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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Texas Hell Week 2015

"I'm still recalling things you said to make 
me feel alright, I carried them with me today.

Now I lay me down to sleep 
This I pray,
That you will hold me dear
Though I'm far away 
I'll whisper your name up to the sky
And I will wake up happy."
Sophie Hawkins

I have had trouble making up my mind whether or not I should go to Hell Week this year.  My friends that do not live nearby to my home and that I normally get to see at least a time or two while in Texas are not going this year.  I am fat and out of shape.  And I am depressed. The air seems to have gained viscosity and to have become thick and gelatinous: each movement, each decision, is an effort requiring more than it seems possible to give.  Not all the time, thank goodness,  but still more of the time than I would like to admit.  Even my thought processes are slow and unwieldy. What if I lose it in front of people the way I sometimes do when I am alone? It is always so much worse crying in front of others for some reason, those naked, rasping sobs that come from so deep within laying you bare, bleeding, and exposed.  And to be on the other end is just as hard, to hear grief that you cannot allay or ease, even with a stranger, no less with a friend or loved one.  Such helplessness on the part of both because some things can't be changed and some feelings must be felt.  There are no "do-overs" with death, that "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."  (Shakespeare)  Things left unsaid remain unsaid and things not done remain undone.

People seem to think that three months have passed and I should be over the loss, over the 35 years we would have been married in February.  Or maybe I think that is what they are feeling and thinking.  Or maybe I myself think I should be over it.  As my mother always said, "There is no use crying over spilled milk." While the grief is still intense, it is less frequent and passes more quickly.   I don't cry as often, but I still cry and have little control over the when or how hard.

 Or perhaps it is just that it makes us so uncomfortable, the thought of death, the reminder of our own mortality, or worse, the thought of the loss of all that we hold dear and being the survivor and facing mortality alone without the person that has shared our life, the person that has sheltered us from the storms.  Sometimes the words of "Puff, the Magic Dragon," ( Peter, Paul, and Mary) come to my mind.  "Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave."  Can I be brave on my own? This question is yet to be answered.  But I know that life is out there, and that I hope can be a better person, albeit a difference person, by weathering this storm. And I know that rightly or wrongly my grief is far from over.  Still, you move on because that is what people do, because there really is no other choice. At least, no other healthy choice. 

The only thing that seems to help other than the passage of time are the words that the grief therapist tells me, that the feelings I have are  normal, that not sleeping is normal, that losing my memory is normal, that making bad decisions or failing to make any decision is normal.  It is normal that at times I clutch his  pillow or his wool cap  to my face breathing in the remaining scent of him, that smell of comfort and love,  that smell that is gradually fading and will become naught but a memory. And that slowly, I will return to being, not the person I was before, but perhaps a better person, more compassionate and understanding, wiser.  Life tempers us whether we like it or not. There is a comfort in being normal, something I have too often been accused of not being.   And yes, I do occasionally smile with more than my lips now despite the brevity of the time.

I waiver one way and then the other, finally deciding it will be good for me to go, and reminding myself that I still am responsible for the choices I make, that I should not feel guilty about those choices.  So I head to Louisville on Thursday afternoon to meet at Dave King's house, our yearly meeting place.  When I arrive, Dave gives me a big bear hug with that big, silly grin on his face, and yet again I realize how I miss friendly physical contact and I realize that I made the right decision, the healing decision in coming. I also realize yet again what a splendid person Dave is. Indeed, I knew it all along but was unsure if I could motivate myself.  I know that my husband would approve, that he would scold me for ever daring to think that I might not go.  Steve Rice arrives, the van is picked up and loaded, and we are on the road. 

I do hate the drive to Texas.  It is not so bad now that I have a Kindle, but it is still long and boring and the small, cramped sitting place in the back makes my knees ache.  But I am grateful to Dave and Steve for driving me and try my best never to make them wait or to complain or to ask to stop. I love them both for their generosity.  To thank them, I have taken to bringing small treat bags with me, but it is small potatoes compared to the driving they do down and back.  This year lots of people from the Louisville area are going:  Steve Rice, Dave King, Bill Pustow, Mark Rougeux, Amelia Dauer, Mike Crawford, Kirk Roggencamp, Kathy Hill, and Lise Andreason.  All of them are people I like and admire:  good riders and just nice folk.

