A Widower's Ironman

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


The true story of one widower's experiences and thoughts during an Ironman race, having used the training for it as a coping mechanism to deal with the loss of his young wife.

Submitted: October 19, 2017

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Submitted: October 19, 2017

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The Start

 

I wake up in the pitch black hotel room and lay there motionless. It must be getting close to alarm time, I feel rested. "I better just lay here and relax, no need to get up earlier than planned. I’m going to need all the rest I can get." I think to myself. My sweet girlfriend Misa is snuggled up close by my side sleeping peacefully. I am as excited to get to spend the four day weekend with her as I am about the race. Her unwavering support throughout this journey has me in a grateful state that is beyond words. Fifteen minutes goes by then the alarms go off on both our phones simultaneously, 4:30 AM. "Hmm, our phone clocks are synchronized."

"How did you sleep Honey Bun?" Misa asks in a sleepy voice.

I tell her fine and we get up and ready, excited but not nervous. All the planning is over, all the preparation completed, the final victory lap of years of training about to start. I go down my huge check list one more time and grab the last of the gear and we head down to the lobby. Our friend Greg has the car in front ready to take us to the race. It was still dark out but there were many athletes and their sherpas (helpers) walking through the city streets towards the race start. They had blocked off sections of the road for the race which made getting there a challenge and the quick U turns Greg was forced to make like a pro added to the excitement. He got us as close as possible then let us out to walk the rest of the way.

It was a surreal sight to behold. There were hundreds if not thousands of folks all quietly heading through the lamp lit streets of Louisville, all flowing to the same place, talking with each other but in hushed voices. I'm not a spiritual man but couldn't help but be reminded of the scene from "O' Brother Where Art Thou" where all the folks in white were walking towards the river to be baptized. I quietly hummed "Down to the River to Pray" to myself. Misa held my hand.

We got to transition one where there were many more bikes on the rack than the day before. I think there were around twenty five hundred athletes competing that day.  We chose a spot to meet after I dropped off my gear then I went in to the athletes only transition area, pumped the tires up on my bike and placed a power bar, water and Gatorade bottles on it. As I walked out, there was one spot where I could see most of the bikes and the many athletes there getting them ready. I just stopped for a few seconds and soaked it all in. "This is it. Goal day. I am here."

I met back up with Misa and we began to walk to the swim start area. There was a loud pop and someone said "There went someone's tire" I looked at Misa with widened eyes and said. "That would suck." She agreed.

We lined up with the thousands of athletes and their friends and families all walking the dark mile upstream to the swim start. When we got closer they split us up by our swim time estimates and we got in the 1:40 – 1:50 group and sat down in the grass to wait our turn. We sat by a friendly couple who we chatted with for a good while. The wife was racing her first full Ironman and the husband was her sherpa. They had a son in the race also, he was somewhere in another speed group. Misa and I were very moved by their story. They had tragically lost a nine year old child to cancer. The mother had an angelic tattoo of him on her shoulder blade and her husband had a cute tattoo of one of his son’s drawings of a snowman on his shoulder. I had to fight to hold back the tears. I could see the pain in their eyes. Deep pain. Misa patted my shoulder as she told them "He lost his wife." I really had to fight hard not to cry then, not just over the painful memory but the beautiful way Misa has so lovingly accepted that part of me.

"Yeah, Jenni got Alzheimer's Disease when she turned thirty." They were shocked, as most people are when they hear how young she was. Thankfully it is a very rare form. "Losing a wife was hard but I can't imagine losing a child." I often thought the only way losing Jenni could have been worse is if she had been a child. I will never forget the face of that mother. I wish I would have gotten her name. I hope she made it to the finish line OK. I wondered if she used the training as a coping mechanism like I did. I always felt like I was taking the pain, turning it into fuel and then burning it. I asked a scientist friend early on who knew chemistry, “Why does half my insides feel like they are physically gone?”

“You are actually going through a chemical withdrawal.” He answered. So I thought maybe, if I started running, some of the good chemicals the brain produced might relieve some of the grief. It actually worked to a degree. At first it helped only during a run, gradually it started working for a time afterward with slowly increasing effectiveness. I would recommend to anyone grieving, go out the door and hit the feet on the road. Start running short distances, and then increase slowly. It can help and you never know how far it might take you.

