There are some things in life that cannot be cured, but only outlasted. Things that only time and scar tissue can begin to cover. Or perhaps a marathon: 26.2 miles of rubber-slapping asphalt, of nipple-chafing, muscle-cramping, blister inducing, where-have-I-been and where-am-I-going and what-makes-me-think-I-can-finish?
And the pace is of no consequence. There are 38,000 or so runners who complete the New York City Marathon each year. Among them, one man's 12-minute mile is an act of utter laziness, while another plodding at the same pace is undertaking an act of catharsis and courage. This column is about one of the latter.
In less than a year, he had lost his mother,
It was Roseann who first showed Downey what it meant to be a professional protector. She worked 25 years as an NYPD crossing guard in Brooklyn's East New York neighborhood, and had an off-duty habit of coming outside to shuttle kids across the road on the regular occasion when the street-lights blinked out. "Roseann was like the mother of the whole neighborhood," said
Roseann was always waiting at home to let him know that he could keep going, that everything would be all right. She had a gift for giving comfort; one that Downey inherited, and that, in moments of upheaval, would become his most precious skill.
Five years before he finished the 2008 edition of the five-borough classic, on Oct.15, 2003, Downey had just completed a court appearance in Manhattan and was heading for the ferry back to his precinct in Staten Island. He had barely missed the previous boat, and grudgingly settled down with a jumbo pretzel to wait for the 3 p.m ride. It was a fateful delay.
Twenty minutes after it launched, Downey and many of the other 1,500 passengers realized that the
A crush of passengers fled the horrific sounds of glass shattering and metal grinding on concrete. Some, in a panic, moved to jump overboard. Downey knew he was the last line of defense between the frightened wave of commuters and the cold autumn water where the Hudson River spills into the Atlantic Ocean. As he, and many other officers did on 9/11 when it came time to help, Downey put his own fear and anger on hold.
Downey bellowed in his New Yawk accent, telling passengers -- even a man who lost both legs below the knee -- that it would be OK. He told them that they needed to stay onboard, to move to the highest part of the boat, in case it began to sink, and to spread along both sides so as not to cause the ferry to list. In that moment of chaos, when the tether of order and authority on the human mind is threadbare, the people listened. They stepped back from the edge, and spread out.
Retired NYPD lieutenant
In February 2007, 11 months after his mother died, Downey's mother-in-law left him behind as well. This was not the normal in-law relationship. Janet was a second mother.
Back in 1983, when Roseann would walk Downey to kindergarten, Janet was by her side. Downey's future wife,
But the two kids lost touch when Christina was a teenager and her family moved to Long Island. It was when Downey was in college at Molloy, often too tired -- from a combination of studying, baseball, and working at his uncle's gas station -- to make the commute home, that he reconnected with Christina. They fell in love over those long nights and Janet's cooking. On Christmas morning in 2000, Christina woke up wearing the ring that Downey had clandestinely slipped on her finger. Those were the happy memories before Janet withered so drastically away from lung cancer that she needed Downey to carry her, in her wheelchair, up and down the stairs.
When she died, Downey heaved as seismically and bawled as deeply as when his own mother had passed. Both times, "he hugged me and just cried hysterically," recalls Downey's brother-in-law Robert. "He stayed there for two or three minutes."
As rookie marathoners tend to learn the hard way, the marathon pays little deference to one's life trials prior to race day. Somewhere around the Queensboro Bridge at mile 15, Downey started hurting. Bad. He texted his cop buddy
A few miles later, Sean texted back, and he knew just what to say: "Go get your mother, she's waiting at the finish line."
Downey had to finish, to let his mother, wherever she was, know that he could do it. There are a lot of things he wants to her know. He wants her to know how angry he was that she refused to go to the doctor, and that his kids,
He wants her to know that even though he moved away to Staten Island, he hasn't forgotten where he came from. Walking through his old neighborhood, he still points out the shuttered drug dens, and some of the men who once frequented them. He still says a quick 'hello' to
On that same block, he says his "hello's" at Blessed Sacrament where his parents were married, where he was baptized, and where his mother's funeral was held. Down the street is the building that once housed the bar where his father spent far too many glassy-eyed hours.
He wants his mother to know, though, that her ex-husband has been dry for five years, and all because of her son. One day in 2004, Downey got a frantic call from his grandmother. In another drunken stupor, Downey's father had left the stove on all night, and could have burned down the house where he lived in the basement, beneath Downey's grandmother, aunt, and uncle. Downey went over and ripped the stove out of the wall, and moved it upstairs. It was the wake up call his father needed.
He wants her to know that he's going to be all right, even without her. John Jr., at the ripe age of 2, told him so on the morning of her wake, when he spotted daddy at the bottom of the stairs, sweating and crying upon return from his morning run.
He's going to be all right. After all, like thousands of others who will cross the line on Sunday no matter the pace or the pain, he proved to himself, on a special New York City day that comes around every November, that one thing he can do is continue.