Graveyard Island on Lake Inari

The Mission

In Finland’s boreal forests, just above the Arctic Circle, the sprawling Lake Inari is peppered with thousands of small islands. One island known as Graveyard served for centuries as a cemetery for the ancient Sami, Lapland’s semi-nomadic reindeer herders. When the pandemic ends I will journey thousands of miles to spread the last of my father’s ashes around the island’s icy blue waters. Lakes were my father’s nirvana, a trait passed down over generations of Finnish ancestors, and maybe there he will find the peace that eluded him in death.

Three years ago the US embassy in Helsinki phoned our family with shocking news. A hotel maid discovered my 74-year old father’s body crumpled in a desk chair in his room. His colleagues had accepted his explanation that his stomach ailed after Korean food when he skipped his conference. An autopsy report determined otherwise. A simple surgery would have removed his ruptured appendix and saved his life.

But my father had a history of not asking for help. He was a proud, broad-shouldered, heavy drinking ox who rebuffed meddlesome doctors. A few years earlier I had to beg him to visit a hospital for a broken ankle flapping around after a lawn mower incident. He snarled like a bear when friends suggested a simple ointment for the pink fungus spreading like vines from his toes to his groin. I knew better than to try.

Was there a flash of light in his final dying moments when he realized his deadly mistake? Or did he drift into death oblivious as always? Alone in his hotel room, poisons seeping within, did he recognize what a stubborn prideful fool he could be? And that sometimes he needs to ask for help? Did he finally learn if God exists, after concluding so in his recently published philosophy book, God? Very Probably.

The week before Christmas my mother, brother, and I flew to iced-over Helsinki to identify his body and arrange for its cremation and shipment back to the US. My mother picked up his ashes at Dulles Airport in DC and we performed the dance of the American funeral as best we could. My father shunned staged diplomacy more than anything, so we slipped in enough subliminal references to his imperfections to keep the affair authentic.

Fortunately, I had plenty of material to draw on, having legitimately enjoyed my first decade growing up in the most eccentric libertarian family in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Family trips across the American West — and later the world — were wild misadventures where overriding my mother’s hesitations was half the fun. My father was larger than life, cruising past Chevy Chase’s mansions in his beat-up Toyota convertible with the roof down, dangling a gin and tonic on his right and an unused seatbelt on his left, as if daring anyone to stop the shaggy-haired libertarian philosopher-king. My father filled the family dinner table with foreign intellectuals, pumped them with alcohol, and then jovially explained why all their thinking was wrong. My friends were awed by my father’s bravado, strength, and sprawling personal library in our basement. There were at least ten thousand books. With a tanned, bearded face framed by shoulder-length dusty blonde hair, women mistook him for Kris Kristofferson. I thought he was Zeus, all-knowing and all-powerful and thundering whenever he felt slighted. I flew under his radar while I was young and he was preoccupied by his writing and tennis. Only later in high school did I sign up for the high school track team and everything changed.

The Gift

My father was awestruck when his diminutive, squeaky-voiced teenage daughter suddenly could not lose a race, taking the state and county cross country titles as a rookie. My dramatic come-from-behind racing style made for nail-biter finishes and Washington Post headlines. My family was mystified; no one in my family ran except after tennis balls. My father referred to it as the “miracle”. Only later did my Finnish grandmother divulge the hidden roots of my success.

She was thrilled to watch her 95-pound granddaughter claim the Maryland state cross country title in a final sloppy sprint across a mud-soaked field to pass the favorite. It had been six decades since she cheered her father Onni race the mile as a professional distance runner in Boston in the 1920s and 1930s. Her uncle Laurie was also a distance runner; as a young girl she handed him oranges along his 26.2-mile journey from Hopkinton to downtown Boston in the early decades of the Boston Marathon. Back then it was still just a gaggle of a couple hundred men. My grandmother explained that Finns ruled distance running at that time. Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn”, won nine Olympic gold medals. Finns claim to have the most guts, which they refer to as “sisu”, cultivated by plunging their naked bodies into freezing lakes through holes carved in the ice between sauna sessions. Sisu was on full display when the Finns thrashed the Soviet army in the Winter War of 1939-1940, where temperatures plunged below -50F. Not only did the underdog Finns block the Soviet empire from expanding westward into Scandinavia, they made the Red Army look pathetic, emboldening Hitler to invade the USSR the following year, expecting it to be a cakewalk. Instead the Germans became mired in a bloody eastern front that allowed the Allies to pierce the west. In many ways we can thank the Finns for bringing down the Nazis.

