It never gets easier, you just go faster. —Greg LeMond
After my father’s stroke, after months of rehab, after coming to terms with the fact that the blind spot on his right side—his lost peripheral vision—was the new normal, his doctor told him he couldn’t ride his bicycle.
Last fall he had aortic valve replacement surgery to fix a heart condition he was born with, the same condition that ultimately killed his own father. The surgery went according to plan. They didn’t know he’d suffered a stroke until two days later, when he had recovered enough from the anesthesia for someone to notice that he was acting funny. In the aftermath of his surgery and the stroke, my father says his heart is twenty years younger, but I know that twenty percent of his brain is gone forever.
He lost his ability to work his job of twenty-nine years, he lost a good bit of short-term memory, which forced him into an early retirement, and now this: his beloved bicycling. This too was going to be taken away from him.
I have a picture from early September, before the surgery, of my parents at Scooter’s, an ice cream shop they like to ride to together on a black Burley tandem. They celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary with a ride and two giant sugar cones. My mom held hers in the air, as if giving a toast. Dad did the awkward selfie lean, trying to get them both in the picture.
And what now?
Life is a stage race like the tour, not one all-out sprint or time trial. There are days of sun and days of rain; wins and losses; successes, failures, and recoveries.
After a winter of too much TV, daily walks around the neighborhood no matter how cold it was, painstakingly typed comments on my Facebook page because of how slowly his writing skills are returning, I was afraid he would give up. I feared my father—this man who called me on his fifty-eighth birthday and told me he’d set out to ride fifty-eight miles in honor of the occasion, but tired out and only rode fifty; this man who had ridden every single mile of two coast-to-coast bicycle trips, from California to North Carolina—would become a couch potato. I feared he would sit at home and watch Fox News all day.
* * *
Greg LeMond was the first American to win the Tour de France. It was 1986. I was two years old. This was before Lance Armstrong became famous, and then infamous; before helmets were required; before all of the doping scandals. Back when hardly anyone in the United States was paying attention to the Tour.
I grew up admiring LeMond. Every summer my dad and I would sit on the couch in our family basement and watch the Tour. I cheered for whomever my dad favored that year, with English journalist Phil Liggett’s voice—synonymous with quality sports commentary—in my mind.
As a child I was carted around the Midwest to bicycle road races. I cheered for my dad from a big orange blanket along the sidelines. There were usually children’s races, too, and when I was old enough I rode my pink tricycle down the short, straight course at one of them. I pushed those black plastic pedals as hard as I could, my chubby little legs pumping up and down. I received a bronze medal strung on red, white, and blue ribbon, and ate pink cotton candy with my family to celebrate.
When I was six, I got a pink two-wheeler for my birthday. It came with training wheels, but soon my dad was teaching me to get along without them. He’d run behind me, holding onto the seat for moral support, and then he would let go. I would fly down the sidewalk, skidding to a stop with the coaster brakes when I reached the corner, waiting for him to help me cross the street and begin again.
The joy that pink bicycle brought to my childhood was not so different from the joy bicycling has continued to bring me throughout my life. There have been many family vacations spent camping and riding, afternoons pedaling around with friends in the neighborhood where I grew up, escapes from campus on warm afternoons in my small college town. There has always been a bicycle in my life.
When I graduated from college and moved to North Carolina, I had never owned a car, or even had a driver’s license. Everyone thought now that I had a college degree in hand surely I would grow up, learn to drive, and buy a vehicle like any self-respecting adult in North America. But I was about to begin graduate school in theology, and the idea of buying a car seemed laughable to me. I didn’t want to drive and never had, which was why I hadn’t gotten a license when I turned sixteen. Instead I sought out an apartment that was within walking distance of campus, the grocery store, and a coffee shop, arguing that those were the only places I was likely to hang out for the next two years. That proved mostly true.
Graduate school didn’t last forever though, and when I finished my master’s degree I took several part-time jobs and no longer had time for walking and waiting at bus stops. When my parents came down for graduation, Dad spent an afternoon on the porch with the old purple commuter bike he and my mom got me when I was fourteen. He overhauled the drivetrain, trued the wheels, and added a rack on the back to which I could attach panniers for carrying my groceries. It was everything I needed in a reliable vehicle. Then he presented me with a Duke-blue tire pump with a big bow on it. My graduation present.
* * *
The transition to daily commuting was not entirely smooth; there were obstacles ranging from flat tires to fitness to inclement weather. Few things make me want to stay in bed more than waking to the sound of rain on the rooftop in February. If the temperature is below 40, I may even start wishing that I had a car.
I get up anyway. I make coffee. I check weather.com. I forgo a shower, because it never seems worthwhile when I know I will be doused with rainwater shortly. I put extra socks and shoes in my waterproof courier bag, pour what’s left of my coffee into a thermos, and tuck that in the bag as well.
