My journey to the Boston Marathon started long before I committed to run the best-known race in America. It began on a particularly low Saturday in November 2007.
Our family had relocated to New Hampshire less than a year earlier, and although he had been officially diagnosed with Autism and was receiving services, life with our three-year old son Jack was still uncertain and tumultuous. While we’d adjusted to the diagnosis, we were still learning to accept the daily challenges of life with a child on the spectrum – alarms on the doors in case he escaped, a lock on the refrigerator to keep him from experimenting with eggs, tactics to diffuse the ourbursts that put our household in a tailspin.
On this chilly gray afternoon, I was paying for a haircut when I noticed a display of inexpensive necklaces at the front desk of the salon. They had little inscriptions like “dream” and “peace” inscribed in silver circles. I saw one engraved with Believe and thought, why not? For $29, I could use a tangible reminder of my commitment to soldier on and believe in the unknown.
Something magical happened with this inexpensive piece of silver. During one of Jack’s legendary tantrums, I held the small circle up and asked him, “What does Mommy’s necklace say?” He focused on it just long enough for me to say, “Believe. It says believe, Jack, because I believe in you.” Over the course of the next year, he and I both turned to that exchange to calm ourselves if he started to spin out of control. Repeated probably a hundred times by now, our dialogue is unchanged: “What does Mommy’s necklace say?” He unfailingly answers, “Believe, because I believe in you.” I’m not sure which of us needs these words more.
Nearly three years have passed since I bought the necklace, and I wear it faithfully. I wear it if I know we’ll be a in a situation that’s challenging for Jack and I’ll need some strength to get us both through. During this time Jack has developed into a different boy entirely. He can hold a conversation, share a joke, and ask appropriate questions.
One snowy day this past December I was baking cookies when my friend Pam called and asked me to run the Boston Marathon on her team for the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism. I agreed, mostly because I wanted to get back to eating my macaroons without interruption, but also because it seemed boorish to turn the offer down when my own child was on the spectrum. Before I could say biscotti, Pam dropped off a crazy-looking training schedule and I was off and running. Literally.
My training was everything you would expect from trying to get a body that’s birthed five children to run 26.2 miles without collapsing or failing in some embarrassing way (think “runner’s trots”). It was exhilarating and frustrating, challenging and rewarding. It forced me to grow both emotionally and physically and served as a constant reminder of how hard Jack’s life must be sometimes.
Before I knew it, race day was upon me. Aside from some minor hip bursitis, I felt prepared to go the distance. I’d kept to the training schedule religiously and sailed through a 20-mile race in March. I thought I was ready.
I was wrong. Although I did everything I could to prepare for this day, the Boston Marathon course owned me from the first mile. I was unused to bobbing and weaving through crowds of runners trying to find my own rhythm, and the Dairy Queen Blizzard I enjoyed the night before kept my stomach on high-alert.
Like most people who run the Boston, I was amazed and invigorated by the crowds. Over 500,000 people gathered for the race, and it seemed they were there just to cheer my name. I slapped high-fives with countless people and at Wellesley College ran past the loudest throng of screaming girls I’ve ever seen. Boston College was a blur of happy faces chanting and yelling encouragement; as I passed by our niece Jenny, she jumped in to run the rest of the race with me. I’d never been so happy to see someone in my life.
I hit one wall at mile 7 when my right hip started to tell me it was annoyed. I hit another wall at mile 15 when my left hip got jealous and started to make noise too. But I really, really hit the big wall at mile 22 when I heard bystanders shouting there were only four miles to go. It sounded like running to the Statue of Liberty and back.
Something special happened at this point. A spectator stepped in front of me, looked directly into my eyes and said, “I believe in you.”
This moment was a profound turning point at the end of a long journey. Turning away from Jenny so she didn’t see me dissolve, I had an instant to understand that in these four words, this unknown man was telling me everything I needed to know.
There are no accidents. It’s no accident I have a son named Jack who will forever interpret the world differently than most; it’s no accident I reached for a necklace that would reaffirm my faith in myself as a mother of a child with autism. And it was no accident that a stranger in a crowd of strangers spoke his mantra to me at a pivotal time in a hard-run race.
I’ve always believed in Jack. Now I believe in myself.
Carrie Cariello lives in New Hampshire with her husband and five children.