

She was the only girl I ever loved unconditionally. Maybe I loved her so much I was afraid to take the chance of telling her, for fear she’d have to tell me she didn’t love me in return.

Maybe I wanted to spare us both having to go through the finishing scene of a friendship.

As long as friendship hadn’t ended, there was some hope of love to come …

So I grasped blindly for her friendship as it existed, or at least as I thought it existed, not daring to do anything that might have destroyed it.

But a friendship doesn’t have to end suddenly. It can crawl to an end so slowly that you’re never sure just where the end of it was. You can’t pick out a point in time and say, “This was the last hour of our friendship.” All you know is that one day you look for it when you need it, and it just isn’t there anymore.

Maybe that’s what happened to her half of our friendship.

But not mine.

I’m at the last three minutes of my half …

No. I’ll still love her. That’s one thing death doesn’t have the power to change.

I wish I’d told her how I loved her …

I wonder if I’m in my last minute yet? I wish I could be sure …

My last minute!

What can you do with a minute?

What can’t you do with a minute?

There’s nothing in the world you can do that you can’t do a little of in a minute. …

I could run a long way in a minute.

Yesterday …

I ran two miles yesterday, like every other day. Fifteen laps, mouth shut all the way, to strengthen the heart and lungs.

Two miles a day, whether I felt like it or not.

I never could work out a labor-saving system for running two miles. Sometimes I tried running with short, quick strides, not lifting my feet very high off the track, and sometimes I tried bounding along with great, high strides. But no matter what method I used, two miles were still two miles, and every inch of them had to be run in the very old-fashioned way of throwing one foot in front of the other for as many times as it took to carry me all the way across the finish line.

There’s no way to sleight-of-hand a two-mile run …

The first two laps were always the hardest, because that was as far as most of the other fellows ever ran. I’d seen them come onto the track, run their two laps, and quit.

Some of them quit sooner.

Sometimes one of them would pass me, running just as hard as he could go, and I’d be tempted to race him. It bothered me to have anyone pass me on the track.

But I’d let him go, and in a lap or two I’d pass him back.

Sometimes he’d be walking, sometimes he’d be standing still, and sometimes he’d be doubled over at the edge of the track, gasping for breath like a chronic smoker.

I had fifteen laps to go, and I didn’t dare forget it. I had my choice of racing with the sprinters or running my fifteen laps.

One or the other.

But not both.

I did race with the sprinters a few times …

The competition was a thrill!

I’d be running along at a good two-mile speed, and I’d hear one of these sprinters coming up behind me, moving fast. He’d swing out around me and start to pass, and I’d let him get two or three strides ahead of me; then I’d hit it with all the speed I had and pass him like a blur!

Or else I’d pass him slowly, staying just a chest ahead of him, until he was at his absolute limit.

Then I’d move like a race horse and show him what a distance runner could do in an all-out sprint!

One day I walked onto the track and sprinted for two laps, keeping to the outer edge of the track and passing every man in sight.

I couldn’t stand to have the sprinters think that I was a distance runner only because I didn’t have the power and speed to sprint. I fed my ego, but I used up the wind I needed for my two miles.

I decided I had to choose between my wind and my ego. I chose my wind.

In a marathon, ego is no substitute for endurance.

I had to coexist with the sprinters. I had no more to gain by racing them in their sprints than they did by racing me in my distance runs.

I never raced them again.

If I raced with them, I didn’t make my fifteen laps.

You can’t win your own game by playing someone else at his, even if you beat him. There’s no way in the world you can win your own game without playing your own game …

And somewhere along the line, I made a decision in cold blood—my game was the two-mile game; I was running to win.

After that I ran my two miles every day, at a two-mile pace, and left the sprinting to the sprinters.

But the first two laps were still the hardest. That was probably because I could always think of so many good reasons why I should quit at the end of the first two laps.

There was only one way I could get past that point—I just had to grit my teeth and keep on running.

And I did …

The rest of the first mile was easier, but at the end of it was another mental barrier. After running one mile all the way to the finish line, I found myself at the starting line of another mile to run, and knew that I had to begin at the beginning and do it all over again.

I tried to ignore the quitter hidden in my mind, the traitor who liked to relax in a mental easy chair and taunt me: “A mile’s enough for anyone …”

I had to keep complete control crossing that dual line, the quitter-killer line, where quitters quit and winners keep on running.

That line killed a lot of quitters …

But once I crossed the line, I crossed the border into a new world, where the air came easier, and my body was lighter, and my brain was quicker and clearer.

The ultimate reward for running the first mile was the opportunity to run the second.

The second mile …

A mile of meditation, and even … relaxation. My brain was rich with oxygen, and I did some of my best thinking bounding along that second mile.

I thought of the physical world and its laws, and I thought of the fine arts and their expression, and I thought of people and their feelings. Especially the people I loved.

And sometimes I pretended she would be there waiting for me, just beyond the finish line …

Why didn’t I tell her how I loved her?

* * *

The last minute must be running out.

The game is finished.

And it wasn’t a two-mile game …

The heart is dead. All used up. Like a candle sputtering out when the last drop of wax is burned away.

Still …

This heart carried me over a lot of miles …

It was a two-mile heart. The heart of the two-mile game …

Can it really be dead?

How can it be dead?

I don’t believe …

I don’t believe it can be dead!

Come on, you two-mile heart! You CAN‘T be dead!

I have things I haven’t finished yet. I have things I haven’t even begun …

Beat! You can!

Beat! You will!

BEAT! I feel it coming …

BEAT! Almost …

THERE!

It beat!

I FELT it beat!

Exhausted …

Relax …

The first two are the hardest …

Now …

Beat! Almost …

Again, with more will …

BEAT!

Nothing …

Was the first time only my imagination?

For her sake …

BEAT!

AGAIN!

I felt it beat again!

AGAIN! …

Again! …

Again …

Again …

The second mile …

The mile of meditation …

Relaxation …

And very soon I’ll tell her how I love her …

“Nurse …”

“Yes; how are you feeling now?” “Much better, thanks, Would you let me have a pen and paper, please? I’d like to write a Christmas letter.”

* * *

The first mile is finished. The second is yet to run.

The second mile …

A soft, golden path, winding through green grass and tall trees, and leading—

Somewhere …

To her?

We’ll see where it leads. It’s a two-mile game, and it isn’t finished yet.

And now …

Now I’ll tell her how I love her …

[illustrations] Illustrated by Jerry Thompson