 

The Swim

 

Hundreds of people in our view started standing up and putting their wetsuits on getting ready for the 2.4 mile swim in the Ohio River. With that the excitement level went up another notch. We heard a distant faint pop and suspected it was the official start of the race. The elites were probably hitting the water. I put on my wetsuit, swim cap and goggles as we all slowly began moving towards the start area still a couple hundred yards away. Misa wasn't sure when she was supposed to turn back, offering to do so multiple times, but I kept her with me for as long as possible. We said good luck to the couple as they disappeared into the crowd and they wished me luck as well. The sun was starting to give light to the overcast morning by this point.

Finally we came to the chute for the pier start where Misa hugged and kissed me goodbye, "Good luck Honey Bun, I love you." She said standing there holding the bike pump and bag of morning clothes. It would be awhile before I got to see her again.

At the beginning of the chute there laid a pile of sandals, so I kicked my $1 pair off and laid them in the pile. I wished I would have waited till I got to the pier to do that since a strange thing was happening. No one had been in the water yet but the side walk was completely wet. A lot of the thousands of people must have been relieving themselves before hitting the water. A lot. I wanted to say "It's not that scary" or sing "Follow the yellow brick road" but was too focused on the start to make jokes. I hadn’t realized that I was in a sport so intense that peeing your pants is considered normal. I thought of Adam Sandler as Billy Madison saying “Of course I peed my pants, everybody my age pees his pants. It’s the coolest!”

Before I knew it I was jumping off the pier into the water after a quick glance at my watch. 8:10 am. It had taken forty minutes for me to get to the water from the time the elites began. That’s how many people were doing this crazy thing, and there were still a ton of folks behind me. Holding my goggles worked well and they didn't come off when I hit the water. I was surprised when my feet hit mud but I was glad to use it to help wash the pee off my feet. There was absolutely no shock from the cool water, too much adrenaline flowing to notice it. After about fifty feet I had a great moment. "Holy Crap! I'm in an Ironman!" Helicopters flying overhead added to the excitement. I swam completely over top of someone in the congestion so I got out to the right searching for a clearer path. I thought I may have seen a scuba diver under us but I'm not sure. On the left there were big buoys marking the path and on the right were the volunteers in the canoes and kayaks. I used the canoes as my path and had a great swim with only a few encounters. One time though I accidentally felt my hand solidly slap someone and when I turned to breathe I could see it was a woman’s bottom. I felt terrible and hope she heard me apologize.

At the turn point I saw something strange, one of the athletes in his green swim cap was there with the upper half of his body out of the water. I thought he must be sitting on a kayak, but when I got close enough to see over the choppy waves I could see he was just standing there in what seemed like the middle of the Ohio River. The water was oddly shallow in that spot and he must have been just taking a break. I saw some swimmers standing on the bank of the island we were swimming around, they must have been taking a break too. My favorite part of the swim was when I went close buy a volunteer in a kayak and as my face turned out of the water I said loudly "Thank You!" to his focused face then on my second breath I turned to see him smiling great big. It was like peekaboo for adults.

I got out of the water feeling refreshed and with a personal best by some 20 minutes. The current and adrenaline must have helped. I was really happy about the swim time, earlier fearing the congestion might slow me down. The strippers were waiting and had me sit on the ground and pulled off my wetsuit in one continuous motion and I was on my way to transition one. I overheard one guy joke that he was disappointed, since he had heard there were going to be strippers when we got out of the water but found it was a different kind than he had hoped for.

 

The Bike

 

I was keeping an eye peeled for my gang while moving pretty fast through the transition area. I found my stuff by counting the rows, having memorized them from the day before. "Five and Five, Five and Five" I repeated. My bags were five rows from the back and my bike was the same, positioned and labeled by my bib number. When I found my bike it was a happy sight and I thought to myself "There you are Rocinante you pretty girl you, be good today now, and get me through this." I could see where Misa and her two funny daughters signed my bike which made me smile. I pushed the bike out "I wonder where my crew is? I know they are here somewhere. There they are!" I see Greg and his wife Regina and their baby Garrett. And I see the sweetest and cutest girlfriend in the whole world, my Misa. Seeing your friends and loved ones there cheering you on while you are chasing your dream is a more intense feeling than one might think. It's sort of like being a kid again. Like when my girlfriend’s daughter Violet looks our way during her volleyball match or my nephew Joel looking our way when he makes a basket during his basketball game. Some deep need is fulfilled when we are cheered on, some sort of sense of approval or acceptance. It felt so good to see them. I blew Misa a kiss as I went by. And yelled to Greg "I hit the water at 8:10" so he could go by my splits to find me if needed, not realizing the Ironman track app had them informed already.

