I finally managed to submit an entry to the Dirt Rag Literature contest, but sadly, it didn’t win. I thought I’d post it so someone other than my wife (and the judges with poor taste at Dirt Rag) would have a chance to read it. If you’re interested, check it out!
I open my eyes and see a bright white ceiling. I notice the rough texture of the ceiling tile and watch odd patterns emerge from the chaos. I feel strange. Drugged. I try to move but my muscles argue and refuse to cooperate. I manage to turn my head and see my wife sitting in an uncomfortable chair. She gazes at me with a sympathetic smile. A nurse stands beside her. The pattern of colored shapes on her scrubs dances and shivers. It frightens me. She leaps into action at the sight of my movement. I try to speak but my throat feels like sandpaper. My wife approaches.
“How you feeling?”
“Bad,” I force out and cringe from the effort.
“The doctor said it went really well.” She’s speaking in a bright, excited tone, so I know she’s giving me the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.
“He said the nerve was purple and inflamed and that he was able to clean out the herniated disc and everything looks great. He said there’s still plenty of disc left so you should be in good shape.”
It starts coming back. A sneeze, while standing in an odd position, bulged out an already inflamed disc in my lower back. I was out of action for a year. After months in physical therapy with little success, my choices were reduced to dealing with life status quo or taking a chance on surgery. I wanted a piece of my old life back. I rolled the dice and entrusted my doctor to repair me like a broken machine.
I try to speak again. She see’s my trouble and stops me.
“Just get some sleep,” she says. “I’ll be back with the kids later,”
I nod, smile at the good news and lay back into the bed. I might actually be fixed. The deep pain in my back and the strange, hypnotic beeps of the machines fade as I fall into a deep peaceful sleep.
It’s hot. The sun beats down on the dozen of us straddling our bikes just behind an orange line painted in the grass. Spectators stare at our brightly colored lycra that we wear proudly. We’re already sweating and staring at our water bottles. We all think the same thing. It won’t be enough.
“Ok everyone!, Race time!, TEN, NINE”
I clip into my right pedal.
Deep breath. Exhale. Deep breath. Exhale.
“THREE, TWO, ONE, GO!!!”
Derailleur shifters click like machine gun fire as we accelerate. My lungs expand and collapse pumping oxygen to my thirsty muscles. The group forms into a line. There’s no speaking, there’s no need to. We’re all looking forward across the wide, grassy field at a small opening in the forest canopy. Twelve riders and only one will be first. Less than 20 seconds of effort and my legs are filled with burning acid. My bodies self protection system is screaming to halt this mad intensity. It’s more than it can handle. I punch the override button and battle on. There’s always more power. Who ever can find it will be first. The pain is intense but there is no where else I’d rather be. The adrenaline pumps through my veins and I’m feeling higher than an any combination of drugs can replicate. The waves of emotions cascade like waterfalls through my head. I want the pain to stop. I want to be first into the forest. This dichotomy battles itself out in my head. The forest is approaching. Everyone waits for the move. I see it. I want it. I go. I don’t know where it will come from or if it will be there, but I go. My legs turn at what feels like an unimaginable cadence. I wonder if the fabric of space will tear. Surely time as we know it has stopped and the universe is focused on this one moment. This one effort. My lungs rip molecules of Oxygen from the atmosphere. I’m shoulder to shoulder with another rider. We’re close. Someone will pull ahead or we’ll both crash. I find more and pull inside. We’re in. I’m first.
Now it’s time to pull away. I pedal hard down the first straight away. I dive into the next corner and pump the bike through the rolling terrain. I ease my heart rate down from its dangerous levels as I focus on the trail. My mind scans every corner, rock and root. I pick out spots to bank into turns. I unweight and float over the ground. Any lost speed or effort is unacceptable. I calculate the momentum I can carry into each corner. My tire tread slips, slips slips and then catches as I roll out of the turn with speed. My mind and my bike are connected on a deep level. It’s just an extension of my body. We dance over the terrain. I do not ride with my bike. I ride with my mind. This is where I belong. I steal a glance behind me. There’s one rider that can match me today. He’s on my wheel. I need to attack and drop him, but the time must be right. No wasted effort. I feel invincible. I decide to test my opponent. I shift and attack a climb with everything I have. My heart threatens to explode as I reach the top. I look back. He’s still there.
Then there’s a sound, an awful sound. Pssshhhhhht. A flat tire, but no, wait, that’s not exactly right. What’s going on?
“Mr. Lennon? Mr. Lennon?”
“I’m sorry, but you need to stay awake for this”
The nurse is releasing the air from the blood pressure apparatus.
I readjust. I’m confused.
“OK,” my voice scratches out. I try to adjust myself but can’t move an inch without severe pain. I collapse back into bed. The nurse performs her tests and measurements, reminds me about the small button I can press to inject myself with high powered pain medication and walks away. I drift off.
