Asking for help, let alone money is not something Erica (Henson) Lopez is comfortable or accustomed to doing. Yet as her life changed drastically in the fall of 2017, she learned to ask for help.
Now, with an opportunity to participate on the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivor (TAPS) Team at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, the Navy widow is looking for sponsors.
A man in uniform was the reason she laced up a pair of sneakers for the first time in 2001 and come this October, he is the reason she will do it again.
Little did she know at the time 18 years later she would run to honor the memory of her husband, Ernie. He lost his battle with a rare form of lymphoma on May 3, 2018. He was 47 years old.
“I started running for physical looks, but then when we got married we moved 3,000 miles away,” Lopez confided. “I didn’t have anybody and a week after moving to Virginia he got deployed. To keep my sanity and not cry from missing my family (we’re very close) and my new husband, I started running.”
This fall the widow and mother to four-year-old daughter Carsyn, will lace up and run not one but two Full Marathons in honor of her late husband, Chief Petty Officer, Master at Arms, Ernie Lopez.
The Bank of America Chicago Marathon is scheduled for Oct. 13, 2019 and two weeks later Lopez will travel to Washington, DC to run the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 27, 2019. The two events will mark marathons number six and seven for the runner.
“From date of diagnosis to his passing away it was exactly seven months,” Lopez said of her late husband.
According to the Valley native and Oakdale High graduate, concerning symptoms for her husband began in May of 2017.
“In September we were told he didn’t have cancer from his first biopsy,” Lopez shared. “So we lived a whole month as though he had lupus. That’s what they diagnosed him with.”
By early October they learned different and the battle to save her husband’s life began. Both natives of the Central Valley, the couple were stationed in Oklahoma at the time of his illness. Oklahoma University Cancer Center very quickly became their home away from home.
“It was very difficult to be away from friends and family during that time,” Lopez said, noting that her mother visited for extended periods to help with their young daughter.
“In order for me to really not lose my mind (while he was ill) I had to run,” she shared. “It cleared my mind, gave me time to pray and not really meditate but meditate. I cried a lot. I didn’t want him to see me. It helped me get that out.”
Prior to him becoming ill, working out and running was something the couple not only enjoyed, but shared with one another.
“He was like a maniac in the gym,” the runner said, beaming with pride. “He’d go daily. He’d run marathons without training. He’d just go out and do it. His health was awesome.”
His diagnosis came as a complete shock. As his health quickly deteriorated, the couple held tight to their faith, as well as belief that he would beat the cancer. Shortly following the passing of her husband, Lopez left Oklahoma and returned to Oakdale.
As she and daughter Carsyn worked to create a new “normal” way of life, she would periodically receive notifications from varying resources to aid with the grief process. In late 2018 she received an e-mail from Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivor (TAPS) with an opportunity for her to run the B of A Chicago Marathon as part of the TAPS Team. Not one to spend tons of money on registration, air travel or hotels for races, Lopez shared she tabled the idea – at first.
“I did it at the last minute,” she said of completing the application.
As a member of the TAPS Team, she is required to raise $1,250 all of which will benefit the non-profit and programs offered to the survivors of fallen soldiers.
“For 19 years, I was part of a community. There was a core group of us and I was part of them and now I’m not,” Lopez stated candidly, noting resources through TAPS which now benefit her and Carsyn, as survivors. “It helps me stay connected to my military family.”
One such resource is a Grief Seminar, which she and Carsyn attended earlier this spring. An event which she shared greatly benefitted her four-year-old, who is still learning to live with the idea that her daddy is no longer a physical presence.
“When we went to the seminar, I got to see firsthand how they do it (handle grief with the children). They just know how to explain things that I can’t,” she said of the experience. “Carsyn now has a mentor. Someone older who has experienced the same thing. Just to see the faces and know there are people like me.”
Lopez indicated that a lot of military personnel, as well as civilians aren’t familiar with TAPS and the abundant resources it offers survivors. Now as a beneficiary, she not only wants to raise awareness, but funds so individuals like her and her family may continue to benefit.
“Mainly just to complete it and finish it for Ernie,” she said of her goal for both races. “Running … each time I make a step, I think of Ernie. I feel like he’s being forgotten. If I run, I can keep his memory alive. I’m running because he loved it. He loved being active.
“I think he wouldn’t recognize who I am now, if he came back,” she continued. “He would, but not really.”
Lopez shared that prior to her husband’s passing she relied on his reassurance before making major decisions.
“I think I’m stronger because I’m running for him,” she said. “I think if I didn’t have my faith, I’d be just a useless human being and I wouldn’t have the confidence that I have. I have someone to talk to and that’s God. There’s always an answer. Even if I hate that answer, there’s an answer. Even if I think I’m alone, I’m so not. I’m just constant in my love for God.”
Lopez also acknowledged the love and unwavering support of her family as a critical piece to helping her not only do day to day life, but prepare for the marathons as well.
“I think people think I’ve moved on and am living this sunshine beautiful life when inside I want to scream and cry,” she admitted.
And while she may cry, those moments come mostly in the car or on the streets in her sneakers. Emotion she shares she does not hide from her daughter, yet tries to manage all the same.
“I think she sees that I don’t give up,” she said of the example she’s setting for their daughter. “We are faced with obstacles every day. Our favorite word is, “I’ll try. I got this.” I think she sees that we’re fighters and we’re not going to stop.”
And as for Ernie and what she hopes others learn and are inspired by, she simply stated, “Ernie is awesome. There’s no other way to put it. I think he would be proud of all we’ve accomplished.”
Persons interested in making a donation toward Lopez’s fundraising effort may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or make a donation on the Crowdrise website at www.crowdrise.com/donate/event/2019 ChicagoMarathon Team TAPS, Erica Lopez.