I mounted the bike carefully at the mounting point, having wrecked during a prior sprint tri because I wasn't used to jumping on the bike with a wet butt, then I headed out on the road for our one hundred and twelve mile ride. The sun was shining and there were athletes on bikes ahead of me and behind me as far as the eye could see.

I was going around twenty mph on the flats. That was faster than my normal so I tried to slow it down a bit to conserve energy but it just felt right so I kept it up. Was I going downhill? It didn’t look like I was. When we started to climb the first hill I was surprised to see so many people slowing down to a crawl. Being from West Virginia the majority of my training over the past four years was climbing mountains on my heavy mountain bike so I passed a lot of people on the hills to my happy surprise. I excitingly joked "West Virginia! The Mountain State baby!" as I went on by the line. One lady replied "Florida! We don't have mountains!" They made up for it on the flats though and I was probably re-passed by a lot of those slow climbers. There was a busy interstate-like amount of bike traffic out there.

My time was getting better and better. I was nearing fifty minutes ahead of schedule so was able to really relax a bit and enjoy the day. I thought, "I'm actually going to be an Ironman today. I guess I didn't need to shave my legs and arms after all.” I had read that it could knock off five to fifteen minutes from your overall time. So one morning about a week before the race I woke from a bad dream in which I was ten minutes over qualifying time. I immediately got up and started shaving my legs and arms. I always shave my head over the sink so by habit tried the same for these new areas. The arms went OK but holding my leg over the sink caused me to pull a back muscle, and right before the big race too. Thank goodness for Misa. She massaged most of the kink out of my back over several nights leading up to the race. The swim actually helped to work some stiffness out too.

When Misa first seen the new look I could tell she wasn’t impressed. “Honey Bun you did a half assed shaving job. I'm going to do it right. Get in the tub.” She teased smiling. I felt like a prince as she took her time sweetly shaving my arms and legs, doing a much better job than I had. The whole time I was thinking about how much I love this woman. She was spoiling me as usual. The woman has taken this mountain boy from the woods and out into the world, from a beautiful Indian wedding in Montreal Canada, with a helicopter ride around Niagara Falls, all the way to Japan to meet her family and friends. In Japan I ran through ancient castle parks and rice fields to train for the Ironman, thanks to Misa. And there she was shaving me for the race. Love and deep gratitude filled my heart. And Ladies, I got to see part of what you all go through and I say just let it grow, we'll get used to it. It's too much work to shave that amount of surface area! I didn't let Misa shave above the tan line on my legs so I ended up looking like I was wearing a pair of hair shorts. We laughed hard about that. Earlier Grace her oldest, suggested we wax my legs but I wanted it to grow back as fast as possible so I declined. Later Grace would find the hair I forgot to clean still in the tub, much to her disgust.

The ride was really starting to get fun. I had no idea so many locals would be out in their yards cheering us all on. All those lonely hours training on logging roads rarely seeing more than deer and black bear prior to this and now a crowd cheering us on, cheering me on? It didn't take long for me to become a race ham. If I saw a small crowd starting to quiet down I'd stick my arm out palm upward and pump the air yelling ahead "Wooooo, let's hear it for us! We're doing it! We're doing it! Woooo Hoooo!" And man they would come alive. People sitting down would stand again and the cheers would intensify dramatically. Talk about energizing. I did this most of the ride, almost losing my voice from cheering the crowd on. They returned the favor and made it so much fun. I started to understand why so many wonderful volunteers get involved in this thing. People supporting other people when they are doing something hard must be quite rewarding.

I felt like I was getting close to the town where Misa and the gang were to be waiting for me. I yelled out to the crowd "How far to LaGrange?"

"Just a couple miles" one lady answered.

