This past Saturday, I had the privilege of teaching my advanced mat Pilates class to a very experienced group of students including my friend, surrogate mother and fellow marathoner, Teresa. Teresa and her husband Steven have been students of mine since my son Alex was sitting in a stroller, in my spin class at 5AM while my husband was working on the West Coast! We have seen her son perform in a middle school performance of Dr. Seuss Seussical, the Musical and followed his path through UConn, graduation and Teach for America. Teresa has been a huge help as a fellow only child, working mom with her own business- she reminds me that EVERYTHING is normal when you have a kid and own your own business and has been a much needed cheerleader, voice of reason and friend for me for the past 14 years. She and her husband drive 25 miles each way to take my class every Saturday morning and that dedication means the world to me!
Earlier this year, Teresa texted me that she needed to speak with me about something very important. Now, I never use the phone, but my intuition made me call her right back to talk. She let me know, through tears, that she had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer. She had a plan, she was heading to Mass Gen for treatment, was still running the 2016 Boston Marathon that she had qualified for and that she had not only been OK’ed by her doctors to run, she had also been cleared to continue with her Pilates practice as well. I felt like somebody had pulled all of the air out of my body. I didn’t know what to say, but I spoke anyway, “Well, of course you are running the marathon. Of course, there is no doubt in my mind- you have to! We so have this….I know we do.” I said and forced no tears and a smile. There was no other option. Teresa’s voice was breaking as she went on, “I felt the tumor because of Pilates, because I had such leanness in my midsection, I noticed it right away and had it checked out.” As I was listening, my heart started to climb higher in my throat, but I choked it back down and said, because I knew this was what she needed to hear, “Well, you do know, you cannot expect me to back off on you- ever, you are my star student….I am going to push you just as much as I always have- no mercy!” And gave a little evil laugh. Then pulled the phone away so she didn’t hear the sob that was at the top of my throat that I had tried to contain for the entire conversation but couldn’t hold anymore. I recovered very quickly without her hearing and we continued to speak about how my plans for her Pilates training would never change, nor should she change her running program at all- basing both on how she felt and how her chemotherapy went. She started very shortly after and I will admit, the first time she was back in class, I was a little scared. But, when she walked in, she looked the same, talked the same and took the same normal beating that I dole out to my advanced group. In fact, I did have to shame some of the 20 somethings in the room a few times- calling attention to, “Once again, check it out- let’s all look at where Teresa is- that is what I am talking about. Four more. Mmmmm- let’s all watch Teresa again. There it is- that is how you do a rollover properly.” To which I got many an unknowing whine- “But, she’s been doing it for a long time. You’ve been teaching her for years!” and I wanted to scream- this woman is 63 years old, in the best shape of any of you in this room- has bile duct cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, working full-time and training for the Boston Marathon and comes here every week. But, I didn’t, I just kept teaching that group the same way I have every Saturday since then….in fact, what struck me halfway through the class was that, with Teresa in class, I had been able to even make it more challenging- which everyone has loved! I wanted to say, “Yes, Teresa is different from all of you- today and everyday. If I dared to make a class she came to any easier, she would slap me. If I cut her any slack or gave her an out, she would- well, I just wouldn’t go there. I will give Steven a lot more slack!”
My plan is to continue to keep pushing my friends and their fellow students. They peel their sweaty selves off of their mats every Saturday morning at 9:55AM- this past Saturday, there were puddles and we had probably heated the room an extra ten degrees. But, a couple students had made a couple adjustments, gotten just a little more juice out of one exercise and Teresa, my student for over 14 years, exclaimed that, at “that point” in the rollup when I stopped them and made sure they were all drawing the scapula toward each other so that it really was thoracic flexion and not just shoulder protraction (these students are all smart cookies and like all that jazz!) she finally got it. I heard a very great Pilates instructor once said, “It takes a good teacher seven years to even understand Pilates”. I would say that is the case for a lot of things. My friend Teresa has been one of my greatest teachers- of life, of living and giving and supporting, of coaching and teaching others. I am grateful to play just a little part in her life journey and I certainly hope that by maintaining and strengthening the challenges that I am offering Teresa, Steven and my Saturday morning crew, we keep propelling her along the path to greater health. After her first class back, Steven gave me a hug on the way out and I had to choke back tears because he spoke a thousand words in that embrace. I had no idea what would happen in that class, however, I didn’t change a thing- I corrected, challenged and taught them the Pilates that they drove 50 miles for that day and that was absolutely the right decision a few months ago and still is today. Because learning how to move better can help with so much more than just what you are doing on that Pilates mat- it can help you survive some of life’s greatest challenges.