By Katie Stevens, guest bloger
My cousin, Jessica Agricola is my hero. Truly. She is a 31-year-old superwoman, with strength that would give anyone a run for their money and heart that most of us can only aspire to. As I write this, she is walking the halls of a hospital, recovering from a brain surgery that she had yesterday, texting all of her family and extended family members about how determined she is to go home today. Less than 24 hours after BRAIN SURGERY. She blows all of us away.
Jess was born with Hydrocephalus. Yesterday’s brain surgery put a second shunt into her brain, as her current shunt was failing her and had been for several months, since her last brain surgeries in August and October. She has had three brain surgeries in the past six months—nearly twenty over her lifetime—and today, she is happily texting all of us from the hospital so we won’t worry about her. Because that’s who she is. She has faced more challenges in her life than most people on this earth ever will, and yet she spends her days focused on her loved ones. I don’t know anyone like Jess, and I feel blessed to call her my cousin.
These past six months have been incredibly difficult for Jess and her family. To watch her struggle has been a horrible, helpless feeling. I often found myself doing my own Internet research, reading up on ways to volunteer for the Hydrocephalus cause, and really just looking for anyway to help … because it just seems so unfair that she should have to carry this burden on her own. So back in September, while out for a short jog, I decided I was going to conscript my entire extended family to run the LA Marathon with me in Jess’s honor. What better way to show support and respect for what Jess was going through than to commit to an extreme physical challenge? Her whole life has been an extreme physical challenge.
In hindsight, it was perhaps a little lofty to think I was going to amass parents, grandparents, cousins, siblings, etc., to run 26 miles through the streets of LA with me. But a group of them jumped on board right away. Initially, my parents, Jess’s sister, Erin Agricola, and my brother and his wife, Daniel and Jessica Freeman, formed our team of “runners” (none of us run regularly 😕 ). Those who didn’t run were excited to help in any way they could. My cousin, Allison Fitzgerald, named our team—The Penguin Posse—in honor of Jess’s favorite animal. My aunt and uncle, Colleen and Justin Martin, helped design our team shirts. Everyone got the word out and helped raise money for the Hydrocephalus Association. Our family—The Penguin Posse—came together for Jess and it felt GOOD.
Training for this marathon was hard. The excitement at the beginning—‘What’s 26 miles?! We got this!!’—was quickly sobered by the reality of marathon training. A person has to log a LOT of miles while maintaining a super healthy lifestyle for many months to do it safely. We lost a few runners in the process—Erin hurt herself, and my parents just came to their senses. 🙂 But my brother, his wife and I managed to stick with it, and we had no shortage of obstacles. Lots of kids to take care of and their germs to contend with, several colds and mystery viruses, jobs that got in the way, and injuries that almost knocked us out.
I can’t speak for my brother and his wife (though I am confident they would feel the same), but it was my cousin Jess that kept me going and helped me cross that finish line a few weeks ago. There were many training runs that hurt; many times my body just wanted to quit and was screaming at me that I was crazy for attempting this. But thoughts of Jess and the beautiful life that she leads in spite of her very real struggles inspired me to push through the pain.
My Saturday training runs were long—ranging from 8 to 20 miles (though I never made it the full 20 due to injury)—and offered lots of time to think. I spent a lot of that time thinking about Jess and putting my own life and challenges in perspective. We all have struggles and sometimes they consume us. But for those of us who have our health, and have healthy children, well, life could be a lot more difficult. Some of my long runs were brutal, with intense muscle aches, dehydration cramps, and fatigue at the end that would often make it difficult just to walk for the rest of the day. But I was outside running—for hours, in the sunshine, through the city, the suburbs, the Back Bay in Newport Beach and alongside the Pacific Coast Highway. Jess would give anything just to attempt that.
And so we did it for her. Every step of the way. The marathon was tough—every bit as hard, and at some points, harder than expected. But seeing Jess and our family at various points along the course cheering us on gave us the last few bursts of energy that all three of us needed to hobble across the finish line. It was AWESOME.
We set out to help our cousin and show our support for the challenges she faces living with Hydrocephalus every day. In the end, though, it was Jess that helped US. Each of us looks at life a bit differently than we did five months ago—we appreciate our health more, we hold our families even closer now, and each of us found strength inside that we never realized we had.
I will be forever grateful to Jessica for this journey.
And I look forward to my next race with The Penguin Posse …
|A NOTE FROM JESSICA: Words cannot truly express what it meant to me having my cousins run the LA Marathon on my behalf. My family has repeatedly told me that I am inspirational, but my team, this family, these runners are my inspiration because they gave me hope. Hydrocephalus is very isolating and often you feel that you are running alone, but after my cousins ran the marathon and looked as though they went out for a stroll, I was renewed in my faith that if they could do it, well, I could too. I’m sure many times they wanted to stop or turn around, but they did not because of me. I think the biggest thing they gave me was a reminder that I cannot give up because I have a huge team that believes in me and I’m not going to let them down. I may feel like my finish line is millions of miles ahead, but I know that they are waiting to cheer me on just like I had the honor of doing for them. To my runners and family, thanks for every mile logged and not giving up because I needed this reminder to never give up.|