But when Onni died suddenly of tuberculosis at age thirty-two, Laurie burned his shoes in disgust, blaming his brother’s death on the Finns’ notoriously harsh training regimens for compromising his immune system. He never ran again. Onni’s wife Martha raised my grandmother alone, cleaning bathrooms in factories to make ends meet and settling in a fishing town called Gloucester north of Boston. Martha was still living there by the sea when I was born fifty years later. I called her “Mummu”, which means “grandmother” in Finnish.

My grandmother gifted to me Laurie’s vintage 1920s diamond ring, explaining that I had earned it by racing with sisu. My grandmother lifted me with “Grrlpower” long before it became a meme. I also inherited another power from my grandmother and Mummu. We all had an uncanny knack for finding four-leaf clovers. Years after their deaths I still feel their spirit every time I pluck a mutant clover. I have found thousands in my lifetime, also 5-, 6-, 7-, and 8-leaf clovers. I never find them when I look, only when I glimpse them out of the corner of my eye when I’m busy doing something else, like running down trail or riding a bike. I can’t explain it. I just sense them, the same way I intuitively sensed how to pace myself in distance races.

My initial rise as a runner in high school was virtually unsupported. My parents were so uninvolved they did not even buy me track shoes. I toed the line at my first state championship as the only runner wearing clunky Nike sneakers instead of featherweight spikes. Nor did I get much support from my team, which did not even have the five girls needed to compete as a cross country team. Old Coach Fleming mostly took photographs. Each race I was underprepared, undertrained, and looked like a deer in the headlights. At a state championship where I unexpectedly got my period and had no one to turn to, I shoved piles of toilet paper in my shorts and hoped for the best. But everything changed after I won the state cross country title.

The Self-Appointed Coach

My father was an economist. Economists tend to believe they are the smartest person in the room and try to fix other people’s systems perceived to be suboptimal. When it came to my budding running career, the economist in my father could not leave well enough alone. I watched silently as he pushed ahead without asking me first. I turned red when he tried to extort free sneakers from a Bethesda running store he decided should “sponsor” me. The perplexed pimpled boy at the cash register declined my father’s offer. Nor did he ask for my consent when he signed me up for the Footlocker invitational in New York as a bonus race at the end of my first cross country season.

On the November race morning the Bronx barely cracked twenty degrees. My teeth were chattering. I didn’t want to be there. I was still exhausted after the state championship and fighting a stubborn cold. I needed a break. Shortly after the race began an alien wheezing sound emanated from my chest cavity. On the wooded trails of Van Cortland Park I was alone as I struggled to breathe, with no adults to turn to as I experienced my first terrifying asthma attack. I stopped on the side of the trail until I recovered my breathing. I ran slowly for another two miles to keep the wheezing at bay until I finally crossed the finish line. When I got home I was laid out with feverish pneumonia for weeks, my longest absence from school. When I finally returned to the track I needed an albuterol inhaler prescribed by my doctor. The feeling of suffocation became a metaphor for my relationship with my father.

While I was still laid out my father continued his blitzkrieg, visiting my high school athletic director to demand he replace the doddering old Coach Fleming with a young assistant track coach with a reputation for being a hard-ass. Fleming’s light touch worked well for me, since I was already logging ten hours of travel soccer each week. Chronically underweight and fighting off colds, I was a risk for burnout, especially with my father’s not-so-veiled expectation that I attend Harvard or another elite university.

One night the ABC evening news aired a TV segment “Teens in Trouble” where I delivered a deadpan account of what exhausted teens face on a daily basis, with long hours of juggling school, sports, and homework under intense pressure. I spent the next day in the offices of alarmed school administrators. I fell on my grenade, explaining that the adults in my life made me exhausted, but never suicidal. I ticked each of the administrators’ boxes: I didn’t cut myself, I was skinny but not anorexic or bulimic, no one was hurting me, there were no recent deaths or divorces in my family. I was mortified when teachers took me aside after class to ask in hushed voices if I was okay. In retrospect this was my one opportunity to get outside help. But no one was a trained therapist. No one knew what questions to ask. I was in pure defense mode, trying to kill any embarrassing rumors that I was a troubled teen or that my parents were doing bad things to me.

