This essay appears in this month’s issue of Mountain Bike for Her magazine. You can check out the whole fantastic issue here. I am so proud to be a part of it.
At least once a week, I assess the incline and wonder if today is the day I will pedal all the way up. Located about a minute from my home, the trail offers the ease of a quick ride while still promising a challenge in the form of varying terrains, fast curves, and lots of bumpy hills. After the rides, I return home to my husband who asks me how it went. When I conquer a hill that was previously out of my expertise, I relay the experience with joy.
“I got the one with all the baby head rocks.”
“Finally made it up the one right before the fork.”
But there has been one hill that remained beyond my skill level- the one by the water tank.
When I first started riding, I was too scared to even attempt the hill. Preceded by a steep downhill sloping up to an incline, I would ride the brakes the entire way, never allowing myself to get up to my maximum speed for fear of losing control. As I got more comfortable on the bike, I stopped gripping my brakes, but I still couldn’t manage the hill. I talked with other riders, learning the finer points of shifting gears, hoping knowledge would be the key component. Still, I continued to lose steam, never quite being able to make it all the way to the top.
At one point, I thought perhaps I should just quit attempting it. Having ridden it countless times, it seemed like an act in futility. Don’t they always say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? But I couldn’t bring myself to at least not try. What if this ride was THE ride?
Yesterday, I started pedaling, thinking not of the hill, but of my grandmother. At eighty eight years old, she is succumbing to cancer. Upon hearing of the diagnosis initially, I responded with the arrogance of youth. She was old. She had lived a good life. She had to go sometime.
As I hear reports of her slipping away, I can’t believe how callous my response had been. She is a human being. Pain does not recognize age or quality of life. She is suffering. I hate it, and can do nothing to stop it. All we can do it wait.
The cancer has entered her mind, causing her to become confused with day to day living. Some days, she doesn’t recognize her daughters. She forgets she is in a nursing home, and imagines herself in far off places- visiting me in Arizona, playing bingo with her sisters in Indiana. The days she is not in a fog are not necessarily more pleasant. The woman who took pride in living by herself is sad to realize she is no longer residing in her own home.
I talked with her on the phone, and a wave of relief washed over me when she recognized my greeting. Her voice sounded drained of life. Her normal exuberance was completely missing. But she knew who I was and I was happy with that. I asked if she got the card and photos I sent, and she said she did. She remarked on the pictures of my sons and how big they are getting. I hung up the phone content, thinking perhaps her condition was not as bad as I thought.
Two days later, the card I sent was returned to me in the mail. She had never received it. She had no idea what I was talking about.
I set out on the trail, with all of this information rolling around in my mind, combating my feelings of being helpless with momentum and movement. Her name circled through my mind, seeking a way to connect with her.
Of course, she has no idea I am thinking of her. But perhaps, some bit of my energy passes her way. Using my body in ways she can no longer fathom, I honor the woman she is and was. She is the lady I remember tap dancing in her kitchen just over a year ago. She is the one who pulled me on a zip line repeatedly when I was a little girl because she knew it would illicit squeals of laughter.
She is a Christian. I suppose I am an agnostic- I am not inclined towards labels. But regardless of faith, engaging in life is the best way to honor the gift that it is. As my legs pump, and I push myself further on the trail, I do it not just for myself but for her. I’m racking up the experiences. When I look back and reflect, I will take comfort in knowing I never gave up. I never turned my back on an opportunity. I hope somewhere in her mind, even among the confusion, she is doing the same. Hopefully she is reliving past tales, not giving up on having new ones.
I got the hill yesterday. Perhaps all of the rides have accumulated into new strength in my legs, or a better comprehension of technical expertise. But it felt more like a gift, a token from the universe promising that she was with me. I whispered her name, wiped a tear, and continued on my ride. I had living to do, and no way to know for just how long.
I stepped onto my pedals and went to meet the next hill, taking Patty with me for the ride.