I wanted to make sure to watch for them, since I knew I was way ahead of my plan. I wanted to stop to give them a quick update and steal a kiss from my sweetie. I found them at the beginning of the town crowd, they were holding the signs they had made the week before. Greg held the “May the course be with you!” one. Regina and little Garret held the Grumpy cat one frowning with the word “Faster” below its face, and my love Misa was holding the one saying “GO Mark! You’re a true Ironman” With a drawing of an anvil and hammer (since I make my living as a blacksmith). Some other memorable ones held by other spectators were “Chuck Norris never did an Ironman” and “Press here for a power up” with a picture of Mario and a mushroom. I hit that one with my hand. Again seeing my gang there waiting for me and cheering me on was a rush of good feelings. I was so excited.

The first lap was smooth sailing; the second lap was a different story.  I saw one guy covered in bad road rash, and still bleeding. "Dude you got the rash!" I said.

"I thought I'd get the crash out of the way early on." He replied as he bravely soldiered on.

I heard one crash behind me when folks got tricked by the steepest little hill on the course and had the wrong gear for that climb I suspect. There were several flat tires being repaired by the side of the road and you could hear a lot of people offering help. I always asked "Need tools?" but they always said they thought they had it. I do feel really guilty about one lady broke down beside the road. When I went by her I thought she said "Help need chain" and I said "Sorry no chain." And continued on knowing I left my chain tools behind to reduce weight. But after I got on down the road a ways I got to wondering if maybe she was actually saying "Jammed chain". I so wish I would have stopped to make sure. Sorry Miss where ever you are. I really hope you got help and finished the race.

It was a long ride but fun. It was fun passing the cars that were driving slow trying to get around all these cyclists.  During the second lap some racers blew past a bunch of us like they were riding motorcycles. I thought to myself "How in the world did I get ahead of those elite cyclists? Those folks must be extremely terrible swimmers. What did they do, doggie paddle the swim?" What I didn't realize until afterward was that I was being lapped by the pros and they swam just fine.

I enjoyed chatting up the other racers. We would often pass, get overtook, then re-pass each other saying things like "We meet again", "Well hi there old friend" "How's your folks" with each pass. It was a friendly way to pass the time. The pit stops were awesome too, the volunteers looked so happy if you chose them to get the water, banana, or shot block from.

One comedian was dressed in full pirate garb offering liquor. I passed saying "No thanks, but maybe after this." At that spot there were also a bunch of guys cheering only wearing their underwear. I still don’t know what that was all about. And it was cold!

Things began to mellow out a little around mile 80 or so, and even though I was taking my sea salt lick from my tic tac container every hour, I started to get a little weak and hungry. During training I learned around mile 80-90 I would get really sick if I hadn’t been taking salt. I was better during the race from learning this but needed food this time. The dark clouds off in the distance held off as long as they could. Then, as snowman Burl Ives said in Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer when describing the blizzard, "IT HIT!" The Louisville wind tunnel. Rain and high wind gusts had us all getting quieter and digging in deep to suffer through it. Leaves and limbs were starting to cover the road. Some of the wet leaves were sticking to my bike and body. It was tough but I wouldn't have it any other way. The storm made it even more awesome. The better prepared of us pulled out their arm sleeves and put them on. I was jealous of those folks because I left mine in my T1 bag. It was bitterly cold dropping a reported ten degrees rapidly. I watched my speed go from 20 mph to 10 mph during one of the many gusts. Some gusts were reported as being as high as 45 mph. I thought to myself "Alright Mark you trained in this crap just stay focused." From screw shoes for running on ice to night riding and running, from snow to pouring rain, I experienced it all during training as I am sure most of my fellow athletes had also. So we all just got in the aero bars and pushed. It was definitely the hardest thirty miles of the race for me. I was starting to count down the miles, I was wet, tired, hungry and cold and my feet were both completely asleep. "90, 95, 100, only twelve more to go, 110, can't wait to get on my feet and off this seat!" But I would have rather have had it too cold than too hot. Reduced sweating was the silver lining in that storm, I believe.

