“I’ll tell you a secret,” she said, “No one is prepared.”
In about a week, I’d be biking 150 miles as part of the Johns Hopkins Ride to Conquer Cancer to honor the life of my grandmother who had passed away from esophageal cancer three years prior. I’d had grand plans of fully training for it, spending the majority of the summer months glued to my saddle. Instead, throughout those months, a variety of life happened, and I was now facing the upcoming ride with just a few sporadic longer rides and some bike commuting under my belt.
“I feel wildly unprepared for this,” I told my mother, which is when she told me this secret.
She said this, and my thoughts didn’t go to my lack of leg exercise. Instead, they went to my grandma, and to the day she passed away while I was stuck in traffic in Guadalajara trying to get to the airport. They went to the moment when I finally arrived at her Napa home, adorned with three jellyfish stings and a sprained ankle, and she wasn’t there. They went to the moment when I found the last letter she had written to me, but forgotten to send, and the weight that left me, having not gotten in touch sooner.
My thoughts went to the moment when I decided to do this ride in her honor and had to slowly process what doing so meant to me. They circled around my continuing feelings of ineptness when loved ones and friends share how cancer is affecting their lives.
And then, my thoughts landed in a place where I could cradle them with gentle compassion as not merely my own woes, but as a beautiful piece of the collective sorrow that binds us together as a people. Standing face to face with the great unknown, and each carrying with us our own secret garden of grief, insecurity, or pain, we all wake up each morning still as prepared as we’ll ever be for this present moment in time.
In the early morning hours on September 19, donning lycra, I found myself among a crowd of cyclists outside of RFK Stadium. I was ready to hop on my humble hybrid and use the force of my own body to end the day in Mt. Airy, Maryland. I felt wildly unprepared, yet filled with the support of so many friends and family members, ones who I felt could truly see me—ones who I felt somehow understood my journey before I even could.
“In suffering, there is joy!” my friend, Liz, wrote to me on the day of my ride. I held on to those words through each push of my pedals, as each passing mile gave me a chance to better understand the process I was going through.
Mile after mile, I got to know many of the characters of the ride—the young man who defied aerodynamics and rode with a gigantic American flag proudly waving behind his bike, the woman who adorned her bike with the photo of a child and the words, “in loving memory,” the cheerful team of riders with their matching “Remission Possible” t-shirts, the friendly face of my co-worker at the day’s final pit stop, and of course, my fellow solo rider whom I met at check-in and who soon became my treasured road dog, giving me hope on the stretches of country road where it seemed like we were all alone.
I was grateful for the officers who stopped traffic for us at busy intersections, and for the strangers along the route who cheered sometimes just when I needed it. I breathed in the gorgeous countryside and grew a great respect for its rolling hills, as my leg muscles kept pushing, trying to keep a rhythm, to dig just a little deeper, to finish just one more mile.
At camp at the end of the first day, I inhaled food and then exhaustedly wandered around until I heard the tragic news that one of our riders had lost his life along the route. The air at camp fell heavy that evening, and I fell asleep in my tent wrestling with my thoughts on this turn of events. I was still trying to make sense of it when I awoke in the morning, knees stiff and achy, and hopped back on my bike to do it all over again.
As I pedaled, I began thinking about catharsis, about how we all heal and cope in the face of great sorrow. In the quiet morning of the second day’s ride, I remembered a moment from one of the American Sign Language classes I took in college. There was a local high school girl who was Deaf and frequently sat in on our classes. One day, we were preparing for our final projects, which would be songs that we would sign for the class, when we learned that her father had unexpectedly passed away. That day, she shared a video with us of a song she had signed in his memory.
I remembered the tears that had come to my eyes watching her sign, “Sometimes the sky’s so blue, I feel like I can talk to you,” as I gazed up at the open sky above me now and let the tears return.
In that space, and in a mere instant, I asked my grandmother every question I wished I’d have had the maturity, foresight, and patience to ask while she was alive. I let myself bleed all of the wishes that I could still be writing her letters, and actually sending her my first published work. I regretted the generational walls that inhibited us from fully grasping the present moment while it was still present. I felt both close to her in that blue sky and the farthest away I could ever be.
I held on tightly to this sorrow, yet at the same time, I chose to celebrate it. Catharsis is both a place of healing and also a place that touches some of our deepest pains. Catharsis offers a chance to forgive oneself, while not dismissing the realness of one’s feelings. It reminds us that in suffering, there is joy.
Amongst the deficiencies I felt, I also felt strongly that my grandma already knew who I was now and that she already knew all of the questions I had meant to ask her. She had said as much in that last letter to me. She had already known where my heart would take me. She had already known my intent.
In that moment, it also occurred to me that she would’ve thought this ride I was doing was insane. The knowledge of this made me laugh out loud.
When she passed away, I promised my grandma that I would do her life justice through the living of my own.
My thoughts returned to our fallen rider. In the morning light of this tragedy, the best way for our rider community to heal this loss was to honor the life of this man by riding on, by giving glory to the preciousness of life in the present moment, by living our lives in justice to all those who have left this earth before us. I placed him and his family in my heart next to my grandma for those last 70 miles of day two.
There’s a beautiful rhythm to the push of an event like this where you physically stretch your limits. When it’s over, you wake up back in normal life, but you’re better for having had the experience—because there’s always going to be a push. The push may look differently in another environment, but events like these give us the chance to recognize when those moments occur, and to be grateful for them, to accept them for the true gift they really are—that of being alive.
None of us are prepared. And so we do the best that we can. We search for joy in suffering. We try to make the very things that bring us sorrow give us hope. We both mourn and celebrate all we’ve lost through the living of our own lives. Somehow, we give justice to all the questions we forgot to ask, all the moments we let slip away while we were wrapped up in something else. We keep pushing, and it hurts sometimes, but we make it to the top with our community of riders. We allow ourselves catharsis.
This ride gave me the chance to say goodbye that cancer didn’t allow me. It gave me the chance to make greater peace with the stories that were left unwritten when cancer took the final days of my grandma’s life. It gave me strength at the same time that it gave me vulnerability.
We can never truly be prepared, but we can work to honor our pain as a gift of life. We can choose joy.
This is why I rode.