Life is definitely different this summer, than it was last summer. It’s hard to say whether or not things are back to normal, because I don’t really know what normal means. It’s been so many years since I’ve had a predictable routine, I don’t even know if I would recognize normal if I found it preserved in the back of the fridge. Between the unknown day-to-day of cancer treatment, the move from Tampa to Atlanta, the financial losses in our business and then an unexpected return to profitability for the business, watching Dominic change from a little baby into a handsome and smart little boy, Angela’s transition from one career to another and all the other surprises of the past 3-4 years, I don’t expect similarity from one month to another, let alone one year to another.
Life has been busy, but in a good way. Whereas last summer was marked over and over by managing exhaustion, nausea and pain, this one has simply been busy with work, life and play. Blog writing has not been at the top of my priority list. Hey, I heard that “no shit?” comment. Calm down, I can explain…sort of. Everybody is busy, but I feel like I keep particularly busy, and even by my own standards, the past month has been dizzying.
The month that has passed since my last entry was also unfortunately marked, repeatedly, by death. Early in May, I was saddened to read about the passing
of a fellow young adult cancer blogger from Boston. Her name was Sarah Feather and she was an excellent writer, a mom and we even had the same birthday. Her Ovarian Cancer finally defeated her body. Then, about two weeks later, our little friend with the big smile, Jack Williamson took flight to begin his next great journey. His body had become completely overcome by the Neuroblastoma tumor rapidly spreading up from his leg and his care team had to constantly deliver high potency medication just to keep out the most intense waves of pain. He faced his final week with bravery and a pure heart. Angela went to visit him about 4 days before he died and she says he already looked like he had found peace
And finally, on June 2, Angela and I made the incredibly painful decision to put our beloved Ernie “the big dog” Bear to sleep. Ernie was a rescue dog, who Angela adopted as a full grown adult dog after asking the animal shelter to simply give her the next dog in line to be euthanized. That was his first brush with near death. The night of our first date, Angela went home afterward and let him out for his nightly routine when he was attacked by a flock of geese (she suspects geese…there were no witnesses, and no arrests were ever made) and returned to her apartment hours later, bloody, beaten and caked in mud. He bore scars and injuries from that attack for the rest of his life. And then in 2005, he was bitten on the nose by a rattlesnake in our backyard in Florida. Thanks to immediate care (made possible by Angela’s daredevil drive to the vet’s office which involved bypassing a line of stopped cars at an intersection and an illegal left turn through a red light!), Ernie lived through that experience as well. The fact that Ernie had persevered through so many challenges made it especially difficult for us to decide he should be felled by something as sneaky and silent as a needle and syringe.
And even after the vet arrived at the house and was ready to get started, we needed to discuss it again, and convince ourselves and each other, again, that we were doing the right thing. Ernie had lost most strength and stability in his rear hips and fell to the ground several times per day. He also had lost his hearing and that caused him to be startled by almost everything around him. And finally, he had become forgetful and incontinent. We realized that despite his strength in previous years, Ernie’s body was failing and would not get any better. His future, if we cancelled our plans that day would be more pain, more fear, more confusion, and that is no way for a good dog to live. I don’t think we cried through the entirety of my 2 year cancer experience, as much as we did that afternoon holding Ernie while he drifted away from us forever.
We were somewhat rushed into the decision to put Ernie down, because the next day, we would be leaving town for 8 days. We knew the end was near for him and did not want the pressure of worrying about his fragile condition while we were so far away. That trip, as I have written about so much here, was for my century ride in Lake Tahoe. The training and fundraising all came to a head on Sunday morning June 5.
The ride itself is called America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride, and I had entered the event as a member of the Georgia Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training Cycling Team. All week long, I kept looking at the extended forecast and hoping that the weatherman, the computer, the satellites, the DooWop Triple Action Handy Dandy Weather Tracker, or whatever the hell it’s called in Lake Tahoe was just wrong about Sunday. Sadly, none of those sources were wrong. The gloom and doom they predicted from 10 days out was spot on accurate. We gathered at the start area, mostly in the dark around 6AM under raining skies, wet roads and 45 degree air. I was dressed in four layers of clothing, two pairs of gloves and a bubble of pure insanity.
