A pair of orange shoes sits by the front door of my apartment, preparing to carry me from Hopkinton to Boylston Street. My old black-and-blue pair that carried me hundreds of miles retired roughly one month ago and rests in my closet.
Through five-to-six days per week I’d run downhill on the south side of campus to the track this past year, then churn my legs uphill toward main campus and loop around to rack up the miles I’ve piled up in preparation of this moment.
It was a meditation experience for me. I could brainstorm ideas, mull over life, churn through my favorite albums and playlists, sight-see, dance a little, and when I concluded a rush of good-feeling would flow through me. Empowerment.
Heartbreak Hill has nothing on University Hill.
It’s all been in an effort to alleviate past pain and strengthen the future of care for patients struggling with cancer. I’m running the Boston Marathon on Monday, passing a few blocks from Beth Israel Medical Center, where I lost my father to acute myeloid leukemia last year.
It was an outcome I never expected or imagined, and, at the time, it was impossible to comprehend. On Apr. 15 I called him to sulk about the death of Isaiah Thomas’ sister, a loss Thomas expressed only being able to escape from through basketball.
Twenty-four days later, I sympathized with Thomas. Playing pick-up basketball with friends provided momentary relief, but I needed a longer-term goal.
It didn’t take long to find. My cousin Anthony, consoling me at 3 a.m. the night my dad passed, suggested I run the marathon. I had always run, but I shrugged it off then. Two months later I leapt into action after a few more friends urged me on. My friend Craig and I jumped into a two-mile run, a bigger task then than now, as Pizzo followed us from his car as we reached the finish line at his front door. I had my project for the next 10 months.
My father, Robert Manning Sr. (1965-2017), was diagnosed in August, 2016, two weeks into my freshman year at Syracuse. I had returned from covering a volleyball game, beginning to feel comfortable for the first time hundreds of miles from Boston. As I hopped off the elevator on the sixth floor of Day Hall, I got the first of the two worst calls of my life. I put my head down on my desk, not knowing what else to do, and cried.
I was handed a whole year that combined college adjustment, angst over my father’s condition and homesickness that ripped me to my core. I wanted nothing more, every single day, than to quit Syracuse, get out of sportswriting and go home to Boston. It felt useless.
Nobody objected to that notion, through his own pain, more than my dad did.
Some days I felt exhausted, hopeless and trapped. Even as I made friends for life that tried their best to help, every day weighed on me. I couldn’t sense at the time that I was simply experiencing understandable grief, in the moment it felt like my world was ending. But I still knew that was nothing compared to daily life in the hospital, which became my dad’s reality.
He worked in the city his whole life, originally as an electrician at Gillette and later at the MBTA. I remember years ago taking the train from Salem to North Station, underneath the TD Garden, to pick him up in the afternoon. On New Year’s, we’d hop on a train and see the city. Fourth of July, we were in Boston. Summer days were on a boat in the harbor. My greatest memories were in Boston, all in the vicinity of the Garden.
But it wasn’t my dad who cultivated my love for the Celtics, it was one I acquired late but he nonetheless appreciated. I still have Bob Ryan’s Larry Bird book he gave me. Though I never managed to pull him to a game, I could still steal the remote from him in the back room and draw occasional “woo-hoos” from him.
By 2012, I honed in on wanting to write for a career, particularly about sports. Fast forward to 2017 and it was coming true: I was wrapping up my first full season with CelticsBlog and CLNS, while the Celtics had overcome an 0-2 deficit to the Bulls and rolled into the second round.
My dad, in the hospital eight months to that point, had become my biggest fan. He created a Twitter account just to follow me (fine, Phantom Gourmet too), listened in to the post-game shows through the playoffs and read through articles I published. He wasn’t the biggest sports fan, but the dedication, strides and seriousness he valued applied. Though he and his whole family worked in a trade, he not only had no issues with my dream of writing, he shot down any doubt I had about it.
All seemed well. I made it through two semesters of college, my dad had a stint out of the hospital in March and returned in April (only temporarily, I thought), and as the Celts jumped into the second round I was feeling great. He and my mom convinced me to stay at school, and I was glad I did, happy with the supportive friends I had made and writing strides I’d accomplished. Then I got the call.
My mom never wanted me to come home. Now she demanded it.
Overlooking campus, sitting in a walkway on a sunny day that felt optimistic minutes prior, I knew the unthinkable was about to happen. For the very first time, I felt like I could lose my dad.
I had made several seven-hour bus rides back to Boston, and as April turned to May, this was the hardest. My dad’s lungs were in rough shape, his condition looked bleak as I faced him. The smirking, joyful, 52-year-old with his big belly had shrunk to a skinny, nearly-bald shell of what he once looked like. It terrified me, though I held in much of the emotion.
Still, he pressed on.
The Celtics were playing the Wizards in the background. Thomas, still struggling through his loss, unloaded 53 points. I watched from the balcony with my friend, Anthony, trying my best to distract myself as I prepared to face my own.
I rushed back to school, finished my finals in two days and returned to hear the worst. On May 8 we learned that he’d soon be gone. His whole family gathered. One day later, just before midnight, I had left Beth Israel, then rushed back after hearing it was happening. I arrived and he was silent beside my mother. No more wheezing breaths.
He, like the Celtics, had won. Not because they defeated their opponent, but with how they empowered and inspired those around them.
Learning to enjoy the team through my spirit, I sensed he raised a fist in heaven days later when those Kelly Olynyk threes splashed through the net. I’m sure he would’ve asked what was up with his hair.
Though I sat in my bed in agony those days after he passed, my mother put it in perspective. I’d compiled countless, unforgettable memories with my dad in 19 years. He set me up to do what I loved and became one of my biggest supporters. He motivated me to stay at SU through bouts that felt like depression, and at his wake four of my friends from school made the trip from New York to Peabody to be there for me, and the several hundreds he touched directly and indirectly through us showed up.
The wake became a gathering of the extensive support system he’d built and extended through inspiring my sister and me to live active, engaged lives. I hope the marathon can be that, too, close to the one year anniversary of his death.
A few weeks later I got back to writing and podcasting, interviewing Shea Serrano, and something he said about his own father stuck with me: he never spoke much, but the way he carried himself each and every day projected far more powerful lessons. I think that perfectly describes my dad. Few quotes stuck out, but he involved me in many of his projects at home, revealing how methodical he was.
The week he passed produced memories I’ll never forget. We cracked our first beer together—Sam Adams, of course—as my aunt nervously carried it through the hospital floor. Before he lost consciousness for the final time, I asked him two questions. Did I make you proud, and what advice do you have for the rest of my life?
“Yes,” he answered.
“Keep your nose to the grindstone.”
It wasn’t many words, but they’ll power me through 26+ miles on Monday. Passing by the subway stations he worked in to allow me to write here, and utilizing the strength I hope can assist those who continue their battle with cancer at Beth Israel today.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I lost my dad I had already gained the world from him.
(Please consider donating to or sharing my marathon fund, benefiting Beth Israel’s Cancer Center).