A Reason to Believe

“You never know when a moment and a few sincere words can have an impact on a life.” ~ Zig Ziglar

There I was, standing quietly on the shores of Mirror Lake, hands on my hips, taking slow controlled breaths, trying to fill my constricted lungs with much-needed oxygen while cool water gently lapped at my bare toes. My six-foot-two-inch, 158-pound frame was squeezed ever-so-gently into a black rubber wetsuit and if all went as planned, I wouldn’t be stripped out of its tight seal until maybe two hours later that morning.

This was it. This was what I’d been talking about doing for some eight years or more. The rehearsals were done. The training was hopefully sufficient. My confidence was mediocre but my heart, oh how my heart — while still somewhat broken — was full and ready to take on the day. Without a doubt, I knew that if at any point my endurance started to waver, I would only need to unleash the love in my heart to find a never-ending source of strength.

It was 6:00am and I’d already been up for over three hours, as had my support crew consisting of my fiancé and one of my dearest, most darling friends who surprised me two nights prior. The rest of my support crew was back at the condo, perhaps rubbing tired eyes as they readied to come cheer me on later that morning — again, if all went as planned, or hoped.

The date was July 26, 2017 and the reason for the early rise was really quite daunting: my attempt at conquering the Lake Placid Ironman course. Simply put, 140.6 miles — 2.4 swimming, 112 on a bike, and 26.2 on foot — stood between me and the fulfillment of a promise I made to someone who wasn’t even there to see if I started or completed the endurance event. Someone who would never know if I succeeded or failed. But I would know, which was why I needed to be there.

As I calmly stood on the lake’s edge, I couldn’t help but start asking myself questions: How did I get here? Am I going to be able to do this? Who do I think I am trying to do this? Why can’t she be here to see me do this? Why did she believe I could do this? Do I believe I can do this?

So many questions, some with answers I’ll never know and some with answers I’d get as the day unfolded.

But all generating from the fact that one person, who I loved like a sister, believed in me. One person who said to me “You can totally do it Tash.” One person who helped me believe in myself.

One person, Diana Di Mare, who died from metastatic breast cancer six years ago today. One person who brought grace, love and hope to everyone and anyone she met in this world and who will forever be missed. One person whose kindness had no boundaries.

One person who made such a huge impact in my life in the short 11 years I got to call her my friend. One person who taught me the importance of believing in myself — and more significantly, the importance of absolutely, confidently and 100% believing in someone when doubt was shrouding their vision of the goalposts.

Is she the only one who believed in me? Absolutely not. My mother of course believed in me but isn’t that a mother’s job to do so? To believe that your child is the best and can accomplish whatever they set their mind to do? And isn’t a child’s job to doubtfully retort to his or herself, “she’s just saying that because she’s my mother.”

As for my other friends, both near and dear and far away, the chorus of support I was receiving was quite loud, and all singing with the same refrain: “You can do it!” Did I believe in myself from their support? Yes, but never as much as when my Dear Diana would say it to me.

Perhaps this stemmed from the fact that my first — and quite disastrous — triathlon was completed with her at my side. The swim portion of this Jersey Shore event was the first time I attempted an “open water” swim and the first time I realized I had an incredible fear of swimming in anything other than a pool. It was just a short, barely ¼-mile long distance and while ironically I found out after the fact that my feet could have touched bottom in the bay water and I could have walked the swim, I was convinced I was drowning the whole time.

To this day, I can hear Diana giggling as I was fearfully calling out to her and her telling me to relax and just do the doggy paddle, which is what she was doing. Several years later, we did another triathlon together in the same location and as I was panicking in the strong current, Diana was floating along with it, encouraging me to just “relax and go with the flow because it was so much fun!”

And in 2011, when I decided to tackle seven triathlons during the summer to celebrate my being seven years cancer free, Diana was there to cheer me on for all but one of them. Every time I doubted myself, she was there to build me back up. She was there to yell “Yay Tash!” as I crawled my way out of the water, gasping for air and swearing I was never going to do another race.

It was her standing on the shoreline, laughing, and saying “oh yes you will Tash…”

So when it came to doing the big enchilada — a full Ironman — of course it was her I told first and from the start, it was her who never doubted my ability. She believed in me so much that I really had no choice but to believe in myself.

Three weeks before she died, Diana and I were sitting in a bar in Lake Placid after we both completed a 5K run/walk. She did so well that I started to believe that she was going to be okay, that the disease was not going to progress. That she was going to live on for many, many years and we’d be those little old ladies sitting on rocking chairs on a porch somewhere like we also said we would.

But as hard as I wanted to believe, that’s not what happened. The monster that is metastatic breast cancer was unstoppable and took her from all of us. Six years that still feels like six seconds.

And then there I was, a year and a half after her death, standing amongst over 1500 athletes, waiting for a cannon to go off so we could run into Mirror Lake and start the 140.6 mile journey ahead of us. There I was without my sidekick, my person who always smiled at me and said “you can do it Tash!” with a smile that was truly heavenly.

It would have been so easy to stop believing in anything good after Diana passed. And honestly, I did stop believing. I felt mocked by my thoughts when I’d think about that bar in Lake Placid where I thought she was going to be okay. The only thing I did start to believe in actually was that nothing good was ever going to happen again.

But it did. Through the sadness, good things started to come my way and I had no choice but to take a page from Diana’s playbook and start believing again in the power of staying positive and being hopeful.

Six months after she passed away, I met the love of my life. And with two hours left in the day of July 27, 2017, I ran across the finish line of the Lake Placid Ironman course and into the arms of my fiancé, along with a cheering squad consisting of dear friends who surprised me with their presence and Diana’s sister, brother-in-law and nieces and nephew.

Do I believe she was also there to welcome me home when I came across the finish line? Absolutely. And not just from the small packet containing some of her ashes that was carefully secured to my running bra for the length of the race.

She was with me in spirit; she was there to whisper the doubts out of my head — especially during the 2.4 mile swim; she was there to keep me company when the sun started to set and I still had miles and miles to run. But most importantly, her belief in me was always there to bolster up my own.

What’s the takeaway? What’s the lesson to reflect on today as I think about her passing six years ago?

Perhaps the band Journey summed it up best:

“…Don’t stop believin’,
Hold on to that feelin’…”

Whatever it is you need to believe in, don’t stop. And if you know someone who needs you to believe in them, don’t hold back. I accomplished one of the biggest feats in my life because Diana believed I could and I believed in her, in our friendship.

Maybe you have a “Tash” out there who needs you to get them through their own “Ironman.” If so, take a moment to share a few words and who knows, you could make a similar impact on their life. You could be their one person.

Or maybe it’s you who just needs a reminder to believe that good will come your way again too.

Either way, in Diana’s honor today, I pray you and yours don’t ever stop believing.

My very first triathlon, done together with Lady Di…all smiles until I got in that water!
My first triathlon ever with Lady Di at my side….all confidence and smiles until I got in the water!

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Natasha W. Birmingham

Natasha W. Birmingham

I am a cancer survivor, Ironman, vegetarian, animal lover, kindness lover — overall lover of life. My goal? Write one sentence that makes someone smile.