The Mistake

Warmer spring weather improved my asthma and the next spring I prepared to race the mile at the track and field state championships. I only needed to finish top-4 at regionals to qualify. The month of May is hot and humid in DC and billows of hot steam rose from the track after a morning rain. A few steps into the regional race I felt my silver chain bounce against my collar bone. I had forgotten to remove a Navajo necklace with five colored stones after staying out late with friends the night before. Jewelry was not allowed, so I popped into the infield and unclasped the chain before dashing back onto the track. A line of girls in bright singlets bobbed away around the first turn. As I chased after them I realized how hard it would be to catch up in a race as short as the mile. What an awful way to end a season. I fought back tears. I was still dead last at the halfway point.

But passing the last-place straggler reenergized me. I looped around more runners, clawing my way back into the race. I thundered into the final lap, weaving through a thick pack of racers. I could hear my teammates Alpha and Maduba screaming and pounding on the bleachers. I hurled myself into the final dash to the finish line and barely edged out the fourth place runner, earning the last spot in the state finals. I threw up my hands as if I’d won.

A race official with a clipboard sidled next to me. His large belly protruded over his belt and a cap shaded his eyes. He told me I was disqualified. I was still panting heavily. My coach leapt into the infield to contend the decision. I had worn the necklace for only a couple steps. The only performance affected was mine. But the official stood firm. My glare could have burned a hole through him. Like my father, he had clearly never run a race in his life.

I was prepared for my father to leap into the fray, unleashing one of the fits of rage he displayed on the tennis court. But he stayed put. When I approach my parents at the fence I realized my father’s anger was directed only towards me. He slipped into economist-speak, offering unrealistic solutions engineered for a hypothetical world. You know, if you had really been thinking you would have run back to the start line to take off the necklace. I furrowed my brow, not catching his drift. There’s a rule against wearing jewelry, but I bet there’s no rule against starting a race late. I looked away in disbelief. Actually, your mistake was taking the necklace off in the first place. Probably no one would have even noticed if you hadn’t drawn attention to it. The suggestions kept coming, the whole drive home. Do you have a mental checklist that you go through in your head before every race? It was a solemn dinner at home.

The Downturn

Mistakes are teachable moments and I learned plenty that day: my father only showed affection towards me when I won. There was not even a flicker of warmth for gutting it out when the winds were against me. His friends found it endearing when he trotted me out at cocktail parties to brag about my victories, beaming with fatherly pride. But it was exhausting to have to win races in exchange for parental affection. Behind the scenes he took little interest in my well-being. As a teenager I once called my father from a party asking him for a ride home because I had been drinking beer. He was busy watching tennis and convinced me I was fine to take the wheel.

My father and I were rarely on the same page. He exasperated over the unevenness of my quarter-mile splits in mile races. He thought I was being tentative and timid during my slower third lap, intentionally shoring up reserves for the final fourth lap. But he had never run a race in his life and did not realize that even professionals don’t run even splits. He insisted that I lead every race aggressively from the front and hang on to the lead until I collapsed, even if happened mid-race. “Think of it as an experiment,” he explained. “To test your limits. Don’t lose your nerve.”

My father had no personal experience with the self-destructive side of distance running or the balancing act I was trying to hold. I felt powerless, like air was leaking out of my tires, and I never won another major race for the remainder of high school. The worse I performed, the more my father harangued me. The situation got even worse when my pubescent body started changing in the later years of high school, exacerbating the disconnect between my evolving physiology and my father’s assumptions. My self-confidence plummeted as I began to blame myself for my body becoming fleshier. One day I exploded into tears in my mother’s office and told her I never wanted to run again.

My father hired a sports psychologist to fix my flagging motivation and growing performance anxiety. It was the first time I met a professional therapist. When he gently asked the right questions I opened up immediately about my relationship with my parents. I was relieved to meet someone who immediately grasped the difficulties I was facing and assured me they were not my fault. But I never met with the therapist again. He couldn’t really help me, as I was not the source of the problem. I hunkered down, became emotionally numbed, and began to count down the days until I left for college.

Fly Little Bird

My father dragged me to every elite university in the country, whether I was interested in going there or not. He arranged interviews with the track coaches, even while I was counting down the days until I never had to run again. We trekked across each campus to find the main library so we could count how many of the political philosophy books he authored were in the catalogue. There was no pretense that the excursion was not really about him.

