Sunday, November 20, 2011

Beauty Persists

A little bit of normalcy returned to Velophoriaville this week -- a full week of work, followed by many hours of catching up on chores around the property (cutting brush and raking leaves -- not exactly torture on a beautiful fall day). Finally, I took a couple hours yesterday to really get out there on a bike and vacate.

Six weeks of unrelenting intensity fell away. As my friend Herringbone once so aptly wrote (I'm paraphrasing here), "As soon as I got on the bike, I felt better." Miserable head colds, injuries and inactivity, four days in a chilly, dark house without power, endless tense waiting for Dad to die, hopeless wishing that he would never die, anguish over his suffering, and then the surreal visit to NYC last weekend after he passed on...

To say it all melted away is cliché: The more accurate statement is that it vanished, the moment I rolled out of the garage with an image of Atkins Reservoir, shining in the sun at the top of a dirt-road climb, crystallized in my mind's eye.

The day was untouchable, 48 degrees and clear as a bell, the shadows chilly and the sun toasty,  the colors of every object -- barns, trees, meadows, tarmac -- condensed and intensified in the surreal brilliant Kodachrome autumn light. Contrast was cranked up to 11. Everything seemed cut out of brilliantly hued paper and pasted on top of everything else.

I discovered a couple of new hiking trails and some broad singletrack well-suited to the Vaya's limited off-road capacities. Farther on, I paused at the reservoir to snap a shot, breathe, and feel grateful. The silence was golden, the air was scrubbed clean.

A middle-aged, fit-looking guy ran by with his dog, and we smiled at each other knowingly: "This is as good as it gets, it's why we do these crazy things." Caught up to him further down the road and he asked about the Vaya, said he lived on one of the many dirt roads in the area and rued his purchase of an upscale road bike poorly suited to local surfaces. Gave a hearty endorsement of my bike, and rolled on for home, powered up, as always, by a friendly interaction during a ride.

Last night, a deluxe dinner at an elegantly understated Argentinian steakhouse in Northampton. Mrs. V. and I chatted and laughed as if we were still courting, charged up with delight in each other's special-ness.

Death comes. Death goes. Grief is a process we're all involved in, know it or not. Everyone falls down and hurts themselves. Bodies heal -- or they don't. Power lines collapse, bad news comes in clusters, people will be mean and stupid. But there's a lot of good in this world.

Beauty persists.

Go find some.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Now Cracks a Noble Heart


The man who, 44 Springs ago, happily lugged me around Central Park's bike loop on the back of Raleigh three-speed and then treated all of us to the famous soft serve at the Boat House, has left this Earth.

The guy who, 40 Springs ago, ran behind my candy-apple red bicycle (training wheels freshly removed) on the boardwalk in Riverside Park, with his hand steadying the seat until I gathered enough speed to stay upright for ten yards, has left us.

The man who, 31 Springs ago, booked me on my first bicycle tour, in which I ranged from Boston to the Green Mountains to the White Mountains, is gone.

That man bought me my first road bike for that trip, a burgundy Saint Tropez, a cheap, heavy, Asian, steel boat anchor, famous for nothing beyond hauling my tuchus all over the East and West Coasts during two high school summers. While I was still admiring the sparkly paint job, the movie Breaking Away was re-released (due to Academy Award nominations); one soft Friday night in April he pressed a ten-dollar bill in my hand and sent me to the Embassy on Broadway and 72nd Street, knowing that it would strike a chord -- but not knowing nearly how big a chord, nor how long-lasting.

That same man stubbornly forbid me to try organized bike racing during the very next summer.  He had so many admirable qualities, but he also could be controlling, distant, and overbearing, especially in those days. He decided I would earn money and get my teenaged rear end out of the house. Decent ideas, but I'll always regret not finding a way to sign up for local races anyway, even against his wishes, while I was young, strong, and reckless enough to be somewhat good at it.

*     *     *

But let us rewind to the beginning. Way back to Riverside Park, when I was about seven. Because what happened there not only is a primal bike memory, it also reflects something more profound about our relationship.

He took his hand off the seat. While running alongside, he took his hand away, to let me experience self-sufficiency.

I shot along the boardwalk on my own steam for a good ten yards before I turned to look over my shoulder and make sure he was still there, and not knowing better, I let my shoulder, arm and hand followed my chin, the front wheel came off-center, wobbled a little and then a lot -- and then I was down on the pebbly pavement. Top speed had probably been six miles per hour, but at that age, every crash is a disaster, life-threatening. But to be honest, I was more upset at what had happened just before the crash and the scraped skin. My father had deceived me. My own dad led me to think he was there when he wasn't. That was a new formulation in my little Technicolor child's world.

Eventually, he got me back on the bike, and the realization came over me (or perhaps he just talked me into seeing) that I had, actually, ridden on my own for thirty feet -- so perhaps I could do it again.

The next three or more decades would mostly be an awkward dance, in which he usually had his hand on my saddle when I didn't want him to, and didn't when I did. Throughout a dysfunctional childhood in my mom's house, Dad did his level best to provide me and my sister with a sense of confidence and a compass for this confusing world. He himself was confused, still a young man, freshly and very acrimoniously divorced. He was with us a lot, but he could only do triage.

