October 21st, 2007
...I began my journey for John.
On a cloudy, windy October afternoon, I pedaled down the gravel driveway away from our waving parents and the home where we were raised. Coasting down a small hill I am keenly aware of the overpacked 60 lb trailer hooked to my back tire. I can't help but wonder, will I make it 30 miles much less 2000? I just have to. I keep telling myself this just has to work.
To any reasonable person,there were a million reasons to wait until the spring. Family, friends, and perfect strangers (yes, even the guys at the bike shop) were not shy in itemizing the list. Leading the checklist of a million cons, the not-so-minor detail that I am not a cyclist. In fact, I'm not even a "wanna be" cyclist. Consequently, I have not trained for this cross country jaunt. My 1995 Specialized Rockhopper, which for the better part of 2 years could be found in pieces in the closet, is the bike I was "riding." The last time the bike was in motion I rode 30 miles. That jaunt left me limping for 2 days.
Next on the list, I'm alone. My bike path to California is Route 66. The storied "Mother Road" has some desolate stretches where cell phone reception is poor and campgrounds limited.
The wind, the mountains, the snow.
Check, check, and check.
These were all valid points, valid reasons not to go. The betting odds of this endeavor; one million reasons to fail vs. one reason to try. I knew I would most likely fail to make it through one state much less seven, but time was of the essence. The one reason for this effort could be found at the end of that 2000 mile road. The single reason to at least try, was my brother John.
To spend 5 minutes with John you would understand. He was an original, truly one of a kind. It is rare to find someone so genuine, without any pretense or expectation for favors returned. He was the best of the five of us. The brother that always forgave, kept everyone laughing, thoughtful and humble. The loyal friend and dedicated husband. John's optimism was unshakable, his passion for life contagious. He loved a good party and would move with ease from the welcoming host, to the cook, bartender, organizer of backyard games, and storyteller. Everyone liked John, people just naturally gravitated towards him. He was my trusted friend and brother, and he was sick. Very, very sick.
The first small uphill climb, not even a mile from the house, rattles me. This is a new touring bike. It feels big and clumsy under my 5'2" frame. My fingers barely reach around the padded handlebars. The kindly bikeshop crew gave me the CliffsNotes on locking and unlocking from the clipless pedals. I had yet to master this operation from beyond the parking lot, especially in a pinch.
As I struggle against the small incline I am reminded I need to climb a mountain or two to reach John. If this is a present indicator for future success, I'm in trouble. At this point I am barely moving, compromising my situation by panicking and shifting up instead of down-gear. Click, click, damn! In 15th gear the opposing forces of the incline before me and the trailer pulling behind me net in my inability to move the pedals. With both feet locked-in I'm dropping like a rock with the falling bike. Mental note to self, learn your gears.
As I ride down the shoulder dodging potholes, my fingers start to tingle before turning numb. This quickly becomes the least of my worries as I feel the chain derail while speeding downhill with 4 lanes of traffic to my left. I have cycled all of 4 miles.
Coasting to Joliet today is out of the question due to a thankless headwind. I rarely hear the sweet zzzzzzz of my chain. I left my water bottles on the kitchen counter, all 4 of them, filled with ice cold water. A slightly regrettable oversight as I reach a stretch of cornfields.
John can't drink anything. Oral cancer is especially cruel because it can take away your ability to swallow while your thirst and hunger remain intact. I imagine my brother smells the neighbor’s barbecue but doesn't attend. It's too hard to be around food. He's keeping to himself more than usual these days. He fears no one can understand him when he speaks. His tongue has been partially removed and his mouth is completely numb. His breakfast, lunch, and dinner come through a feeding tube. We make each other a promise, someday soon we'll have prime rib and chocolate shakes together.
Amid the stoplights, moving gray pavement, and whistling traffic, I see my brother's face and hear his voice. I hope this endeavor will provide him with much needed reprieve from the financial strain of cancer. I prepare myself to shamelessly ask friends and strangers alike to help my brother win this battle.
His story is not unlike others with cancer, but he is unlike anyone I know.
This just has to work, I keep telling myself. This just has to work.