You see that?” Mike Frondorf said, gesturing to his 22-year-old daughter. In one fluid motion, Heidi had raised her hands up, took one step forward and ever so gracefully tipped her body over to stand on her hands, toes pointed to the sky.
“That,“ he said, smiling, “is what I call my $30,000 handstand.”
Only Heidi would do a handstand less than 20 minutes after finishing her first half-marathon. Only Heidi would think nothing of doing this handstand on the steep, concrete riverfront steps of the Ohio River, in full denial of the peril of an ill-placed palm or sudden gust of wind. And only Heidi, soft-spoken, perpetually unassuming and as beguiling as the constellation of freckles that brighten her green eyes, would eschew any marvel at her impressive acrobatics. Handstands limber her, get the kinks out, right size her muscles, nothing more.
When I asked Mike what he meant, he said wryly: “Gymnastics lessons. Very expensive gymnastics lessons.” Then he smiled: “And worth every penny.”
Heidi has cystic fibrosis (CF), an insidious, life-threatening disease for which there is no cure. The result of a defective gene mutation, the diagnosis — confirmed when Heidi was 4 — hit Mike and her mom, Caroyln, like a wrecking ball. Since CF causes the body to produce thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs (it can also wreak havoc with the pancreas) their physician urged them to get Heidi into an exercise program to buoy her lung function.
Heidi didn’t take to gymnastics like a fish to water. She was strident about her lessons because it meant the difference between a short or long life expectancy. Similarly, she was strident about training for the Flying Pig Half Marathon, which she ran last weekend in Cincinnati and for which she raised $2,300 for CF research, because every dollar for this orphan disease could be the tipping point in finding a cure.
In many ways, the half-marathon was monumental for Heidi, but you’d never know it by talking to her. Ever since she was a little girl, she kept her disease hidden because she didn’t want to be treated differently. She went through high school forbidding her parents to tell anyone about the nightly breathing treatments, or the vibrating vest worn every night for an hour to loosen the glue-like mucus in her chest, or the two weeks spent every summer in the hospital for what Heidi referred to as “a tune-up” but what the rest of us would call hell.
Five years ago, on the first or second day of orientation at Xavier University in Ohio, Heidi, my daughter, Aidan, and her roommate Annie immediately clicked; forging what has become the Holy Trinity of steadfast friendships. It is a bond surely lifelong and true, due in no small part to Heidi’s example of how to live every day fully, as though they are numbered. Because for her, they are.
As a parent I thought: how many twenty-somethings get a role model like Heidi? When I first met Heidi’s mom Carolyn last year at graduation, I tried to express this gratitude, but I couldn’t get the words out for fear of crying. She, too, was in awe of her own flesh and blood: “She has never complained,” she said. “And I mean never.”
Through three years of living together, Heidi hid the nightly breathing treatments behind closed doors, she swallowed her meds secretly. She went through four years of nursing school, never letting on about her CF until she was forced to: She had to decline a rotation in the CF wing of the hospital because of her compromised immune system.
Which is why Heidi’s plea to raise money for the marathon was so powerful. It was the first time she’d been so public.
“I run to prove to myself that I can beat this,” she wrote. “I can and will beat cystic fibrosis… Although strapping myself in a shaking vest for an hour, inhaling 7 medications, and taking 30 plus pills daily for the last 18 years of my life sounds crazy, this is my ‘normal.’ However, I crave a new normal. I crave a life where I can make decisions and not have to worry about my health. The average life expectancy of a CF patient is 37 years of age. I am running to beat that.”
Not surprisingly Aidan signed up to run half-marathon with Heidi, personalizing her bib with Heidi’s nickname: GO FRODO GO. The two trained together on Cincinnati’s notorious hills; if Heidi was pushing the envelope a bit too much, she never let on.
Aidan said I didn’t need to drive to Cincinnati to cheer them on, especially since she was home the weekend before. So I surprised them, driving up to Aidan and Heidi’s apartment the night before the race. I further cemented my reputation as an obnoxious and overbearing mom when I jumped into the course at the 11 mile mark, nearly colliding with other runners, all so I could video Heidi and Aidan as they passed. My apologies to those I inadvertently elbowed.
Heidi and Aidan ran the entire route in tandem, finishing ahead of their goal and averaging 9 minute miles. As we gathered in celebration at the riverfront steps, someone asked Heidi to do another handstand for a photo-op. But in true Heidi fashion, she pretended not to hear.
So, I’m sorry Frodo, but this ever-vigilant photographer snapped you the second you began that first effortless arc. And while I know you hate the spotlight, sometimes the humblest of heroes have the most to teach us.
Blame your roommate: She said you deserved it.