It’s 2023, and I just got done going for a run in my bright orange running shoes. I’m 41, recently divorced, a single mom now, living in Iowa once again after residing in a different state for sixteen years. Being in my home state again has provided a comforting landing spot to help work through a lot changes in life that weren’t my choice. One constant through all of this grief, though, has been running. What started as a hobby back in high school, that turned into accomplishing the “impossible” goal of completing a marathon (and a few more after that) in my twenties and thirties, has now become an outlet for all things both great and horrible. Running has become a part of my identity. It’s always been there for me whenever I’m ready to show up for it. And now, I’m ready to write about why I wear bright orange shoes.
Back in the summer of 2014, I found myself lying in a bed at a hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. I remember staring at the clock in front of me that was ticking just past 9:00 a.m. I was watching the hands of the clock while being told that the pregnancy was not viable. The baby was growing but in the wrong spot. I asked the sonographer standing to the right of me if the baby would still be okay. It’s a question one asks when in that first stage of grief: denial. She told me I would need to talk to the doctor. She couldn’t give me the answer, even though she knew the answer. It was an ectopic pregnancy.
I was only six weeks along, but the excitement had already set in. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be a mom or not. I had told myself I didn’t care either way. Then the pregnancy happened, and plans for a future of becoming a growing family made their way into my heart as I decided I did want these things. But then, that decision was taken away.
I remember looking at my bare feet as I was being prepped for the operating room. I needed to have surgery to remove my fallopian tube. My toenails were still painted bright orange from a pedicure I had gotten months ago. The polish was still in tact with barely any chips. I thought about the last ectopic pregnancy I had years before this one. That one also lasted around six weeks. I just stared at my bright orange toenails and thought, My pedicures last longer than my pregnancies.
In the summer of 2022, I was shopping at Costco with my mom and sister in Coralville, Iowa. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the store was full of people pushing oversized carts full of Costco-sized bulk items. It had been just over a year at this point since moving back to Iowa with my then-husband and son. The decision had been made to move here, put down roots, and raise a family. Now, divorce papers were in progress. Any hopes of being a family unit together were now being taken away by a choice I didn’t make.
I pushed our cart along the crowded aisles and past the section of fresh flowers. I noticed a bouquet with bright orange lilies. I immediately started to cry right then and there. The kind of cry you can’t hold back once it starts. It was a Costco-sized cry. If there were people staring at me, I didn’t notice or care. My mom came over and asked me what was wrong. I pointed to the orange lilies and said, “They’re just like the ones from my wedding bouquet.”
My mom handed me a tissue and understood, replying, “Oh…yep.”
I had decided to include lilies in that wedding bouquet since they are one of my favorite flowers. Lily (or “Lilyfair”) was a childhood nickname that stuck around for awhile, mostly used by my parents. It had become such a part of my identity back then that I would later get a lily tattooed on my ankle when I turned eighteen.
Now, while in Costco looking at the orange lilies, I somehow remembered my bright orange pedicure from years ago. And then in another moment of grief -anger- I just started to hate everything. I hated that lilies now reminded me of a marriage that was ending. I hated pedicures and miscarriages. I really hated the color orange.
In the fall of 2022, I was at the point of working through divorce and figuring out this new life as a single mom with a young child (and fur-babies). I worried how I’d get through this. I worried how my son was dealing with it. I had a lot of worries that my therapist still gets to hear about. But, I also noticed a shift of finding more moments of peace, more healing, more confidence.
By this time, I had gotten back into running, and now it was time to pick out a new pair of running shoes. I browsed the website of my favorite brand of running shoe and found that my favorite kind of shoe comes in a bright orange color. I thought of how I hated the color orange. But then, I decided maybe I don’t want to hate it anymore. Or rather, I’ve decided to associate the color orange with something positive instead. I clicked ‘add to cart’, and then clicked on all other buttons that led to the “Thank you for your order!” page.
When I run in my bright orange shoes now, I think of where I’ve been and where I am now. I think of all the times I’ve been at my absolute worst, and then I think about how I’ve gotten through those times. I wish I could say it’s as simple as “just decide to like a color again!”, but it’s not. It’s a lot of little choices made on a daily basis.
I think about the decisions I make in my life now, and how they will affect not only me but also my son. I think of how maybe I’ll get a pedicure with bright orange nail polish again someday. I haven’t had that color on my toenails since 2014. It may still remind me of that painful morning back then, but it will now also remind me of where I’m at now: learning (and continuing to learn) to make decisions that move towards a more positive direction, and working through the stuff that’s out of my control.
I think about how when bad things happen that we didn’t choose, negative associations can start to build up and make you want to avoid certain things. But I’ve learned that just makes the world become smaller, less bright, more lonely. That’s not where I want to lead my kid or myself.
I think a lot when I run.
My hope in sharing this is that if you need to hear it, it’s okay to be sad and angry and depressed – maybe even live in denial for a little bit. That’s grief. It’s okay to hate it when people say things like “just be happy!” or “time to move on” or anything else that feels like it’s glossing over your pain. When things feel like a foggy mess of chaos, it’s okay to be in that for awhile, but not forever. Working through things will clear them up a lot faster than avoiding them.
And when it’s more clear, and when you’re ready, you get to decide your color -your something– that helps get you to a place that’s bigger, brighter, more connected with others. It’s a place that can feel like home, and it’s where you may even find yourself again.