Under the vast curtain of a steel gray sky, one girl stood alone at the starting line. While her fellow runners were seeking last-minute words of encouragement and hugs from teammates, she preferred to spend these last few seconds before the race on her own terms. Even though each runner was bigger, older, and more experienced than her, she was not intimidated. She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.
Inhale. One, for God – The first priority in life. Exhale. Two, for her mother – who had been with her through everything. For each breath, she counted, with a different inspiration filling her mind. Three, for family. Four, for friends. Five, for her teachers and coaches. Six, for every challenge she had faced. Seven for the scared little girl she had been. Eight for the woman she would one day become, and nine for whom she was at that moment and all she had done to get there. Breathing in deeply one last time, her thoughts were on God once more, and her absolute faith that whatever happened next would be His will. Exhaling slowly, she opened her eyes. With a mind that was clear and focused, she walked calmly to the starting blocks, smiled at the sky, and lowered herself into position. The gun fired, and she began to run. No one at the finish line knew that this quiet wisp of a girl who won by 10 feet in a 100 meter race had spent much of her childhood in doctors’ offices, Emergency Rooms and hospitals, agonizingly unable to do that very thing – run.
I come from what is known as a “broken home”, a term I’ve fought against my whole life because in my case, it was only one member of the family that was broken. Growing up with an abusive father took its toll on many things, but I’m proud to say he never broke me. When you’re four years old and wondering why your daddy doesn’t love you, why he screams at mommy and gives you bruises – both physically and mentally, there’s not really an easy answer for that. But when his eyes say that you’re disgusting and when he does all that he can to ruin every good thought you have about yourself, it’s easy to think that it must be your fault.
But worse than the taunts and the tears, my life was tormented by a terrible cough. Even before I reached the age of two, I dealt with a horrible, deafening, hear-it-through-walls kind of cough that would terrorize my small body whenever I laughed, cried, ran, or did much of anything physical. Therefore, the solution was that I couldn’t do much of anything. Instead, I watched while my friends had the kind of fun I’d like to have and tried to deal with the isolating fact that many parent didn’t want their children associating with a potentially sick girl.
When I was five years old, I had my first surgery. For months afterward, I underwent blood tests, sweat tests, breathed into tubes, and ran on a treadmill with wires strapped to my chest. I drank bitter medicines, learned to swallow monster pills, and had two more surgeries, each more extensive and painful than the last. My mother and I said desperate prayers every night before bed, pleading for healing but nothing changed. Doctors would wonder, “Was it a rare form of cancer? Was there a genetic mutation in my lungs? Would this blonde-haired, wide-eyed child live to see 20?”
Amidst all of this, my parents had divorced, but I still had to visit my father on Tuesday evenings and one day on the weekend – until one day, he went too far. I can still remember with perfect clarity that day in April when we went to children’s services to see the social worker. I can still remember the exact words she wrote on my file. “No further contact.” But clearest of all is my memory of the feeling those three words evoked. It was as if a dark cloud had lifted, like weights had been thrown off and that there just might be a small chance of being normal. When I woke up the next morning, I immediately knew something was different. Within a week, I knew what it was – my cough was gone. Within a month, I ran. I prayed the cough would be gone forever.
Years passed, full of easily tearing past the fastest boys in the school on field day, of laughter and sunshine, of making new friends and making up for lost time. Slowly but surely, I created a new life for myself. I had a close relationship with God, attended church, and memorized Bible verses for AWANA. I excelled in school, earned straight A’s, won academic and citizenship awards, and participated in every sport I could sign up for – softball, soccer, drill team, rock climbing, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, track, and dance. I even broke three middle school track records. I did everything with an unbridled passion and always gave 110%. I was determined to make up for each second of life that my father took away, to fill the gaping hole he left with the very things he told me I could never do.
As I entered my teen years, things began to change. My social life was getting more complicated as my friends started getting caught up with boyfriends, temptations, gossip and drama. Being mature for my age due to everything I had faced, I didn’t allow myself to fall into those patterns. I tried to help a friend who was in a situation similar to mine, yet in the end he chose a path of drugs and alcohol. School was getting increasingly difficult and left little time for family and youth group. I began to grow frustrated.