The Run

Finally, 112.  I see the transition area and try not to let my excitement distract me from slowing down and getting off the bike safely. I walk it to the hand off point where the catcher wearing rubber gloves (since some folks pee themselves) kindly takes my bike and directs me on towards my run bag. I had planned on telling him it was pee free but forgot to in the commotion. T2 went smoothly and before I knew it I was beginning my marathon run on still totally asleep feet, trying to wiggle toes to get some circulation going again. My friend Greg was waiting for me cheering me on. I mean the dude was excited. I swear I think he was hopping while cheering and running along. I knew Misa would be nearby and I think Greg went on up the run course while I quickly got a kiss and gave her a quick update. "I've got this Honey Bun. I'm going to be an Ironman I'm an hour ahead of my prediction." She smiled a big smile and rooted me on.

I continued on and after a block or so the feeling gradually began returning to my feet. I must have had my elastic laces too tight. And then suddenly there was Greg again still as excited as before. I was psyched and was really enjoying myself out there. Now all I had to do was run 26.2 miles I felt pretty good and I was making sure to remember something my Ironman friend Chuck told me earlier "Keep your emotions in check out there on the run." I had been through a lot as a caregiver but I tried not to think about it. I had enough grieving and crying episodes during my training, especially soon after Jenni's passing. I think maybe we all sort of unconsciously have our barriers up against the pain of the hardships in our life, and when one does these endurance sports those barriers can come crashing down from fatigue. We can look deeper inside during those moments. There is a strange appeal in that for me during training, but that couldn't happen here. I needed to stay focused and avoid sad thoughts, but the run was slower and the crowd could read my "Athlete's to End Alzheimer’s" Trisuit. Several people thanked me for wearing it. One guy said "Alzheimer's. Thanks man my mom had that."  And I immediately lost it. I know what "Had" meant. Of the top four killers of humans AD is the only one that has no survivors. But I quickly pulled it together and started using the aid stations for fuel and distraction.

We were pampered with a large variety of options through the whole marathon. One of the best things they had available was wet sponges. I grabbed one of those and washed the crusty salt off my face and away from around my eyes, it was so invigorating to feel that refreshed again.  I thought of the ancient samurai quote that went something like “Wash your face before battle to gain strength.”

The volunteers were awesome. I only stopped at the aid stations promising myself to run the entire final 26.2 miles. I saw my younger cousin JR who started this journey with me years ago coming back from the turn point already. He was about an hour ahead of me. We high fived "We're going to be Ironmans!" It was nice to see a familiar face in the race.

The turning point seemed far, but eventually it came and went and so did the first lap. I passed on by the guy offering free hugs the first lap but gave him a hug on the second, after another spectator cheered me for my Alzheimer’s tri-suit. It was beginning to get dark and the crowd was starting to thin a little bit, so I began chatting up other runners. It helped pass the time. Most noticed my heavy West Virginia accent to my surprise. I hadn’t realized I sound that much different from other folks, but I guess I should have known from Misa’s girl Violet often enjoying pointing out my way of saying “Up ere” for “Up there” and “Thee ate er” For “Theater.” But folks were nice about it. I wondered how many other athletes had to grow a patch of potatoes to help pay for the entry fee like I did. The lady from Chicago said “I wish I had a cute accent.” There was friendly Evan the accountant from L.A., doing his first Ironman too. Then the postal carrier lady that had the same job that Jenni did so long ago. We talked about that and she offered her condolences, and I accepted them. My watch alarm went off. I had it set for 9 pm for my chickens, “Time to shut the chickens up” I told her.

“You better hurry then.” She responded

Aid stations would usually separate me from my new last lap friends, since we would usually stop for some of those chips, coke and grapes; it was a feast out there.

Since my name was on my number bib folks would yell "Way to go Mark!" and such. One time a group yelled my name all at the same time and I thought it was Misa and my gang so I stopped dead in my tracks and walked towards them looking for familiar faces. They didn't mean for me to stop and said "No! No! No! Keep going!” There was one guy on a bike with a boom box built onto it, jamming music for us. Many spots had loud music going. A party I tell you. By now it was dark and they were handing out glow necklaces and bracelets, decorating the race with their pretty light. Many folks were walking now but I kept on running my steady pace, determined to run the distance, minus nutrition stops. About five miles left to go and I see a guy near an aid station waiving two toy light sabers. I asked if I could have one to finish with and he generously said "Sure thing man. Your goal is to finish before the batteries go dead." I started carrying it like an Olympic torch and stirred up the crowds again, hamming it up. They'd yell things like "This force is strong with this one!" and "Luke Skywalker!" I got a big kick out of that. It was truly a big party throughout the marathon.