The only college visit I enjoyed was with my older brother (no parents) to a small liberal arts college in a cozy New England town, where my brother’s friend Jamie was a senior. Amherst College was quaint and focused on undergraduate education, not flaunting Nobel-prize winning faculty. It was nestled in the pine forests of the Pioneer Valley, surrounded by woodland and farmland. I could imagine being happy in the home of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, maybe even running.

My father made me apply early to Harvard instead. He assured me I didn’t have to go. When Harvard mailed my early decision letter in December 1998, my father did not wait for me to get home from school to open it. He snatched the letter and ripped it open himself. The single act summed up our relationship perfectly.

I did not end up going to Harvard, or Amherst, or any school on the east coast. I fled to the west coast to Stanford University. The school had the distinct advantages of (a) pleasing my father, (b) being thousands of miles away, and (c) never recruiting me to run. I couldn’t wait to exchange track spikes for flip-flops. But I never took off Laurie’s ring.

Second Act

Kicking back and soaking up rays on the laid-back west coast was supposed to make me feel less anxious. A Stanford degree was supposed to make me feel set for life. Instead I felt listless. I had scampered west like a frightened deer, driven into a corner. It was time to be the hunter.

Everyone assumed I lost my mind when I left Stanford after my first year. My stunned California friends thought Amherst was a community college. Confusing Maryland and Massachusetts (too many little east coast states), they believed I was returning home to have a nervous breakdown. I didn’t bother explaining myself to anyone. I twirled Laurie’s ring around my fourth finger and for the first time did precisely what I wanted.

There is no experience as liberating as dashing at top speed through fields and woods. I became the fastest distance runner on the Amherst track and cross country teams, finishing All-America at Nationals. But I was circumspect and scanned for signs that my coach was actually invested in my general well-being, rather than winning at all costs. The Saturday after the 9/11 attacks would turn into a type of empathy exam, which he flunked.

My coach could not understand why I was so personally shaken by the 9/11 attacks that I could not race at our cross country meet at Williams College four days later. I had not personally lost any loved ones. The other women on the team were all lacing up. I did not know how to explain to him why I felt shell shocked. The entire world had changed in the blink of an eye and I couldn’t care less about racing. He took it personally. I was belittling him and shirking my obligations to my teammates. He instructed me to stop being a prima donna and suit up. Shortly after the gun went off I faded to the back and dropped out. He lost it.

Being yelled at while you’re numb and shell shocked is a surreal experience. I recall crying and a creepy hand jerking my shoulder while he yelled and spat in my face while I stood half-naked in my race bikini bottoms. But I mostly remember feeling numb and strangely not caring.

My shell shock dissipated a week later, but my relationship with my coach never healed. I finished out the season, leading the team to a best-ever 7th place finish at Nationals, but the red flags kept coming. One day I asked my coach if I could wear shorts like the boys instead of the bikini bottoms. I told him I would feel more comfortable and promised to run just as fast. After all, it was a small concession in a body-conscious culture where eating disorders are a huge problem for developing girl runners. One of my teammates had been hospitalized.

He rebuffed my request, retorting that Women don’t look good in shorts. I had no more questions. My inquiry was over. I quit the team and trained on my own to run my first marathon in 2003. Winding through the five boroughs of New York City, I blew a kiss to Puff Daddy as I passed him. I was under-trained and after the race I spent a few hours at Beth Israel hospital with an IV in my forearm. But I couldn’t wait to do another. I was finally running on my own terms.


But even as an adult my father still could not give me space to break away and lead my own life. When I landed a summer internship in Moscow at the US State Department my junior year at Amherst, my father insisted on tagging along. I objected vehemently to his plan to rent an apartment in Moscow for the whole summer. He couldn’t even read the Cyrillic alphabet. I was just beginning to get past my recurring nightmares of him drowning me in a pond scattered with lily pads in upstate New York. I implored my mother to intervene. But he never listened to either of us. Fortunately the US embassy had mountains of security and visiting me was difficult. But the nightmares continued into my twenties.

After graduating college and backpacking around Southeast Asia with a high school friend I settled back in DC to begin a career in global health policy at the RAND think-tank. I wanted to craft US policy to help children in developing countries. But I ran into a headwind. My father was a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and there was too much overlap. I quickly pivoted to biology, wagering that my father’s complete lack of knowledge of organisms and cells might keep his fingers out of my work. I was lousy at biology labs at Amherst, but I was willing to do anything where I had space. I met a brilliant professor at Penn State and left to begin a PhD program in virus evolution.

