Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Days of rain

Date: Oct. 28
Mileage: 34.3
October mileage: 479.5

I didn't think I was going to ride today, but then I read Elden's blog.

Most people who browse this site also read fatcyclist.com, so I don't need to rehash the details. But any entry with the title "Getting the ending right," in regards to cancer, casts a heartbreaking mood over the morning.

I had been sitting at my computer, downing cups of coffee and trying to pull myself out of poor-sleep fatigue. I had already decided I was due for a "reward day." Reward days are the days that I let myself skip the waterlogged rides and/or hikes, put on something comfortable and cotton, grab a New Yorker magazine, and spend a relaxing and dry hour or two at the gym. Most of the time I love to go outside, but the rain and wind does start to wear on me, so every week or 10 days, regardless of what I had planned to do for training, I'll give myself what is essentially a rain day and hunker down inside.

That was going to be today. But after I read Elden's post, something just felt empty about going to the gym. There were thoughts I wanted to process and memories I wanted to confront. I changed out of my gym clothes, put on several layers of fleece, pulled on my neoprene socks and gloves, and headed out the door.

Hard rain fell from dark clouds and flowed around the decimated snow pack. The melt allowed me to ride my road bike, and I went out strong and fast, pedaling hard while squinting at the wet pavement. I was fixated on the movement and flow. My lungs burned and my legs ached. It's a tough place to ride, and a quiet place to think.

I lost my great-grandmother to brain cancer about four years ago. She had lived a full life. She was about 80 years old. But the disease cut her down shockingly fast. I was busy with whatever silly things I was busy with in 2004, and I was only able to visit her twice. The first was in the hospital, when she was still laughing and joking. The second was after the family had already moved her home in the care of hospice. I sat down next to her bed and she contorted her face as she looked at me. Cancer had stolen her ability to string thoughts into words, and she spoke in incoherent babble. Her eyes were filled with terror, and my mom told me that she probably no longer remembered who I was, and that she probably no longer even remembered who she was.

The look in my great-grandmother's eyes said everything, and I was devastated. Here was this vibrant woman, the woman who let me eat grapes out of her back yard and who peppered me with great stories when I was doing my seventh-grade report on the Great Depression, a woman who I had known and loved all my life, robbed of her memories, her personality, her mind. I was in my mid-20s and thought I had long accepted mortality and the realities of cancer. But my great-grandmother's eyes, with their emptiness and fear, brought that reality into sharp focus - cancer is a disease so frightening it can make death seem kind.

Death came mercifully fast for my great-grandmother. She was only with us a few more days beyond my final visit. I listened to distant family members, part of her enormous progeny, speak at her funeral. Their stories of happiness and love helped me realize that even if my great-grandmother left the world remembering nothing about her life, her family remembered and loved her for it. And that was important.

For all of the people in our lives, whatever distant connections we have, it's important to learn, and to live, and to remember.

Sometimes that's all we can do.