We arrive and check in at our motel.  Shortly thereafter, we head to registration where we run into some of the others that we know.  We chat briefly, but everyone is tired from the trip. And then it is out to eat at the Enchanted Inn, our traditional first night eating establishment,  and back to try to sleep.  It is the last truly good night of sleep I will get until returning to my own bed where I can reach over when I awaken in the night confident that Tom will be there, unfailingly in the same spot on the bed each night,  my faithful furry companion. Tom is not a particularly attractive cat:  I adopted him because I feared nobody else would.  But Tom is Tom and has a wonderful personality.  Even grown he reminds me of Tom Sawyer, the character he was named after.  But in my eyes he is quite the handsome fellow. Lucy and Liz jump in and out of bed throughout the night, and occupy different spots or vacate the bed, but Tom is almost always in the same place each night, loyal.  I like that he is there and I am not alone. I like the rumbling that emanates from deep within his furry body; it comforts me. He is a nuisance, but I love him just the same.

The first ride of Hell Week this year is the LBJ Ramble and I set off with Steve, Mark, Dave, and Bill thoroughly intending to ride a century.  It is like coming home.  Every year I am bowled over by how very beautiful it is in the Texas hill country in the spring, a very different beauty than Kentucky or Southern Indiana.  Even the dead trees, bowed over, reminding me of old people who have seen much of the world and have shouldered more than their share of her burdens, are beautiful with their twisting, gnarled branches in varying shades of brown. A hint of green seeps through the landscape amidst the rocky terrain, doomed to never truly reach fruition but  lovely just the same. And I find that despite my mourning, I am glad that I am back.  I find myself smiling and occasionally laughing and actually interested in some things. I even sing a bit. Why do I always forget how lovely it is here in the spring?  How it makes my heart somersault and cartwheel. 

Early in the ride, following Mark's flat, we  run into Johnny Betrand who I have not seen since PBP 2011, and we are able to have lunch with him. When I see Johnny, I think of riding through a tiny French village during the 2007 PBP.  I am alone in the dark in an unknown land inhabited by those whose language I do not speak and feeling rather small and alone when I hear the soothing sound of whistling only to find Johnny is the whistler, the one speaking the universal language that is music, and I am comforted, for it was cold and lonely there on the road at times despite the large number of cyclists.

 After lunch, we head back out on the road. Steve and I have an informal competition each year over (a.) who rides the most actual centuries and (b.)who has the most cumulative Hell Week mileage.  Normally we split the victory with my usually having the most centuries but Steve having the most miles.  Last year I won both.  This year he will wind up doing the same.  I still have every intention of finishing the century,   but it is just so pleasant riding and being warm and talking with Bill, one of my favorite riding companions due to his pace, his humor, his sage advice, and his stories,  that we miss a turn and end up with a shorter ride.  I contemplate heading back out, but oddly enough I am ready to stop while the day was fun. I have determined not to push myself, but merely to try to enjoy myself and savor the company and the scenery.

The following day, we all ride the century ride to Camp Verde.  Mark particularly amazes me as he is approximately six weeks out from open heart surgery.  Talk about a non-wimp.  His bravery and endurance shame me.  But this is a hard day for me, the three month anniversary since the passing of my love.  Mark's surgery fixed his heart.  My experience took part of mine away.  I wonder if I will experience this on the 15th of every month, or if over time I will forget, not that he is gone, not that I loved him with all my heart and soul, but that this particular day was the day he flew away.  Last night, as each month prior, I woke at the time of his death as surely as if I had set an alarm clock.  Dates have never bound me as they seem to do some other people so perhaps it will pass.  I find myself riding off the front or falling behind, seeking where ever I can find privacy, great sobs racking my body, closing my throat, naked and despairing in a way I have not cried for quite some time now.

At the first store stop, I get to meet some of the other Big Dogs:  Larry Ides, Connie Mann,  and Joe Mann.  I try to smile and be friendly, but this is just one of those days where I feel like I am empty inside, a hollow shell going through the motions of living without really being alive.  I later apologize and they say they understand, and I hope they do.  They seem to be kind people.  From his posts that I have seen on Facebook, Larry seems to have a wicked sense of humor and it shows in his eyes, and it does not seem to be the cynical, cruel humor but the good kind.  It has always been difficult for me to meet new people, and today more so than normal.  At the mention of the Appalachian Adventure piece, I almost break down in front of everyone.  How I wish Lloyd had gotten to read it before he passed.  Overly proud of myself, I had wanted to save it until he could see it in print, but by then it was too late.  Yes, pride often does go before a fall. Despite my doubts, however, I do know that he knew how very much I loved him and that he was always proud of me and my meager accomlishments.