“Why aren’t you going to Harvard?” my father inquired when I told him of my plans. Before I could muster a response he answered himself, “Well, I guess you’d be a nobody at Harvard.”

By that time I more easily brushed his comments aside. He may be an esteemed full professor but he was also a man who once kept a rubber band around his wrist to floss his teeth in restaurants.

Eddie was the biology department’s prized recruit from Oxford University. He did not mince words or suffer fools. He intimidated students — and faculty, for that matter. We worked well together and I completed my doctoral dissertation in record time. My friends were all on 5- or 6-year tracks, but I published enough papers to graduate after 3.

But one day I faltered. After being awarded the $4,000 departmental prize for the best dissertation, the committee had discovered a blemish in my record: a big fat “F” for a 1-credit seminar that I simply never attended. My GPA was still high, but the optics were bad. The chair informed me that the prize was rescinded and given to another student, my nemesis. I tiptoed to Eddie’s door, bracing for a thrashing.

When I blurted out my mishap Eddie laughed out loud. “What a farce!” He lamented that I lost the money. In his matter-of-fact British tone he brainstormed ways to fix the F by writing a research paper on a seminar topic. But in the end we decided it wasn’t worth it. By graduating early I would soon be making twice the income of grad students anyway.

I had finally found a man to oversee me who was reasonable, fair, cared about my well-being, and helped me reach my potential. I felt a twinge of remorse when I left so soon for the National Institutes of Health to begin a postdoc.

White Knight

The NIH happens to be located 10 minutes from my parents’ home in Maryland. Back in the family orbit I began to regress. Then I finally met Aaron.

Aaron and I dated a few months before he announced that there was a problem. He was not okay with me letting my intoxicated father drive me homeI after regular Monday night dinner with my parents. I was confused. Drinking and driving was normalized in our family. My early childhood memories are sitting shotgun while my father drove with a gin in his hand. Even today, the scent of gin reminds me of breezy summer car rides. The car ride was supposed to be my one-on-one bonding time with my father. I relayed his objection to my mother, but neither of us acted.

But when Aaron did not waver, my mom took the keys. She was not going to drive away the first nice Jewish boy willing to put up with her moody daughter. Eventually I recognized that Aaron was not being stubborn or difficult. I was just witnessing something novel: protection from someone who cared about me. A few years later my father passed out driving home from a party, drifted across the double lane, and crashed into a fire hydrant on the left side of DC’s Oregon Avenue. He was still passed out when cops found him.

Aaron continued to shatter my belief system. Our first summer dating we both ran the Highland Sky 40 mile trail race in West Virginia. He won handily but I had stomach problems and dropped out after 32 miles. The next morning I forlornly flew to California convinced I would never see Aaron again. He was the stud, I was the dud. I strolled along the beaches of Santa Barbara wistfully watching the pelicans dive, accepting that I had blown it. I was stunned when I returned to DC to find Aaron’s demeanor towards me unchanged. My mind had to do somersaults to grasp that I had not fallen off some pedestal. He was even more flabbergasted that I thought we were done because I flubbed a race. He didn’t understand my guilt and shame.

Over time Aaron became acquainted with my father and began to grasp the roots of my curious outlooks. Whenever I started to disparage myself, Aaron would call me out for intoning the voice of my father. Disparagement came so reflexively it was nearly automatic. We referred to it as my brain chip. I set radically different standards for myself and my friends, whom I never judged based on superficial performances. Aaron helped me set boundaries with my father (the drunk driving was just a metaphor for everything else). My father easily steamrolled me, but generally deferred to Aaron’s requests. My father liked Aaron because he fixed his computer and A/V problems and was willing to engage in heated political debates that the rest of the family had tired of. Aaron didn’t mind being “fresh blood”.

At times I tried to repair relations with my father and broach some of the difficulties I faced in high school. How it felt to have my legs cut out from under me. But he would brush me off, never wanting to revisit “water under the bridge”, the same way he never addressed his own problems with his father, which haunted him to his last breath. When I leave this earth I don’t want to be carrying that kind of baggage. Some people will think it excessive to travel thousands of miles to dump my father’s ashes in a remote lake at the ends of the earth, but they have no inkling of the distance I’ve already traveled.


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