your connection to The Boston Globe

Loss fuels her resolve to make a difference

Kin of 9/11 victim is marathon-bound

Coach Eric Cressey spotted Stephanie Holland-Brodney at the Excel gym in Waltham last week. She hopes to run the marathon in under four hours.
Coach Eric Cressey spotted Stephanie Holland-Brodney at the Excel gym in Waltham last week. She hopes to run the marathon in under four hours. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M Suarez)

WAYLAND -- Grief is a never-ending journey, one that Stephanie Holland-Brodney likens to a marathon.

She shared these thoughts recently with friends and supporters in a fund-raising letter for the Boston Medical Center's team for this year's Boston Marathon. Her mother, Cora Hidalgo Holland of Sudbury, was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11 as terrorists steered it into the World Trade Center's north tower on Sept. 11, 2001.

On Monday, Holland-Brodney, 35, of Wayland, plans to run the Boston Marathon in her mother's honor.

It is the daughter's first marathon. She has transformed herself from a size 20 into a speedy, muscular size 2, and has a good chance of finishing in less than four hours.

"Dealing with tragedy forces you to dig deep and pull something out that you didn't even know was there," she wrote in the fund-raising letter. "I am finally at a point in my life where I welcome the challenge of 26.2 miles."

Holland-Brodney, a fourth-grade teacher in Needham, taught aerobics in graduate school, but she had never been a serious athlete before her mother died.

It just happened, though, that her first post-pregnancy run, four months after her daughter Amelia's birth, was the morning of Sept. 11. Out of shape, she could barely push Amelia and toddler Drew in the double jogging stroller loaded with sippy cups, Cheerios, and board books.

She returned home to the television coverage of the attacks and, soon after, to a call bringing the terrible news. Cora Holland, 52, was the sun that her family revolved around, a fun-loving and devoted mother and grandmother who showered her family with gifts and attention.

The daughter has been through many hours of therapy, but running is one of the things that has helped her most. Sometimes, running released the tears she had trouble shedding; other times, it allowed her to pound out her anger on the pavement. She filled her iPod with her mother's music, including Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, and Jimi Hendrix.

Last year, she started running races. When she would call afterward , said her sister, Jessica Holland of Highland, Calif., "I could tell how much more alive she felt." Holland-Brodney resolved to run the marathon after visiting New York last August to go to ground zero shortly before the fifth anniversary of 9/11. She saw runners streaming into Battery Park at the end of a half-marathon, including one with a prosthetic leg. If he could do it, she decided, she had no excuse not to try.

She ignored a doctor who told her not to run too much because she had too many physical ailments, including gastrointestinal problems and one leg slightly longer than the other.

She trained vigorously with the medical center's marathon team while working with a personal trainer and a chiropractor, all squeezed between making her children's lunches and grading math homework.

During her training, she rarely dwelt on her mother's death. She fantasized about what she would eat after her run, joking with her running buddies that her husband would need to dress up as a cupcake so she could chase him to the finish line.

On the surface, life for the Hollands has returned to normal. Holland-Brodney's younger siblings, Jessica and Nate, are doing well. Her father, Stephen, is remarried, to a woman who gets along beautifully with the family.

Holland-Brodney and her husband, Victor Brodney, shower their children with toys, as "Grandma Cora" would have done, and often curl up on the couch for pizza at night in front of "The Muppets Take Manhattan," another Grandma Cora favorite.

But she believes few people know how devastating it is to live, even now, in the shadow of 9/11. Although her son Drew was only 2 1/2 when his grandmother died, he has suffered terribly , she says. Now 8, Drew reacts with terror to fire alarms and talks about wanting to kill the bad guys. When the family flies, he asks his parents if fellow passengers are terrorists.

Holland-Brodney applied to join the Boston Medical Center team because it is home to the Good Grief Program, a bereavement center that has helped her family.

She has raised $4,700, but just as important, she said, is showing Drew and Amelia, who is nearly 6, that even a victim "can be strong and determined and full of confidence."

Last week, a worrying contusion on her foot forced her to cut back on the end of her training. But an 8-mile run Easter morning convinced her that she would be ready on Monday.

On her last loop around the block, one of her mother's favorite songs came on her iPod: "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher," Jackie Wilson's hit.

"It hit me right there that even though she won't be in Wellesley with the rest of my family or on Heartbreak [Hill] with Vic or at the finish line with my sister, I needed to feed off the love she gave me for 30 years and try harder, set that goal higher and run with my heart," Holland-Brodney wrote on her fund-raising Web page.

"Quite honestly, I wasn't sure how I was going to do it. Now I know. I'm going to run with my heart."