Ron was my big brother, my role model, and my friend. He was five years older than me—old enough to be the teacher in our imaginary school and the inventor of the neighborhood paper, but close enough in age to get down on the floor and play with me.
Ron during the summer of 1991, the last time I saw him.
We sometimes called him a gentle giant. It wasn’t because of his weight—even though at one point he was well over 250 pounds—but because he was 6’ 4” with broad shoulders like a linebacker. And yet, he was the gentlest soul. After an explosive childhood, he stopped getting angry sometime around age twelve. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, music, and movies. He loved watching football on TV but never played any sports himself.
He started jogging before he left home. I can’t remember if he was in high school or already in college. I think he was in college. It was part of his plan for losing weight. At first, he was too shy to run outside so instead, he would jog in place inside the house. Eventually, he became an outdoor runner, and after moving to New York City, he started running in races. He decided that before his 30th birthday, he would run in the New York City Marathon. He didn’t quite make that deadline, but he did run it in 1989 when he was 31. He got in again the next year, but couldn’t participate because of a running injury. A month later, he died in a stupid, freak accident.
Ron’s medal for completing the 1989 New York City Marathon.
Losing Ronnie was and continues to be the most painful experience of my life. It’s when I confronted mortality personally, viscerally, emotionally for the first time. I lost a part of myself. I don’t think you ever get over that kind of grief. You just get used to it. You get used to the fact that the unimaginable has occurred and it can’t be undone.
Ron has remained an important person to me even after his death, and nowhere more so than when I run. I’ve often felt that he’s running there alongside me, a gentle supportive companion. I started doing races myself sometime in my 30s, but had no interest in ever doing a marathon. Until one day about five years ago I had a vision of running with Ron through the streets of New York City. And suddenly it made sense to try and sign up for my first marathon. But getting into the NYC Marathon isn’t easy. Either you have to be faster than I’ll ever be, or raise thousands of dollars for charity, or win an entry in the lottery. After four years of trying through the lottery, I got in in 2014 but had to postpone because of my trip to Poland. So here I am, finally about to run in the New York City Marathon.
I didn’t expect them, but walking from Penn Station to the Javitz Center to pick up my bib number today, there they were. Those raw emotions—love and grief intertwined with the excitement of the upcoming race. And there I was, bawling on 34th Street.
It’s fitting that the marathon is on November 1st this year, All Saints Day. It’s one of my favorite holidays in Poland, the day to remember the spirits of those who have left us. The day to visit the cemetery, clean the graves and decorate them with flowers and candle lanterns. I’m sure the cemeteries are already glowing with candlelight at night. I won’t clean graves or light candles this year. But I will run with my big brother as my companion, together with 50,000 other people, through the streets of New York City.