I don’t know why, but I did not sleep much the night before the ride. It was strange, I took things easy all day Saturday, prepared my bike, bought a few extra supplies to keep my head warm and my feet dry (neither worked). I attended the inspiration dinner where it was exciting to see them recognize the relatively small handful of cancer survivors among the thousands of riders and even call each of us out by name. I ended the night helping Dominic play a few of the worst video games and crappiest skee ball machines ever conjured to take money from children, and then we went to bed nice and early. Maybe the problem was that I could hear the sheets of rain pounding the sides of the hotel and knew that I would be outside in that very rain long before the sun came up.
After snapping a few photo’s in the lobby, all the members of the Georgia TNT summer cycle team clicked into our pedals and set out over the wet pre-dawn asphalt to the starting area. Our coach asked me to lead our team out of the start area and to ride at the front of the pack for the first 9 miles. I rode alongside two other teammates riding a tandem in honor of Warren Bruno, the other survivor on our team, who had relapsed just a few weeks before the event and had to stay home to receive chemotherapy treatment.
It was cold and wet, and our feet were soaked within 3 miles, then numb, and I mean completely, cannot feel a thing, numb by around the 15th mile. We rode in on and off rain, on wet blacktop until about mile 40, when the sun poked out a little as we were approaching the town of Truckee. We had a lengthy break in Truckee, where lots of people took off their shoes to wring out their socks and walk barefoot in the parking lot trying to dry their soggy wrinkled feet.
On the extremely rare occasion that I need to be out of bed before 5AM (and this was one of them), I don’t expect great thoughts or brilliant insight to be part of the experience. And on this morning, I actually stunned myself with intelligence by grabbing an extra pair of socks and stuffing them in a zip lock bag before clomping off to the lobby in my bike shoes and 4 layers of synthetic blend top layers. While dozens of others in Truckee were wringing the rain water out of their socks, I simply fetched that zip lock bag from my back pocket, and slid on clean, warm and dry fresh socks.
The sunny weather was just a tease though and shortly after leaving Truckee, it started raining in sheets and bucketfuls. That was when I got a flat tire. We had been riding a slow but steady incline for several miles and the rain had already rinsed away the happiness that dry socks had brought me. I was also starting to think about how hungry I was, but also how the lunch station was still around 20 miles away. So I was feeling pretty crummy, and the flat really depressed my motivation. Fortunately, Mike was right there to help out and get me rolling again. He insisted that I catch my breath and rest while he worked on the tire. That stop made a difference and I rode better for some time after that.
Rain kept coming and going, but by 1PM, we had cleared away from the western half of the lake where most of the weather problems seemed to be stuck, and we rode in clear air the rest of the time, albeit with cold, wet clothing and shoes. At around mile 70, I started to notice a little uncomfortable sensation above my right knee, right where the quad muscles start to connect to the knee parts. A few miles later, that feeling had crept lower and seemed to create a film over the front of my knee cap that shot a painful little dart inward toward my knee with each downstroke of the pedal. By mile 83, I was well on my way up the 8 mile climb of Spooner Mountain and my knee was screaming at me to go do something else, anything else, each time I pressed down on the pedal.
I am telling this story almost two weeks after completing the ride, and as with any traumatic experience, time has already started to weaken the memory of how painful that mountain was at the end of the ride. When people ask me today if I enjoyed the ride, I say yes. That afternoon, I would have said no. If you had asked me while I was pedaling up that mountain, I probably would have shot you a gaping mouth look of disbelief and then pedaled away without a word thinking you were an idiot. That mountain took away my energy, my pride and my breath. I was riding so slowly, that if a two legged, blind possum had walked out onto the road that afternoon, it probably could have passed me.
But, I was not going to quit. That is what this ride was about. It was not a race, and I never expected to do it with speed or grace. My goal was to complete the task and get to the end. For two years, throwing punches back and forth with cancer, it was never pretty…it’s never pretty for anyone. Cancer takes away everything it can get it’s hands on. It takes away your appearance through weight loss, swollen limbs, lost hair and scars. It takes away life functions, confidence, dreams, future plans, money and hope. It does not care when or who it strikes, or how inconvenient the timing is. And we don’t defeat it without coming out beat up, bloodied and broken on the other side.
I have survived my experience with cancer, but I am not the same person I was before. I have lost time, I have lost the chance to have another child, I nearly lost my home and my body is weaker and more prone to disease than it was before.