On March 28th, almost seven years to the day of when the cough disappeared for good, something terrible happened. During the first softball game of the season, I was asked if I wanted to play one more inning or leave for band practice. Being a competitor, I jogged out to my spot in center field. The first pitch was a fly ball. As the ball was hit I said a quick prayer to God to help me catch it, and then the little voice in my head added that if it was His will for me to drop it, then that worked too. I sprinted as fast as I could, eager to prove myself and start the inning off on a positive note. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground, and I heard a horrible cracking noise. I had collided with my teammate in left field, and both bones in my shin had snapped in two. All I could think about was the excruciating pain. Later, in the hospital, when the doctors told me that I would need surgery that night to insert a metal rod and screws into my leg, they asked about my medical history. All at once, the memories flooded in. I was forcibly reminded of another hospital bed before a different surgery, when I had almost given up all hope of being able to run again. Had I really been saved from that fate only to have it returned to me seven years later?
The X-Rays looked terrifying but the surgery was a success. My leg would never be the same again. During the healing process, I couldn’t do much of anything and the pain was unbearable. I had a lot of time to think and remember how devastatingly similar this situation was to my old life. It was an awful feeling, being broken again. There were nights where I would wake from a nightmare because it felt like knives were ripping my bones apart and the medicine just wasn’t enough. I began feeling like I wasn’t enough. All of the old insecurities I had fought so hard to forget plagued me, and I worried that this time I might not be able to recover.
The night before I left the hospital, I was lying awake as usual when I remembered something. It was the small, hopeful prayer I said in my head when the ball was hit, and my willingness to follow God’s will. If he didn’t think I could have handled the pain, I would have just caught the ball. If he didn’t know from the day he made me that I would be strong and courageous in the face of a horrible experience, I would have had an easy, perfectly normal childhood with a loving father. As I thought about it more, I discovered that the reason my 110% wasn’t adding up was because I was trying to do everything myself and I expected it to work out. I saw then that I would never be the perfect girl. No matter how hard I tried, there would always be a piece missing from my life – the childhood that my father stole from me. I had spent every day up until that point trying to fill the hole in my heart with achievements and activities, never accepting anything less than perfection. Deep, deep down, I hated the fact that I was flawed. Then, I realized that I was only human. Romans 23 says that all fall short of the glory of God – which means that no one, no matter how impeccable their lives may seem, will ever reach God’s standards of perfection. On my own, I would never add up, but with Him on my side, I could become a new creation. I could have a new beginning. Now, I embrace the fact that I’m flawed. I love my scars, both on my leg and in my heart, because they remind me of what I faced, and that ultimately, I was healed and made whole. I embrace the fact that to me, nine is so much more than a number – it’s my way of saying that even though I spent many years trying to make up for my broken past, I will never truly be perfect. There would always be one piece missing: a nine out of ten. And that’s ok. One day, when I reach Heaven, it won’t be because of the things I’ve done, but because of my relationship with the Maker of the Universe. It will be because I surrendered my obsession for perfection, my thirst to prove that I was enough, and laid it all at His feet. There, he took my nine, my pitiful, human, unworthy nine, and He made it a ten.
After months of strenuous physical therapy and learning to walk again, I remember when I ran for the first time in almost five months. It was painful and laborious, yet it was just as freeing and amazing as the first time I ran without coughing. Both days marked a turning point in my life, turning away from the dark days and towards the welcoming light of a bright future. For every breath I took, I counted one inspiration per number, the way I would eventually prepare for a race when I got back on the track. It’s my reminder of my favorite verse, Jeremiah 29:11, that God knows the plans He has for us, plans to give us hope and a future. It is my reminder that I can’t do this on my own, but I have the help of everyone who supports me, and of the Ultimate Creator. It’s my reminder that sometimes beauty really can come from ashes – because there I was, doing the thing I loved, against all odds. Resilient. Unbroken. Niner.