Six Months

IMG_2291 - Version 2The site of my ill-fated turn.

On October 10, 2012, I went for a bike ride. Nothing in that is unusual. Most days of each week I go for a bike ride. This particular ride wouldn’t really be worth noting at all were it not for the memorable feeling I had as I dropped down the south face of the Santa Monica Mountains. I felt the greatest sense of my and my bike’s limits, though that’s not what I was thinking about as I dove past some friends and held my braking fingers at bay.

The populace usually refer to the practitioners of any sport where agility—that curious combination of physical skill and crystalline judgment—is all that prevents raw velocity from ending in a sudden, careening explosion—think windmill in a tornado—adrenaline junkies. I can say from considerable experience that phrase is only half wrong, but the half that is wrong misses like getting on the Chicago train when your destination is New Orleans. I’ve had something of an addiction to dropping down mountains as if I was water in a river rushing out of the mountains. Nothing else in my life matches that sense of grace that washes over me, and that has to do with how the “adrenaline” part of adrenaline junkie is so wrong.

Adrenaline isn’t something you want to feel.

That’s the fight or flight response. It’s the taste of a 9-volt battery in your mouth, a sensation that every time encountered has been accompanied by fear. It is absolutely the physical presence of fear itself. Only a masochist would go in search of it.

What was washing over me as swung through turns tight enough to slow a good-sized sedan to idle was a soup of neurochemicals that kill pain, convince us we’re in love and turn the world brighter and more beautiful for as long as we concentrate. That sense of joy tempered by calm, a place for which I can conjure no image to remind us.

And then, in a turn in which I thought I would deliver the correct answer finally—for the first time ever—a place where my knowledge of the road, my control and the limits of the tires’ adhesion came together in what was to be a flourish at the end of a signature, well …

I rolled over some paint and my rear tire did a little mambo.

I have, on some occasions, permitted myself to play back the way things went wrong at that moment, how I steered into the turn and regained control of the bike to keep it upright but misjudged my ability to go off-road at that speed and thus flyswattered my face into loose dirt and gravel. On a very few occasions I’ve allowed myself to try to play out how things might have gone had I taken any action other than what I did. Of course, it’s all guesswork; cyclists fall and break shoulders when they figure it could have been a collarbone, they pick up a couple of gashes and no road rash in a slide, or as I did, tenderize and remove my chin when I thought I’d send a bowling ball through a styrofoam cooler. Still, in my imagination, all the other options, all the other ways I imagine that event could have played out end with me either spinning or sliding on the asphalt at 30 mph. My gut says I got off easy.

By easy, I mean that to everyone who isn’t me, all that was required to set me right was the skill (and thread) of one very artful plastic surgeon, a guy better known for making lips bigger not smaller, as he did in my case.

I’d trade one good Harrison Ford-like scar if he could have repaired the stuff on the inside as well.

Weeks later, my stepfather, Bryon, died. My mom had been married to him for 23 years, but my relationship to him stretched back more than 30 years, to when I was 14. Now, I should add here that my father is still alive and he and I have a great relationship. Losing my stepfather was not a matter of losing the only paternal figure in my life. And it’s not like my father was a felon and incapable of providing a healthy model for what an adult male might aspire to be. I’ve got a great dad, period. Losing Byron still represented a huge loss because of his unique qualities.

Byron was a passionate supporter of mine. He wanted to see me happy and successful. Fulfilled. Yet he never provided any input about courses of action except when morality or ethical considerations were at stake. Despite caring deeply for me, he was cautiously detached from the outcomes of my actions. He allowed me the freedom to do what I chose, and yet would talk to me at every turn, less guiding me than helping me to see what I might achieve on my own abilities.

I wasn’t supposed to reveal this, but he was so impressed by my standing up for Charles Pelkey and taking on what was a monumental expense for this blog—just because I thought it was the right thing to do—that he talked with my mom and offered me the money to bring John Wilcockson on board. You might say the first five months of John’s work here was an advance on my inheritance. Byron saw it as just giving me wood to fuel a fire I’d done a nice job of lighting. My job was to secure enough advertising in that period to afford John’s work going forward. And while we got through the summer and early fall well enough, advertiser drop-off in the winter (and getting stiffed by a few advertisers) put him back out of reach. I’m still paying him for last fall’s work.