Donning a navy blue raincoat, black nylon pants with velcro at the ankles, and my oldest sneakers which smell like wet dog from previous soakings, I am out the door into the rain. I swing my leg over the crossbar of my white road bike and push off down the street. The drops fall freely, without concern for the inconvenience they’ve caused me, weighing down my long hair, obscuring my vision. I live near a golf course and the long, flat stretch of road that runs alongside it presents a different view every morning. On bright, chilly winter days I watch the sky turn pink and orange through the tree line as the sun rises. On humid days my eyes pick out benches and sand traps through the dense fog. In summer, I see early risers getting in a quick game before work.
On rainy days the course is abandoned. In the early morning dampness everything looks a brighter shade of green. The air is clean and invigorating as I start to pedal harder, moving toward my destination by the strength of my own legs. I have been dreading this since I woke up, yet it is never as bad in actuality as it seemed from the warmth of my apartment.
Bicycling is hard work and, especially in the summer, that work induces sweat. In four years of bicycle commuting, despite lots of sunscreen, I’ve watched my face become more and more freckled. I’ve chosen to ignore catcalls induced by skimpy clothing, because when the heat index is over a hundred degrees, who really cares what the homeless guy I pass each day on Ninth Street has to say about my legs? I haven’t the energy. I’m focused on movement, labored breaths, the feel of the sun beating down on my back, and the heat radiating from the pavement when I stop at a red light.
I’m picturing Greg LeMond riding into Paris and I am willing myself to keep going, to beat my only competitor, the voices inside my own head:
Grow up and get a driver’s license.
It’s unattractive for a woman to be so sweaty all the time.
We live in a car culture; get used to it.
Cycling isn’t safe in cities in the United States.
Why aren’t you in better shape after four years of this?
This last one runs through my head every time I ride up a street with a respectable hill. It never gets easier.
Not long after LeMond’s historic win in 1986, he was injured in a hunting accident on a trip with his uncle. He survived with thirty shotgun pellets inside his body, and spent two years in recovery before his career picked up again. He went on to win the Tour de France twice more, in 1989 and 1990. LeMond was among the best in the world, yet most people in the United States didn’t know who he was. Oh, sure, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated after his comeback in ‘89, but what about all of those years leading up to that? Years when people believed that American cyclists would never be able to compete with Europeans? His victory in ‘86—the first ever for an American cyclist in 85 years of the Tour de France—happened in relative obscurity when compared to the fame that later followed Lance Armstrong. LeMond was never a celebrity in that way.
Most of life is like that. The goals we set, the things we care about, what we hope to accomplish—very few people will see them. Training rides, weightlifting, junior races—LeMond did these things like every other racer, building his career one day at a time. Cycling, even as a commuter, is a mental game as much as any competitive sport I have ever played. When I am sticky with sweat, when my mouth is dry and my muscles burn and I want to quit, I think about LeMond after that accident and the pain of getting back on a bicycle after physical trauma, when people said he was finished. I think about LeMond racing and not winning. And then I think about a poster on my brother’s bedroom wall of LeMond sprinting for the finish line at the 1989 World Championships with two European riders on his wheel, in the rain. His muscles bulge, wet hair is plastered to his forehead, and his mouth hangs open as if releasing a battle cry. His eyes are focused straight ahead on the finish line. He is going to get what he came for.
As I pedal up these modest hills in North Carolina’s Piedmont, I have to fix my eyes on the road ahead and keep pedaling. Life is a stage race like the Tour, not one all-out sprint or time trial. There are days of sun and days of rain; wins and losses; successes, failures, and recoveries.
* * *
Someday I will lose him.
That is the thought most present since the stroke. That, and he is still here. We get to keep him for a while.
Death, mortality, finitude—these are not new concepts to me. I have pondered their meanings philosophically. I have experienced the yawning chasm of loss. My uncle, Steve, when I was in 6th grade: heroin overdose. My other uncle, Joe, when I was in 8th grade: liver failure due to alcoholism. My seventeen-year-old friend Ryan: car accident. Gravel, tree, the curve of a road that led not to the endless possibilities of life beyond high school, but to one final ending for him, confusion and grief for the rest of us. But these losses never prepared me for the reality that someday I will lose my own parents.
Since the stroke, my father has been more open. He cries easily now. He simply cannot hold certain emotions in any longer. Home in Kalamazoo for Thanksgiving, I sat in a chair across from him while my sister played the grand piano in the living room. A month after his surgery, the scar across his chest was still pronounced, his heart healing while the rest of his body was in limbo. Tears filled his eyes and I watched him blink them back in what appeared to me a silent denial and quiet sorrow, and also, somehow, gratitude. He could have died. He knows this. Instead he is sitting here, listening to his daughter play piano as he has so many times before.
“I cry more easily since the stroke,” he told me on the phone last week, verbalizing what I had already seen. He says it like it’s a physical side-effect and, though I don’t know much about medicine, I assume this is his way of explaining displays of emotion previously so out of character. Before this, there was only one time I remembered seeing my father cry, and one time when I heard it in his voice over the phone and tried to ignore it.
