BOSTON — I’d seen that look on my dad’s face before.
It was the one where he tries to use a wide, almost painful looking smile to suppress the tears that make his watery blue eyes shine. I have come to believe it is his best effort in suppressing emotions that, even at 70, he’s still not entirely comfortable with feeling.
But on this day, embracing discomfort would be our family’s unofficial theme.
When I was a freshman in college, I received a letter from my dad that was meant to convince me of my potential. I was homesick and uncertain that I needed a college education, while my father was determined to see me do things I didn’t even imagine for myself.
In closing that letter, he outlined his dreams for his three oldest children. I’d be a famous prosecutor, while my brother would teach high school and coach the sports at which he’d excelled — basketball and wrestling.
He reserved his most grandiose dreams for the kid sandwiched in between the spotlight-seeking oldest child and the only boy, more often referred to as ‘the golden child.’ Michelyn, or as we call her, Mikie, he predicted, would compete in the Olympics as a distance runner.
The letter had its intended purpose, and I stayed in school. I did break his heart, just a little, when I announced I’d be a writer instead of a lawyer. My sister, just 16 months younger than me, did not run in the Olympics. Instead, she let a negative coach convince her she wasn’t good enough, and eventually, the young woman who placed fifth in the state (Alaska) cross-country meet as a freshman quit running altogether.
Last Monday, 31 years after my dad penned that letter to me, we stood together, covered in plastic on a Boston street corner. We were sandwiched between strangers, battered by rain and wind, tortured by frigid temperatures, but elated at the prospect of seeing my sister finish her first Boston Marathon.
Raising children has to be the most rewarding, maddening, fulfilling and heartbreaking experience a human being can have. That’s because your hopes and dreams become entangled in the desires and decisions of people over whom you may have influence, but whom you definitely do not have control.
They may never see in themselves the beauty, talent and potential that you see. They may never believe all the opportunities that you know exist for them. And they may never have the life that you want or envisioned for them.
Children take their parents on a ride they cannot prepare for, and it challenges them in ways that will re-shape and re-define everything they know of themselves and of life.
No one exemplifies this painful, beautiful truth like my sister, Mikie Pylilo.
She dropped out of college after one semester, married by 19, had a baby by 20, and divorced by 21. She has overcome abuse, poverty and an eating disorder. She worked two jobs to put herself through college while raising her son, and gave up a career in journalism to become one of the few women working as an Alaska state trooper.
She has been consistently underestimated and undervalued, and she has proved her worth more times than I can count. From wrestling fleeing suspects to the ground to investigating the murder of two police officers, she has shattered stereotypes and broken barriers — all while being second-guessed and doubted.
Mikie Pylilo has struggled mightily, and she has emerged a successful, determined, hilarious, tough-as-nails woman who no one, not even my overly optimistic mom or my grandiose-dreaming dad, saw coming.
The longer we waited, the more we worried.
Of course, we joked as we rode the train that morning, the weather on marathon day would be the worst in 30 years. Nothing my sister has achieved has been easy, so why should running her first Boston Marathon be an exception?
We kept minds off the fear we felt by cheering for strangers at mile 16. We’d chosen this spot because it was where she’d struggled in most of her other marathons. If we had to see her in only one place, we reasoned, it should be when she’s struggling the most.
The updates we’d signed up for stopped coming. We started sharing our fears, wondering if the cold had forced her to slow down or drop out.
And then, just like she always does, Mikie surprised us by showing up laughing and joking like this was everything she’d planned. She stopped to hug my dad and her daughter, and then she impatiently waited for her big sister to take a few pictures.
If I am lucky enough to grow old, I will never forget how happy she looked in that moment. This, I thought, makes up for a lot of rough days.
My dad, as he released her from his embrace, emanated that same pride I felt when I read his hopes for us as a lonely college freshman in a sparsely decorated dorm room.
We missed her crossing the finish line but met her in the designated area for families to meet runners. She was already shivering badly, so we used our bodies to make a changing area for her, and then we made our way to the train.
That night we celebrated with one of the worst restaurant experiences I’ve ever had. It took more than two and a half hours to get our food, which was mediocre — at best.
None of that mattered.
The party was so beautiful, we didn’t want it to end. As I looked at my sister, sitting at a table surrounded by her family, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky I feel to be her sister. She is the reason I ever attempted a marathon, and she’s talked me into a lot of my favorite experiences. Having a sister like her is like having a secret weapon.
Somehow the fact that she’s never let failure define her makes me feel more capable of rising to the challenges in my own life. From the time we were toddlers, her courage has somehow become my own.
I think her toughness and resilience comes from her ability to embrace discomfort. She doesn’t just endure pain, she transforms it. And on a relentlessly rainy day in Boston last week, it allowed her to give herself, and those who love her most, a magical day of dreams fulfilled.