Warning: this may be my longest blog post Ever…
To complete my blogging notes, I’ve stolen a pen from the Comfort Inn in Alexandria, Louisiana. I figure it’s the least this place owes me after stealing what will amount to about 19 hours and 4 transitions from our mission.
During this time we may have watched a bit of the overacting on Miami CSI. Cue the redheaded crew leader, who tilts his head, puts his index finger to his lips, pauses dramatically, and the—lingering over his syllables and over spitting his consonants—says, “What Causes This?”
Long story short: Lisa, the Medics Swangham and I hole up in Alexandria (a city big enough to be embarrassed about the state of its cell service) from about 8/9pm Wednesday until about 2:30 pm Thursday. It is KILLING us all to be away from the teams, to feel disconnected from the story, to be far enough away to not matter in the event of an emergency, to be unable to beam our love and support to each and every one of them.
We wait on the transmission guy to come fix the bus. Or even call us back. Which does not happen for a long time. [Lisa and I look at each other, put our index fingers to our respective lips, and ask, “What Causes This?”]
We plan to get a U-Haul to drive to Austin, and then drive home with all the bikes inside. We are told there are no available U-Hauls in a 150-mile radius. [What Causes This?] Apparently during the last storm, everyone rented a U-Haul and got the heck out of Dodge…then no one returned them. Thanks, everyone.
We gut the Bus, a happy/sad moment for me. We find super old packs of Gatorade powder mix under the bench seat [Ew!, and What Causes This?] We carry out boxes of bottled water, pack up LiveStrong magnets, pull letters from cancer patients off of the bus walls, and unscrew bike racks and tire hooks from the panels. I find an old bottle of lavender lotion labeled “KVL” from my first tour with the Challenge to Conquer Cancer in 2010.
[I remember spending the last 4 hours of that first trip in a face plant on the bus bench, as the bus was sick and we had climbed aboard as it limped through the final miles into Austin. Upon waking, I gave Kevin Dunn a piece of my mind, telling him what was great about the trip and what could be tweaked and how important the darn thing was in general. All I remember him saying in return is that up until that moment they all had thought I was shy. Yeah…not shy.]
Eventually we rent a Suburban, drop the Medics Swangham at the rental company, and refuel. Gas, check. Veggie-apple-cheese platter with edamame hummus, check. Starbucks, check. Now, go!
We make a beeline for Texas—Crockett, then Centerville, then Kosse—as we get location updates from Anne, via text. We are trying to sneak up and surprise the Handlebar Heroes with loud music and cowbells. Instead, we miss transition by a hair, due to the longest train crossing ever. [What Causes This? & Everything’s bigger in Texas!] We catch and pass the Crusaders on the road, cheer like crazy people, then head straight to Austin.
Almost there, and we can’t get the Garmin to recognize our destination address for the Fairfield Inn about 18 miles outside downtown proper. We vaguely remember this problem from last year. We call, a human being finally answers the phone, and are told it’s Mo-pac, not Mopac. [I’m writing this down so I remember next year.] At this point it seems like one final mental test. We pass. Finally, we get there.
Lisa and I HUG, like people who thought they might not make it.
It’s about 9 pm. We have the Crusaders coming off the midnight transition left to massage, then FinishStrong coming in from the cold on an extra 3-hour shift, plus anyone already at the hotel that wants a make-up massage from the day’s missed transitions.
Still in business mode, we dutifully trudge to the reception area and determine to eat some cold Hawaiian pizza so as to be ready quickly for the barrage of massage requests. After 5 shifts, everyone is breaking. But we can’t do it. It’s too gross. And the lemonade I swigged turns out to not be lemonade. Ouch. Defiantly, we stand up, dunk the pizza in the trash and set out to catch OCC at dinner at the Iron Cactus. The moment we re-enter the car, we realize the error of our ways and the road trip crazy descends again.
Short story here, because a better one is coming up…we find ourselves at the Iron Cactus downtown, a full 25 minutes away, instead of the one OCC went to 2 minutes away. You’d think we could find a team better after 5 days of practice. But we were never given directions, and I took the first address Google gave me. We come back empty handed, except for a bottle of gas station Malbec that I buy Lisa as a wedding present (shouldn’t we be common law married after the amount of time we just spent together?) that I made 2 U-turns to get, and we return to our previous sad little seats in the reception area.
Everything seems pitiful and hopeless at this point in the trip, when all you want is a shower, but you can’t move because you’re too hungry. The Heroes save the day with leftover BBQ, because our Teams truly do love us. There are new signs of hope in our eyes (but no one ask Lisa again if she looks tired!).