 

Then, about three miles away from the finish I hear my sweetie yelling for me. I see her there wearing my Ironman backpack loaded with all my after race clothes. "Mark! You are doing good Honey Bun!" Then she started jogging down the sidewalk across from me. We kept our distance since it was against the rules but I was so glad she was there.  She jogged with that back pack the last miles of the race with me. Saying "We lost you on the track app. Everyone was texting me thinking you had wrecked or broke down. We were all glad to see you reappear!" Later I told her I must have been going too fast to be detected.

During the last few miles, jogging with Misa I teased her yelling in Japanese "Aishiteru!" The Japanese word for “I love you” used for when someone is going off to war or is about to die. It is very rarely used since it is way over the top in most circumstances. To my surprise she yelled it back, giving me a big smile. She was laughing about the light saber but I was going for it. I thought "My nephews will love this." since we enjoyed watching Star Wars together.

We could hear the music getting louder and louder as we approached the finish line. Misa said, “I'm going ahead to try to beat you to the finish line. You're an Ironman Honey Bun! I love you!" Then there it was the chute and red Ironman carpet up ahead, and me carrying that saber like a torch.

I see Greg giving me the loudest cheer of anyone in the line. The dude has a naturally powerful voice. He could be a boxing announcer, a General, or any other great orator of some kind. "Mark Spencer! GO Mark Spencer! You are an Ironman! Mark Spencer! WOOOO!" I was electrified. I wish I would have stopped and gave him a fist bump or hand shake but I was like a rocket down that red carpet crossing the finish line with the light saber held in both hands high above my head. The bearded catcher was awesome and obviously having a good time with a big smile as he put a medal around my neck and handed me a hat with a shirt in it then guided me through to the photo wall and on to Misa, Regina, and Garrett who were waiting nearby. I remember thinking "Oh that's why there wasn't a shirt in the package the day before like in most races. You have to finish to get this shirt. Cool." I didn’t hear the announcer call my name over the commotion, but I didn’t need to. Greg was my Ironman announcer; he was the first at the finish line to tell me that I was an Ironman. I am glad he was there.

JR and his wife and kids were there too. I knighted his daughter with the light saber and we were having fun getting pictures with everyone and our medals. It was truly an experience of a life time. I felt like a rock star. It felt really good. Finishing this for me was like saying "F#@k You Alzheimer's Disease! I will go on to have an awesome life! You can't break me!" I will never get over losing Jenni but I will get through it and have a great life despite the tragedy I have endured. That is exactly what Jenni wanted for me. I had tried to save her through a clinical trial that was looking promising for a time.  She actually regained her speech after taking the drug Bryostatin. She hadn’t spoken in around a year at that point. But sadly we were too late. So I had an intense need to have a win over something challenging. This time I succeeded, and it felt freaking triumphantly awesome. I’m doing it Jenni.

As always Misa cared for me after the race getting me whatever I craved to drink which was a lot, I was so thirsty still. She even helped me with some chaffing in an area I’ll leave unmentioned. It was really uncomfortable so I asked her to put something on it for me.  “All we have is some of the Hotel’s lotion.”  She said.

“Go for it. Anything has to be better than this.” I was wrong. It burned so bad I emphatically begged Misa to hurry and get a wet washcloth and wipe it off, which she did without complaint.

With me walking a little funny we went down and got my bike before turning in for the night. I had some teeth chattering chills and a “marathon fever” but recovered quickly. The fever had one bonus, I was really warm and Misa was still cold from a day of spectating, so she snuggle up extra close to get warm.

All that day I felt like I should be waiving a checkered flag, like I was on my victory lap. The next day with Misa driving me home, that feeling continued, like I felt as a kid after beating a hard video game, a deep satisfying feeling of accomplishment and it hasn't stopped since. I had planned on doing only one Ironman race, but already am thinking about doing another. I highly recommend it. Maybe in a few years, after I help Misa with some of her projects/dreams. It’s her turn. When we got back to her place I started sweeping leaves off her porch, joking that after all this “I’ll never be able to use being tired as an excuse to get out of work again.”

I came home and got rid of a couple of my struggling house plants, they were the ones from Jenni's funeral. Why was I keeping those?


© Copyright 2018 Mark Spencer. All rights reserved.

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