The first time was after we packed up the Volvo to drive to North Carolina the summer I moved to Durham for graduate school. My clothes and books and a few stray boxes of kitchen stuff were packed tightly into the trunk, my cat was in her pink carrier in the back seat, drugged up for the long drive, and Dad had loaded my bike onto the roof rack. He, my mother, the cat, and I would be road-tripping down, and then they would drive off and leave me in a city and state I had never laid eyes on before, where I didn’t know a single soul.
In the driveway he told me he was proud of me. I politely pretended not to see the tears in his eyes, while more welled up in my own.
And then there was the night before his surgery, when he called me.
It was only in the weeks right before the surgery that its seriousness took hold of me.
They will break his sternum, I thought. They will cut open his heart. They will break him open; will they be able to put him back together?
On the phone that night before the surgery he tried to hold his voice steady, but I could hear everything he wasn’t saying—everything I wasn’t saying—in the tremor of his voice. A friend was picking me up as I said goodbye; she and I were going to our favorite brewery for a drink. I was in a hurry, and I felt guilty about that, but I also think now that it wasn’t just about getting where I was going. It was about my inability to fathom my own fear that this conversation could be the last one I ever had with my father.
It wasn’t. And yet it was the last one I ever had with that version of him. They cut him open, they sewed him up, they gave him back to us—but he will never be the same.
If you spoke with him, you might not know that anything is wrong. His short-term memory was the primary loss; most of the other difficulties have been overcome, gradually, with therapy. So he pauses mid-sentence, dancing around the word he wants but cannot find, his brain trying to form new pathways where the old ones have been erased—trying and sometimes failing, though succeeding more often now than in those first few months. Still, it isn’t enough. The loss of memory and the loss of sight on his right side, led to the loss of his job. He is only fifty-nine and was not ready to retire.
We used to talk about how someday, when he was ready to retire, he would come down to North Carolina and we’d take a bike trip together. Bicycling had become the glue to our relationship, which has been difficult as I’ve become an adult. I don’t see eye-to-eye with my parents on much when it comes to politics and religion and—though they are supportive of my work, my art, my impractical career choices and graduate degrees—there is a breach between us that often seems impossibly wide.
A couple of summers ago I rode on the back of the tandem with him for the first time. It was a strange experience, riding a bicycle and not being the one in control of steering it. I told my mother when we got home that he was the only person I could imagine trusting enough that I would be willing to give up that control. He’s been cycling for decades, and I trust his experience. Also, I am his daughter.
Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway is a dream of mine, and I thought one of these days perhaps we’d do it together. He rode sections years ago on those coast-to-coast trips—another thing I dream of doing with him—though I’ve known for a while that he probably didn’t have a third one in him. But part of the parkway—that, I always thought we could do together.
* * *
I guess he couldn’t take it anymore.
He didn’t listen to his doctor. He trusted the fact that he has ridden the same routes in Kalamazoo for decades, that his favorite route is all right turns. He chose to believe that he could learn his new limits and that, even though he’ll never be able to drive again, he could learn to bicycle once more.
In April, on the first day he rode, he posted on Facebook—grammar and spelling only slightly jumbled—that it was the best day since his heart surgery six months before. The best therapy he could ask for, he said. His heart was ready for this.
But his eyes might not be.
Yes, six months after surgery he rode his bike. I did not believe that would ever happen again. But even in my joy I knew that this was not a step on a brilliant recovery narrative. His eyesight is not coming back. These limitations are here to stay. And so he will adapt. He will have to limit himself. And many of our plans will not fit within those limits.
He tells me how he double- and triple-checks before crossing busy streets. How, because of the way his vision was affected by the stroke, cars look closer than they actually are. We take comfort in this: better that they appear closer, making him overly cautious, than the other way around.
He rides with friends, some new, some old. They look out for him. And yet, he tells me, one day a couple weeks ago he started to cross an intersection and stopped at the last minute when he realized there was a car coming he’d missed the first time he scanned. He stopped in time.
But it scared him. It scared me, too.
I would never tell him to stop riding. I cannot. I cannot bear the thought of losing him, but I will lose him either way. The father that I love will waste away if he cannot do this, of that I am sure. And I would rather he take this risk in order to live than that he give up and tumble into despair.
My father worked too hard for many years. He coached my soccer teams, went to all of my figure skating competitions, worked third-shift and overtime so that my siblings and I could have the education and opportunities he did not have.
I wanted him to have the retirement he planned on, and that is gone now.
Today, he will go to occupational therapy. Today, he will check Facebook, and “like” the link to my latest blog post. Today, he will say something political that I disagree with, and I will choose to ignore it because I love him too much to fight anymore. Today, I still have my father and I don’t much care about brilliant recovery narratives, climbing mountains, or triumphant entries into Paris.
I will never get on the back of that tandem with him again. I will never ride the Blue Ridge Parkway with him. But maybe, next time I am at home in Michigan, we will take a spin out to Scooter’s. We will ride together a few more miles.