 I miss the clerk  that is normally there at this store, the one who for some reason has insisted upon telling me her life history, a rather sad life history.  Once when I questioned why people often seem to do this to me, to lay themselves bare when I don't really know them, my husband  said that people do this to me because, "They sense that you are essentially a kind person."  And all day I try to hold this and the other nice things he has said about me and to me as I struggle within and beat myself up over whether I could have prevented his death, whether a different diet or different medications could have prevented his stroke, whether I should have noticed something was wrong more quickly, whether I should have insisted on feeding tubes and the things he always told me he didn't want.  Thank goodness we had the good sense to talk about these issues prior to his passing.  Because I don't feel kind.  And I don't feel good.  And I don't feel brave. And I don't feel strong. The Sophie Hawkins song floats through my brain over and over in rhythm with my bicycle. I am determined to remember the good things he said to me, the loving the things, the strengths that he saw or said that he saw.  I am determined to move forward.

Normally in Texas, we ride, eat, and sleep, but because there are friends there, after the ride we clean up and then we gather at the house Lise, Amelia, and Mike rented to be treated to drinks and snacks.  There is some laughter and the telling of some stories before our departure to prepare for the 200K brevet.  I try to be there in the present, but I keep slipping backwards and inwards despite the lively conversation.

On Monday, yet again I am the only female at the brevet.  I am standing with the others when someone I don't know comes up and says he wants to ride with me because he wants to ride slowly.  "Excuse me," I think but don't say, "I don't know you."  Perhaps he does not mean it the way I take it as I don't like being out of shape and overweight, but I find it rather offensive that he considers me slow without knowing me and suddenly I am quite angry.  Normally I find speed on a bicycle to be vastly overrated.  I remember rides where I rode quite quickly, and I enjoyed many of them, but many of my favorites rides were the slow, chatty rides with close friends where we meandered and shared memories and stories and laughter. Now I may be slow, but unless he is faster than the friends I ride with, I'll drop him today.  And I do.  I start the ride with Mark, but when he turns back as he is not feeling well, I ride hard thinking I will be riding by myself and I would like to be in before darkness drapes the land.  Instead I catch the man who insulted me, pass him and his companion, and catch my friends at the first control and complete the ride with them.  I do not see the name caller again.  And perhaps I am over-reacting.  Probably I am overreacting.  I am not quite myself yet, or maybe stress makes the true ourselves show and I am just not a very nice person.  But it just seemed like walking up to a stranger and telling them they are ugly or fat or stupid.  Had he phrased it differently asking what pace I intended to keep, it would have been better because I really had no compulsion to hurry.  And brevets are supposed to be about companionship, not speed.

After leaving Mark but before catching Steve and Dave, I come about as close to being hit by a car as I have ever come before.  There are no cars in either direction, but a car pulls out from the opposite side of the ride going in my direction and the driver obviously does not see me.  I literally scream in fright as she passes within inches,swerving when she notices me, then waving over and over in apology.  A month or so before my husband had his stroke, he  told me that  he did not know if it was possible, but that if it was he would continue to look after me when he died.  Perhaps it is his angel hands and angel wings that swerve the car at the last second.  If nothing else, my brush with my own mortality helped me come to a big realization:  despite his loss, I am not ready to die. Yet again I commit myself to moving forward.  Yes again I have trouble visualizing what that looks like for me.

It is just so very difficult to imagine my life in the future because so much centered around our relationship.  Everything has been an adjustment, meals, cooking, household chores.  I don't want to be alone the rest of my life.  Indeed my husband told me I was too  young to be alone if he should die, but the thought of intimacy with another leaves me rather nauseous. I might not have been the best wife, but I was always a faithful wife.

