Stella died finally. It was a mercy. I stood by the door of the chapel in my wool suit with tears and laughter streaming out the door, and wondered how I’d gotten there.
We were sitting at our desks working when she started to get a headache. She went home. She took aspirin. She rested. The headache wouldn’t go away. She didn’t complain until the third day. She was like that.
The headache was a brain tumor, a deep one, in a spot that resisted treatment, though they treated her anyway. She lasted some years after that, mostly through positive attitude and stubborness. She wore a beret to cover the bald spot the treatment gave her and smiled to show that she was unafraid.
Stella was bombastic. She spewed love. She hugged you when you met her, and then every time she saw you after that. She smiled and laughed and raved and ranted. She assaulted life, and life was better for it. If anything, the tumor motivated her to double down on love. She became more, rather than less.
The day of her ‘life celebration,’ the chapel was packed and people flowed down the steps, hung out of the back door, and stood quietly in the driveway. No one wanted to cry because Stella wouldn’t have wanted that, but they cried anyway, because that’s how grief works.
I drove around all day thinking about my friend and trying to make some sense out of the senselessness of her loss. What to do? What to do?
I came to this conclusion: You have to let things like this change you. You have to let the example people like Stella set seep into your bones and change the way you are in the world. We talk about learning the lessons of losses, but it’s not enough to simply learn, to intellectualize, to become aware. You have to change the person you are. You have to let all that love wash through you, and you have to pass it along and become a more decent, a more positive person. It’s the only thing that makes sense.
Stella would come to me and say that she had ridden her bike over the weekend. The traffic terrified her, but she was trying. One day, she thought, she’d be able to ride all the way to work. She wanted to be a cyclist. This was part of what I did, part of who I was, that she was willing to take as part of herself. She was letting me change her, until the tumor derailed the process.
Life can be full of painful losses. I won’t catalog the possibilities, because we are all aware. And when I relate these events back to cycling, which is in my nature, I see both how small a thing riding a bike can be, and how it can also change your life. A loss on a bike, in a race, or in a town line sprint, or in a crash, is a nothing, a false conceit for things like the passing of a friend. At the same time, every ride is a meditation on living. It can be a source of learning and strength and root-level change, if you let it.
When a friend dies, you think about your own mortality, your loved ones. It rocks your sense of the order of the universe. But rather than retreat into anger, which is almost always my first inclination, Stella’s passing reminded me how impotent anger really is, and how powerful love can be.
There is a ghost bike around the corner from the office Stella and I used to share. A cyclist was struck and killed there years ago, and the bike has remained. Now, when I pass it, I will think of Stella, and I will smile, knowing that I am a better person for having known her.
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