It’s cold. It’s very cold. The sound of a bicycle tire crunches on top of packed snow. My legs turn lumberingly slow moving the massive fat tire over the crusty terrain. It’s dark but a crimson glow is forming over the eastern horizon. My headlamp illuminates ice crystals hanging in the air. They dance around me like fairy dust. On my right I hear the river rolling through the valley. The sound of rushing water is amplified by the blanket of white insulation covering the ground. I’m wrapped in a synthetic cocoon that protects me from the cold. The trail is alive beneath my wheels. It’s constantly collapsing and evolving. One moment I float on soft pillowy powder then I crawl through broken crust that rivals a technical rock garden. I pull the bitter cold air into my lungs. It stings and reminds me that I’m alive. As I crawl along the trail in what seems a desolate tundra of another world, it’s hard to imagine that I’m only miles from home in theCuyahogaValleyof northeastOhio. The crushed limestone towpath is buried beneath me. The flat, smooth trail frequented by thousands off walkers and cyclists in the summer has been transformed by nature. My wheels may never touch the snow of the Iditarod trail, but there are always ways to challenge ourselves if we just open our front doors. I approach a road and pause for oncoming headlights. I stare though the orange tint of my worn goggles as he pears through is frosted windshield. He’s warm and comfortable, sipping his coffee. He stares at me like an alien. I feel more engaged and alive than he will feel all day, possibly ever. I can feel my body temperature drop and my hands and feet tingle. A harsh gust strains to penetrate my layers of armor. My truck’s thermometer read -6F as I rode away. It’s time to move. I climb onto the saddle and pedal hard into the snow bank and float onto the trail.
“Mr. Lennon, time to wake up.”
“Huh, weren’t you just here?”
“That was two hours ago. We have to perform vitals every two hours.”
I’m sleep deprived and in a drug hazed bonk from lack of food. My body demands calories and rest but my care provider refuses. Modern medicine knows best. She has her way with me and I drop back into bed. I try to turn to my right side and my muscles revolt. I stare at the button hanging beside me like the forbidden apple. One press and the pain will disappear. Before I can make another attempt, I’m out.
It’s a crisp, spring morning. The sky is the same deep blue of my wife’s eyes. I stand in my driveway, sipping coffee and embracing the peace. I hear the garage door slam.
I turn to see my five year old son, skipping towards me, still pushing his left shoe onto his foot.
“Can you take off my training wheels?”
“You think you’re really ready this time?”
“Yep, I want to ride on two wheels!” he says while pointing to the sky like Superman.
“You sure? You’re not going to chicken out again, are you?”
He stares at me with a strangely mature face, “Yes. Take off my training wheels.”
I don’t argue. I take his tiny 14” Trek and throw it on my truck’s tail gate. I grab some wrenches and remove the training wheels. I see terror mixed with nervous excitement on his face. I know it well.
“All right, let’s go!” I say.
I walk his bike down our driveway and onto our quiet road.
“You going to hold me Daddy?”
“Just for a while. Once you’re steady, I’ll let go.”
“OK,” he says uncertainly.
“If you lose your balance, just put your foot down. OK? Easy.”
He starts pedaling. I’m trotting behind him with a solid grip on his shoulder. I can feel his balance steady. I gradually loosen my grip as he becomes more stable. I’m just gently holding his shirt and then I let go. He rolls about twenty feet, realizes he’s riding solo and topples over to the side.
“Dad! You let me crash!” he says while laying on the ground twisted like a pretzel with his bike.
“You were riding ! You had it!” I say as I jog towards him.
He gets to his feet and stares me down as if I killed Santa Claus.
“Come on, you had it. Let’s do it again. When I let go, you just keep pedaling down the street and try to ride around the circle.”
He straddles the bike and climbs on the pedals. We start off again. He locks into a solid, balanced position quickly this time. I loosen my grip and he’s gone. He pedals away from me.
“Dad, I’m riding on two wheels!”
“Good job! You got it!”
He rounds the cul-de-sac with ease. With each pedal stroke his movements become more relaxed and natural. How quickly we bond with these awkward machines. He’s riding straight towards me. He’s smiling. His dark eyes are bright with wonder. A new world is opening up in his mind. He’s feeling the gentle breeze from his movement. He’s already sensing how to move the bike with slight shifts of his body. He’s experiencing the overwhelming sense of freedom and adventure from sitting on a bike saddle. The same emotions that I feel every time I climb on a bicycle, he’s now experiencing for the first time. A tear wells up in my eye as he rides towards me, back pedals to lock in his coaster brake and skids to a halt inches from my feet.
“Dad! Daddy! Dad! Daddy!”
The fog lifts from my drug induced sleep.
My two boys stand at my hospital bed. Their bright faces energize my spirit. It feels like weeks since I’ve seen them.
“Dad! Did you have an operation?”
“Yeah, I did buddy.”
“Uh, Are you going to be OK?”
I remember the look in his eyes. The joy and wonder of endless possibilities. That moment hasn’t even occurred yet, but it will, and very soon.
“Yeah, buddy, we’re going to be just fine.”