I am disappointed at the first control that the taco stand bordering the river is closed again.  It is my favorite part of  this brevet and has been one of my favorite things in Texas.  We have ridden there numerous times just to get tacos.  But last year they started closing during the winter and this year is no different.  Stone Henge and Easter Island also have moved since the first time I bicycled these roads.  Briefly I am with Dave on that long ago 300K, remembering my amazement when I look to my left and see the Stone Henge replica.  We saw our first wild boar, dead, at the side of the road that year.  And I remember the glorious descent to Vanderpohl and the long climb back, the peculiar beauty of a church in that stretch, and the hum of our wheels on the long climb to Mountain Home. As we pass Mountain Home, I remember another ride where Dick Rauh, hot and exhausted, sat only to get up quickly after finding he was sitting on top of a fire ant hill. 

We finish the brevet at a reasonable hour and I think I will finally sleep, but at 5:00 a.m. I am still awake finally drifting off only to have the hotel fire alarm go off at approximately 6:00 a.m. So much for taking a day off.  Someone had burned toast in the toaster.  The young man minding the motel is obviously disconcerted, but  I point out to him, some of us are just glad it was a false alarm and our bicycles are not going to be burned to a crisp.  Momentarily I wonder about the melting point of titanium.   I decide to ride and just turn around if I am tired.  And we ride the shorter route to Lukenbach. This is particularly nice as we finish in time to eat at Cranky Frank's, one of my favorites.

 Prior to arriving at Lukenbach, however, Steve and Mark forge ahead leaving Bill and I to follow.  We stop to take photos and Bill moves ahead.  As I prepare to ride and catch him, I notice my leg.  To this day I have no idea how I did it, but I have managed to get cow dung up the inside of my lower leg all the way up to my knee.  It strikes me as funny as it is so me, and I laugh so hard my bike shakes.  Laughing hysterically, I ride hard and catch Bill telling him to look at my leg.  Initially, for some unknown reason, (maybe because I always have grease on me) he thinks it is grease.  When he finds it is cow dung, he christens me with a new Mad Dog nick name, "Shitty" dog.  I wash it off with a water bottle and a cotton glove and ride on to Lukenbach where Bill is able to show a photo to the guys.

 The next day Bill and I decide to ride over to Waring for one of their famous hamburgers.  Normally, we head over to Bandera and do either the Death Ride or the Brush With Death, both favorites, but Steve and Dave are doing the 300K, rain was predicted, and this just seemed easier.  I am fairly certain I will not go to PBP this year, and I have little desire to go anywhere, particularly until the medical bill mess I am in the midst of is settled.

Both of us like the route to Waring, the climb up to Old Number 9 from both directions, and our lunch companion, a white turkey who would not share our food, only seeming to want our company. I don't know that I have ever been quite so close to a turkey before, and inside the store we laugh when he gobbles loudly scaring another rider and making him jump.  He later does the same to me and it is still funny. I do feel a bit of sympathy for Bill as I talk his ear off.  I realize that without Lloyd to share things with, I am lonely at times. Just another thing I miss, the way he would listen to me.  Not that I didn't sometimes get the "yes, dear," treatment, but often he was actually interested in what I was thinking, feeling, or saying.

And then, all too soon and ,ironically, not soon enough it is Thursday.  Steve asks if I am okay with leaving on Friday instead of Saturday since the prediction is for a heavy rain, and it sounds okay with me.  The "special weather statement" concerns me. I am glad I came, but for some reason I have not slept and I have had periods of intense homesickness.  I ask if we can ride Kendalia rather than the scheduled ride.  I like the Kendalia route, and what other route passes dinosaur footprints.  Bill does not ride with us today, and he does not believe in the tracks, but I have seen them with my own eyes.  Mark, Dave, Steve, and I head out, but Mark and Dave turn around at Sisterdale after a drink and snack.  While the store is not officially "open," the woman is working and allows us in to get something.

On the route, we run into everyone that has come from Kentucky despite not planning it and it not being the "route of the day."  We end the ride with Amelia, Lise, and Mike.  Steve has ridden strongly all day despite his 300K the previous day.  I mention that it has been the best weather we have had for Hell Week in a number of years, and it was.

And then it is home again, home again, jiggity jig.   A long drive with my husband no longer telling me he is holding down the couch waiting for me when I ask what he is up to.  But then life is about change.  And it is good to be home and in my own little bed.  And I sleep knowing that one day, I'll wake up happy.  

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