At approximately mile 81, as I was really getting into the grind of Spooner Mountain. To my right, beyond the slowly passing guard rail, the mountain dropped steeply away to the bank of Lake Tahoe below, and the horizon was the famous jagged, snow covered mountain range on the west side of the lake. I
could clearly see that side of the lake was still buried in the storm we had ridden through in the morning. Suddenly, around a gentle curve in the road, there was a little red car stopped on the shoulder in front of me. On the trunk of the car sat a little boy I recognized, with a pretty smiling lady right next to him, and they were cheering for me. They held signs that said, “Go Daddy” and they were waving and cheering for me.
I took a long break at that point and savored the moment. Despite the evidence of bike ride casualties passing by in multiple SAG vans loaded with bikes and people, I knew I would finish that ride even if it took the rest of the day. I knew that I had persevered through the suffering of chemotherapy and cancer treatment by just taking it one minute and one day at a time, and I knew I could get over that mountain. As added incentive, I knew that if I reached the top of that mountain which was just over 7,000 feet and located at approximately mile 87, I would be descending to an elevation of around 6,000 feet at the finish line just 13 miles away. What I am saying is that it would mostly be downhill.
Mike and I re-grouped at the top of the mountain and we also joined together with a handful of my other team members from Georgia including Val, Cindy, Libby and Charlotte and we all rode most of the rest of the ride together. At sometime close to 4PM, more than 9 hours after leading the entire team out of the starting area, Mike, Val, Libby and I rode together into a massive cheering crowd, high fiving friends, family and team members along the way and finally unclipped from our bikes for the last time that day.
Several times throughout the day, I had imagined and envisioned the finish line and what it was going to feel like to cross that line. In my imagination, it was a powerful and moving experience with a rush of emotion and feeling of accomplishment. When it finally happened though, I was so relieved to have made it, I barely thought about what it all meant and instead just joined the Georgia team in welcoming the rest of our riders into the finish corral.
I can say now, after having time to recover and reflect, that I did enjoy the ride, and it was sweet satisfaction to know I had made up my mind to complete a daunting physical task, and saw it through to the end, despite the history of disease in my body.
Will I do it again? Hmm, that is undecided right now. I would do the event again, but I did not care much for the
time commitment of the weeks and months of training. It took a lot of time away from home, and I am not comfortable with that, especially after all the time I have spent away from Angela and Dominic fighting the cancer. So, for now, I am not deciding anything for sure. Maybe I will be back again, or maybe this was a one time effort to prove something to myself and to support the organization that helped me beat this ugly ugly disease. Stay tuned and I will let you know.
There is so much more to write about this trip, but I feel like this is already to long. As a wrap up I need to thank some very important people. First of all, thank you to the dozens of donors who contributed everywhere from $5 to several hundreds of dollars to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in my name and in the name of my riding partner, Mike Loria. Between the two of us, we raised $7,269.50 that is already funding research into giving blood cancer victims a better chance at a long and healthy life. On that note, I want to thank Mike for joining me on this ride. He is a busy guy and had to take lots of time away from his business, Re-Source Partners, in Michigan to train, fundraise and answer my endless questions about how to prepare for an endurance event.
Next up I need to thank the home team, my wife Angela and my son Dominic for putting up with my absence every single Saturday morning since January, and most Thursday nights as I pedaled and trained to get in shape for this event. Angela took on an unfair share of solo parenting for the better part of most Saturday’s and sacrificed some of her own fun weekend activities to make this possible. And she was there with her trademark tough love, to give me the pep talk I needed when the going got rough.
To Ernie, my big dog, I am sorry we had to make the decision to put you down before leaving for this trip. I truly hope that you are freed from those old bones, broken muscles and giant tumor and that you are in some magical dog park where there is a fence line that stretches to infinity filled with every kind of fascinating smell. I know that is where you will be…nose to the ground and following the scent.
And last but not least, to my team members and coaches at Team in Training. This was my first endurance event and as a very recent cancer survivor, my body was not prepared for the early days of training. I am sure the coaches had doubts about my abilities when they would see me huffing and panting on even small hills while the rest of the team rode to the top. Julian, Kelly, Graham and Neil were good about encouraging me nonetheless and making sure I had the motivation I needed to keep going.
For more photo’s from the bike ride, please visit my Lake Tahoe Century Ride Picasa album.