I had an experience this past week that taught me a lot of things.
I learned that life is precious and short. I learned that following my gut is always the right choice.
And, I learned that sweat, tears and solitude are healing balm for the soul.
For the past 6 years, I have participated in a women’s only bike race called Little Red Riding Hood. It is a century ride, which means 100 miles through beautiful Cache Valley, Utah. Farms, and small houses and open fields as far as the eye can see.
It is a fundraiser for the Huntsman Cancer Institute and is run by volunteers with the money raised going directly to fund cancer research.
About six months ago, I saw a post on Facebook about the Huntsman Hometown Heroes. It is a group you can join if you pledge to raise at least $750 before the bike event. In the past, I have just paid my $65 registration fee and signed up.
But, for some reason, this year I felt compelled to join the fundraising group.
At the time, I was nervous because this ride is super popular and always sells out. If I didn’t raise the money, I would either not get to ride or I’d have to cough up the money myself.
I had talked myself out of doing it ten different times but in the end, I just couldn’t explain why. I really wanted to join the fundraising effort.
I know several people who currently have or have had some type of cancer. I have known many people who have lost their lives to cancer. My best friend had breast cancer and I felt such sadness that I couldn’t do anything to help her endure what she went through.
On May 3rd, another dear friend of mine, Barbara, was diagnosed with uterine cancer.
It was bad. It was a very large tumor and had spread to her spine and also to the bottom of her lungs. This news, while terrible, didn’t worry me like you might think. We were all convinced that she still had good years ahead of her. That the doctors would be able to get it under control. I have written on this website about this friend before. I wrote about her ability to notice the small and beautiful moments that happen in everyday life.
She has a gift for finding beauty in the simplest things.
One day while I was visiting her, she said, “You know what I was thinking? Maybe you are doing this ride for me now. Maybe that’s why you felt the need to do the fundraising.”
I had been thinking this for a while myself and I told her that I would ride in her honor. I was going to get a temporary tattoo with her name on it and put it on my calf while I rode.
She was so excited. Every time I visited her, she would talk about the ride. She wanted me to text photos from the road so it would be like she was there with me. She asked me if I would buy something special and carry it with me on the ride.
Something that would go the distance with me and then when I was finished, I was to bring back this token and give it to her.
I agreed and was happy about her excitement. Every time I’d visit, she seemed weaker and sicker but she would always ask if I had found the object I was going to take on the ride. I hadn’t yet. I still had time. The ride wasn’t until the 6th of June.
She was undergoing daily radiation for about two weeks when she started having trouble breathing. She was admitted to the hospital and it was discovered that during those short, two weeks, the cancer had spread all through her lungs and she was unable to breathe. She died on May 30th. Less than a month after her diagnosis. I was there with her in the hospital. I held her hand and watched this beautiful person take her last breath. I was heartbroken. Everyone that knew her was heartbroken.
This was too fast. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Two days after her death, I realized that I hadn’t yet found the object to carry with me on the bike ride. This became more important than ever so I began searching. Then I remembered a story Barbara had told me about her love of wrens. The little bird had been a messenger for her during a hard time in her life and she had always loved them since. She loved the symbolism of the wren and even wore a necklace with a wren on it. This was it.
This is what I would carry on my bike.
I found a charming hand-carved wood wren online and ordered it. It was perfect. My plan was to attach it to my handlebar as I rode.
Race day came, and I was ready. The morning was cool and beautiful. As I rode, I looked around and saw things that I know Barbara would have delighted in. I saw two border collies lazing on their front porch. I saw a gorgeous patch of orange poppies. There was a little boy handing out free water to riders. He said, “I’m here every year!” I saw baby lambs, and ponies. I saw so many birds flying in formation. I could hear frogs and crickets. I thought to myself, These are moments. These are the moments that I want to remember. It made me cry and smile at the same time because I felt like I was seeing my surroundings through Barbara’s eyes.
I felt like she was with me.
I was riding with a friend who is new at the sport and has never done 100 miles before. We were riding a bit slow so we were behind schedule. The thing is, if you are not at the 70 mile mark by 2pm, they won’t let you finish the course. They just reroute you and then you’ll end up only riding 70. At mile 50, I realized that we were not going to make it at our current pace. I was panicked because I NEEDED to do all the miles. I made my apologies and separated from my friend. I am a fast rider and began really pushing myself to get there in time.
With each passing mile, I looked at the clock and started to feel a knot in my stomach because I knew I wasn’t going to make it.
I still tried with everything I had, but 2pm came and went and I was still 10 miles away.
I finally arrived at 2:30 pm. I was thirty minutes late. There were men at the check point directing traffic and bikers. I looked at the faces of these men and picked the one that I thought looked kind. I rode directly over to him and stopped. “Hey where are the course markers for the century riders?” He said, “That course is closed now. Been closed for 40 minutes.” I say, “You mean 30 minutes? It’s just 2:30 now.” He smiled a little and said, “Ok, yeah. 30 minutes then. But it’s still closed.”
I took a deep breath and said, “I have been riding with a friend who was slower than I usually ride, but I am now riding alone and I am fast. I can do this. I need to do this.”
He stopped smiling this time and said, “Look, I’m sorry. There are no more support vehicles going that way. The course is closed.”
So now I am really panicking. I can’t hold back my tears and I plead with him, “I have plenty of water. I can change a flat. I will support myself. I have to ride this century today. I promised my friend I would carry this bird one hundred miles. She was so excited, but she died a week ago and her funeral was yesterday and there is no way I’m letting her down. I can do this. You have to let me do this.”
It’s important to note that I am actually not just crying, but I’m like, sobbing. You can barely understand my words, but I am sure that my meaning was clear.
The man then said, “Just go. I’m going to turn my head, so just go.”
And off I went.
I passed three women who must have just barely made the deadline but were riding slow.
Once I passed them by, I was utterly alone. No cars, no people, no sounds.
Just me and my little wooden wren. I thought about Barbara and I cried a lot. Every now and then a happy memory would come into my thoughts and I’d feel happy and then immediately sad.
I thought about my beliefs about death.
I thought about this poem by Henry Van Dyke:
I am standing upon the sea shore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the
morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until at length she hangs
like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says; “There, she is gone! ” “Gone where? ” Gone from my sight.
That is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at that moment when someone at my side says, “There, she is gone! ”
There are other eyes watching her and other voices ready to take up the glad shout,
“Here she comes! ”
And that is dying.
And I realized that my friend is not gone. I just can’t see her now.
But I will someday.
I already knew this, but somehow It didn’t sink in until I was all alone on my bicycle riding that last stretch of one hundred miles.