I’m incredibly fortunate to still have both my parents. From sharing the latest photos to commiserating over the challenges of the American health care system, we enjoy being in touch, and I’m grateful that I can still turn to them with whatever financial hurdles I face—in only with the intent of asking for advice. But talking with Byron was different. His detachment meant that his guidance was couched as if through my own eyes, given with an understanding of what I wanted for myself. The loss of that voice in my life is something I haven’t adjusted to.

Seeing what his absence has done to my mother’s world has made me ache for all that we have the potential to offer each other. His was an example that showed how being mindful of our actions and moving gently, with kindness, can profoundly alter the quality of another person’s life. I don’t think I’m a bad guy, but I’m aware that if I could achieve what he did, my wife and children would have better lives than they already do.

In those weeks I spent in Memphis, just trying to be present with my mother as she grieved, I rode hundreds of miles, and none of it at a pace that would impress anyone. Byron was with me on those rides, his example ringing in my ears, his voice no closer than that last, saved, voicemail.

When we found out that the Deuce had an abnormality during what was to be a final, routine, visit to the OB/GYN, I knew I needed to call my parents to tell them. I did my best to reassure them that this would be a minor issue and we’d be sending baby photos and telling stories any day. How wrong I was. Because of the need I felt to set my parents at ease, the person I really wanted to talk to, the person to whom I felt I could have been 100 percent honest about my concerns was Byron. What would he have said to me?

It’s been a long time since I felt like I lived in the shadow cast by my parents, that I needed to distinguish myself as a person. It’s been even longer since I was naive enough to believe that their counsel was as outdated as a Corvair. I now understand that this phase of adulthood is one where we learn to live without the voices of our parents. It’s an absence distinct from the loss of them physically, it’s that ability to reach out to the people in whom you entrust those most important decisions, asking for the feedback that can only be given by someone who knows you as well as you do.

One morning, as I pedaled through the hills of Palos Verdes and wondering how to confront the issue of surgery for the Deuce, I caused myself to chuckle when I came up with the acronym WWBS—what would Byron say? I realized he’d tell me I was doing all right. He’d probably ask me if I was still riding. Even though he wasn’t a cyclist himself, he understood its more medicinal quality in my life. And he’d ask if Shana and I were talking. Then he’d ask me what my gut told me and what my fears were. Once I’d poured everything out to him, he’d invariably mirror back to me all that he’d heard, but in an especially concise reduction sauce. I can imagine he would have said something like, “I hear you saying you don’t like the surgery one damn bit, but that you trust the doctors and you don’t see any way around it. I’d be scared, too.”

I miss that voice.

I can’t shake the feeling that my family has experienced a zero-sum event, that in losing Byron and gaining Matthew, we have reluctantly struck a new equilibrium where the burden of wisdom has shifted from Tennessee to California. I try to convince myself that the physical manifestation of that sense is what I felt when I first climbed on a full-suspension 29er. It felt big, really big while the suspension punished sloppy actions and rewarded grace, but it was still a bike, so on that first big descent, all I needed to do was convince myself I knew what to do.

Over the last six months, there have been little glimmers of my old self on the bike, but far more episodes where one sketchy moment shows me just how gun-shy I still am. Not just of crashing, but of anything that induces stress. Rather than being a way to discharge, cycling has mostly only been a way to recharge, to help sustain me through today’s crisis, or maybe whatever comes next.

The reason I’ve stuck with cycling no matter whatever else has been going on in my life has been that the sport has been a way to ask questions, a way to answer them and even a way to answer bigger questions, ones where the only wheels are metaphoric.

Of this much I’m certain: I’ve got two healthy, growing sons and bikes in the garage. Like knowing what was around that turn, the rest, I accept, is up for grabs.

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19 comments

  1. Maremma Mark

    Padraig, you sure packed a lot into this post. More than I can respond to in a few words. You were fortunate to have a person like Byron in your life for all those years. You’ll probably be that person for another lucky soul down the road, passing on that wisdom and love.

    Getting your mojo back on the bike after a bad crash is touchy business. Can’t be hurried or forced, keep pedaling and it will come. With each passing year I seem to add another percentage point of margin on to the safety scale. I too like descending with skill and panache but I hate falling off, a lot . Crashing keeps me off the bike and ultimately that’s the bottom line.

    From the photo of you and the Deuce together I’d say that surgeon did a good job.

  2. Full Monte

    Nothing like a crash – with injuries – to shatter the illusion of control.

    We spend so much time preparing, honing, practicing the physical act of riding, all to be stronger, faster, more skilled. And in the end, the crash shows so much is out of our control.