So, I wandered all over the map for my first 40 years, unmoored, looking for Me, for Truth, for Safety and Inner Peace. I made some good things, and some glorious and bloody train wrecks. I broke my own heart and lost hope many times over, and, consequently, he suffered, silently, stoically, more than I'll ever know.

Finally, in middle age, I woke up. I went to grad school (his idea), found a career that I fit into, found an amazing woman, found a beautiful place to live, found a beautiful house to stay in for a long time, and found myself, ourselves, beginning the process of adoption. In about seven years, I did all the growing up and risk-taking I had managed to avoid for four decades. It's been harrowing, still is, but it's been good, too. Smartest seven years of my life, hands down.

Dad was so pleased all along, he probably popped buttons on four different shirts. I was finally out of the nest and flying. He was there for my joyous wedding, helped with expenses in grad school, there for my graduation, visited the house we finally bought... quietly smiling, and giving me congratulations each time.

In the last few years, noticing me become the man he always wanted me to be, he began steadily  confiding in me, treating me almost as an equal. This blew me away, of course -- my stoic, overbearing father was leaning on me? My life was sweetened immeasurably. Last Spring, when he received his diagnosis, he opened up yet more, quite a lot, in fact. Amongst the upset and anxiety, I was overjoyed. Ages before, he had his hand out to steady me, now, by the blessings of God, I could return the favor. More and more, he disclosed his fears, worries, and joys, and relied on me for perspective, for reflection. He recognized my growing steadyness and maturity, and reached for it to brace himself. I was  overwhelmed, even awed, but I can tell you this: I never took my hand off that saddle. I could finally pay him back for the steadfastness he gave me so unthinkingly over the years.

*     *     *

Dad died Sunday night, after a seven-month bout with cancer. He was strong and dignified to the end, and, thank God, did not have a lot of physical pain to deal with.

I know in my heart he is looking back over his shoulder, just like me all that time ago. He was a doting family man, and his greatest sadness was leaving his wife and children. But now there are no training wheels needed, nor anyone's hand on the saddle. Far from falling, he's flying.

Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. 
       ~ Hamlet, Act V, scene ii

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lines From the Front

Weird times continue. Waiting for a loved one to die is like living in a science fiction story; everything around me is familiar, but somehow changed. And someone with a very odd sense of reality is writing the scenes. It's as if every day were spent engulfed in an eerie orange glow. Or on a city floating in the sky. There are good people in the story, angelic beings proffering soothing ministrations; protective familiars trotting faithfully at your heel. They are among the legion of supporters of the benevolent King, lying on his deathbed. Yet there is an evil presence lurking in the background. You can't see or touch it, but something in the rhythm of the prose makes you stick your nose in the air and sniff nervously.

Nothing is as it was, but nothing has changed. Limbo. Perhaps you're stored cryogenically on an outer-space staging ship, floating in orbit, getting by on minimal power, life support systems only, waiting, waiting.

To add to the surreality, we had a freak 10 inches of wet, heavy snow here last weekend that took out power from a record 700,000 customers in Massachusetts alone. We were without power for almost five days. Living night and day in front of the fireplace, cooking in tiny camping pots over the flames. Remember how ready you were to go home after your last long camping trip, all rank, dank, and cold to the bone? Yeah. Like that, except already home.

My longest workout in the last month has lasted 27 minutes. My injuries and head-cold and a ton of busy-ness have kept me off the road. This has not helped mood. Tomorrow, I hope to go out and have a real adventure -- cover a shocking 12 or 15 miles. When I exercise, my quads turn to overheated oatmeal. They just disappear on me. I am not the man I was a month ago. Now I know why most of America refuses to start an exercise program. Working out when you're weak is one of the most unpleasant sensations available outside of a dentist's office. There's not one fun part of it until it's well over.

And yet none of this is a heartfelt complaint. More and more I feel like life just is what it is. Enjoy the pleasant stuff, don't run from the hard stuff. Be alive, be here. Blah, blah, blah: all that New Age stuff turns out to be annoyingly on target.

As for a Reward after it's all over, I know less about that than I ever have. There is nothing like watching a loved one go through extended suffering before he dies to winnow out the wheat from the chaff in your spiritual beliefs. The little bit of sturdy stuff stands after the rest has been whisked away like so many empty hulls on a stiff breeze. So what's the sturdy stuff, you ask? (Don't we all want to know that one?) For me, for today, it's summed up in my latest entry in a journal I've been keeping of my thoughts and feelings from the time of my Dad's diagnosis:
You can stop an organism, and if you don’t, it eventually winds down, like a watch that can no longer be wound. But you can not snuff out Life. I don’t know where it goes. I don’t know if it coheres as a “person” or “soul” once the organism stops. But I know that the Life in me, and the Life in Dad, will not die. Can not die.

It sure isn’t a lot. And it’s less than I used to think I knew, a whole lot less. But it’s a lot more than nothing, too.
 That's my postcard from the front today. Not cheery, but certainly not depressed. And that's saying quite a lot, considering.

Keep 'em turning.