And the better story…Team FinishStrong finally brings it home around 3 am, signaling the collective end of our journey. Ron’s left calf decided to quit about 20 miles from the hotel; however, and he limps straight to the couch, where my thumbs are waiting. I am sitting on the floor massaging him, when a random, wasted young man ambles in—phone cradled to his ear, talking loudly—and promptly sits down on the floor next to me, puts Ron’s other foot in his lap and begins to stroke Ron’s right calf. Nothing about what he was doing could be called Massage.
Ron sits there, paralyzed. He finally asks if the stranger is a massage therapist. The stranger finally hangs up the phone and speaks to us. No, he is not, but his uncle massages horses.
There are too many little stories and observations to include from the next few days, from when we rode in as a group to downtown Austin Friday morning, then rode in the LiveStrong Challenge on Sunday, to finally sitting in the food court in the Chicago Midway airport with the reassuring sounds of Ron sipping a milkshake.
Soon, we will disband and go back to our normal routines, ambling about like zombies due to an acute onset of Family Withdrawal. [I will miss you all, but please no one call me at 2 am for a massage.]
One moment in particular I will carry with me is the Celebration Dinner with our warriors on Saturday night, where I spent the majority of my energy keeping my peep-toed flats out from under everyone’s new cowgirl boots. (Our group probably made Allen’s Shoes’ quota for the week.) I didn’t speak. I never have at these dinners the past 3 years. I am far more confortable writing, but even then I tend to hide behind humor and other people’s stories.
But each year, I want to say this: I find it rare anymore to meet someone who’s life has not been affected by Cancer or someone who doesn’t know someone else—even remotely—who has it. When you Love someone with this condition, you cannot feel everything they can. You cannot feel their physical pain, their side effects, their digestive discomfort, their nausea, their insecurities about their bodies changing or losing their hair or losing weight or gaining weight. You cannot feel their fear, their anger, their depression, their sense of being overwhelmed, their hope fading, their fighting spirit under attack, the burden of worry they carry for the ones they love, their sense of aloneness—as they look around even at their loved ones and feel misunderstood, or wonder if they are a source of more harm and sadness to their family than good. And most of all, you cannot feel their specific, acute sense of detachment from Life and Hope, that cloud that takes away the assumption that they will be here in the next 30 years, or 10 years, or even tomorrow, and what that does to their dreams and plans and relationships.
You cannot feel all that as they do. Part of your burden is not being able to know their experience, and feeling outside it. But I swear, you—I—can feel a Pain and Love for them, all its own and so intense that some days it seems it’s all you are. To love someone deeply and feel like you cannot help them is a Hell all its own. We would change places and bodies with them if we could, without a second thought.
This Hell has taught me unconditional love. It’s taught me selflessness.
It’s also taught me that we can help—usually more than we think we can. Maybe we’re not directly helping the person we wish we could. Maybe we’re donating $20 to a crazy Ride we just heard about that benefits the Cancer Center where we don’t personally know any patients. Maybe we’re massaging crazy cyclists on a Tennessee roadway. Maybe we’re making PB&J sandwiches in a breaking-down bus. Maybe we’re sending an encouraging message to a friend when they cross our minds. Maybe we’re saying hello to a stranger.
Maybe we’re simply out there, wherever we are, beaming our love to the world and keeping people sane.
You never know what someone may be going through. And it all helps.
p.s I am missing the pillow I brought with me to sleep in the car. I lose a pillow each year to this ride, so I am not surprised, and it’s a small price to pay for such an adventure. On the bright side, my team managed to avoid McDonalds completely this trip.
p.p.s. After some study of our group behavioral patterns in Austin, I have determined that once our party exceeds the number 8, a collective ADD sets in. Decision making powers and all forward momentum cease. Hywel likened it to herding cats, which I think would be much easier. The lure of food does nothing to get the group’s attention…clearly I like to eat more than they do.
p.p.p.s. Vince has threatened to strap an ankle bracelet to me that will alert the group if I try to permanently leave the state. Which seems sweet, in a way. Until he informs me that it will blow off my left leg if activated. Can you feel the love?
p.p.p.p.s. Once again, this Ride can count on me for as long as they want. I will continue magically appearing in the dark and the rain and the mountains and random Shoney’s parking lots to soothe their knots and idiosyncrasies. It seems next year our journey will take us to the Dempsey Challenge, somewhere close to Portland, Maine. Stay tuned…