    And then you fell again, and again. Byron. Deuce.

    Letting go of control is the only sane choice left. Letting go of Byron opens the door to three decades of wisdom poured into you. Letting go of Deuce to the doctors brought him back, healthy and growing.

    I have a friend who maintains there are no accidents. Only outcomes. Logical conclusions. Perhaps he’s right. The crash was the physical preparation for the events to come. A lesson. Necessary.

    Such a world philosophy assumes our psyche is aware of our needs, that somehow, our unconscious mind is connected to the universe in ways we cannot understand. That we’re connected to each other in ways beyond our comprehension.

    The narrative of these events in your life suggests some truth to this. I take comfort in that. Hope you do to.

  3. Andy

    Congratulations. You’ve had an early look at what it means to be the oldest generation, the dispenser of wisdom (one hopes), the one who gets to understand the next layer of what it’s really all about. You’re lucky to have an appreciation for all the threads in your tapestry. Savor that.

  4. gmknobl

    At first, not a day went by when I didn’t wonder what advice my dad might give (but I couldn’t get). After many years, that only comes about once a month but it still happens. Even when he said little, he said a lot and it was always good to hear. It helped me. I don’t have that and I wonder what I’ll feel like after mom goes in a little time.

    In the mean time, I try to give advice to my kids, 11 and 8. I can’t tell if they’re listening sometimes and mostly, I’m convinced, they aren’t. Maybe I’m not going about it the right way. So, I try to be subtle and gentle while still giving advice. Only time will tell.

    I’m about 50 now. You’d think I’d understand this better. Maybe no one does until they reach that always older age.

  5. Patrick O'Brien

    “When you realize that everything changes, there is nothing you try to hold on to.”
    Tao te Ching, translation by Stephen Mitchell

  6. Jesus from Cancun

    Thank you for the post, Padraig. This has been one of the best.

    I had been wondering about Wilcockson’s absence for a while. I thought that he had probably become unpopular among the passionate after the Lancegate, since he was one of the main promoters of The Lie. But Wilcockson has been a lot more than his Lance books and I miss his work here. I’m sorry it didn’t work out.

    This is still my favorite site. It just keeps getting better and better.

  7. P Poppenjay

    Padraig, I am, of course, weeping. I don’t know why I didn’t see this on the 10th.
    You have written a beautiful remembrance of Byron as a man and as your step Dad.
    This will go with me tonight as I begin the weekend at Camp Good Grief. It will serve ‘the remembrance of him as a man’ I was assigned.
    Thank you, more than you could ever know.

  8. Dave O

    A wonderful piece of writing. I was at the funeral of the father of my Rabbi and he, the Rabbi said the loss of a parent is felt two ways. There is the loss of your father but there is also the realization of your own mortality. As long as your parents are around you are still someone’s kid and death is something you can put in a box. When your parent dies that buffer between you and the inevitable is terrifyingly closer and you can’t deny it.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I need to be honest and say I don’t completely understand what it is that takes place between the posts we write and the comments that come in. Many times, it’s predictable, but times like this I feel like the comments are as profound as anything I’ve ready by Faulkner. I don’t know how this happens, but I’m grateful. Thank you dear reader(s).

  9. BRADYHALE

    What you have written was a great tribute to a great man. Some of the best conversations Lei & I ever had were with Byron. We were truly blessed to be a blended family.

    Love,

    Dad

  10. P Poppenjay

    Yes, the comments are remarkably profound. Full Monte’s is among them and Jesus–actually, everyone’s comments took me deep gratitude.
    We are truly blessed as BRADYHALE said to be a remarkably blended family. Camp Good Grief was phenomenal.

  11. randomactsofcycling

    I simply cannot keep up with all the posts on RKP as I used to. I am grateful that today, I had the time to go back and read through some that I had missed. This is beautiful.
    Thank you Padraig.
    Reading this post tells me that you realise you are growing as a person.

  12. Victor Streed

    Great read..thanks. Makes me want to be a better Dad and Grandfather.
    Still praying for your family and the Duece.

  13. skip nevell

    Yesterday I emptied the tank on my ride, emptied it. But that was yesterday. Now it’s today. Hamlet said, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creep in this petty pace…”

    Not for me does tomorrow “creep.” The face of your little guy is a glimpse of the future.

  14. Dan

    Wow. Not read RKP before, but this is some post. Great piece about Byron, and nice also to see your Dads comment.

  15. Pingback: Another Year : Red Kite Prayer

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