This is a probably-three-parter series about loss, because that’s been the kind of month/year/half-decade this has been.
One of the inspirations for writing 30 blog posts in 30 days (we’re going to make it!) is my Dad’s legacy of openness, which I am trying to build more firmly into my being. At his memorial service, more than one person noted with admiration that, even though he died suddenly, Dad left no unfinished business. People knew he loved them because he told them often, in word and in deed. He didn’t wait to share his thoughts for a special occasion. Dad gave many gifts, and one of them was the lesson that showing affection in real time leaves a legacy of joy and allows people to grieve purely, without regret or reservation.
I find that one of the places I process emotions most keenly is on the saddle of a bicycle during a long ride. Elly Blue captured the relationship between grief and cycling in her book, Cycletherapy: Grief and Healing on Two Wheels. My friend Aaron reminded me of this when he shared this recent post from Cycling Tips.
For the past three years, every long ride has held some element of grieving my Dad’s passing. He was one of the most important people in my life; and I have found grief coupled with gratitude to be one way to remember how much I learned from him, how much I love him, how profoundly I miss him.
Last year, I was lucky enough to serve as social media manager for Bicycle Rides Northwest, a nonprofit that hosts two weeklong supported rides every summer in the Pacific Northwest. This meant I would ride the entire course and write daily blog articles and social media posts. It was, in short, a honey of a side gig. The second event of the year was a 450-ish mile week in Idaho. Each day held 55-100 miles of gorgeous riding. Of course, that meant the memory of my Dad came along for the ride.
I have a few playlists that I use while cycling longer distances, thanks to a small handlebar-mounted speaker. My “I’m riding through beautiful, winding, verdant country” playlist has a complement of strummy tunes, from k.d.lang to Ray Charles to Gillian Welch to the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Listening to crooning while following a meandering road along a river has a way of putting me in a gentle-gaze frame of mind. It gives me a soundtrack to hum to as I tease out the questions in my life with a view to finding answers.
But there were a few songs that I just couldn’t add until recently. Dad loved Johnny Cash, and I wasn’t able to bring myself to include him in the playlist originally, because I knew I would start crying and potentially crash my bike. I stayed away from any song I felt could reduce me to a puddle while on my saddle. Safety first! I remember being proud of myself as I chose which songs to include.
Then Emmylou Harris’ rendition of “Orphan Girl” caught me like a sneaker wave the morning we left Stanley, Idaho.
It was a sub-freezing morning when we broke camp in Stanley. The fog had socked us in, mist slicking tents and bikes indiscriminately. A good 45 minutes tick-tocked before emerging from the fog; but when the sun broke through, I looked back to find a view of a sparkling river backdropped by the Sawtooth Mountains that stole my breath away. I was overwhelmed by the abject beauty of our world. It was right then that “Orphan Girl” came on the speaker; the knowledge that I would never get to share a morning as beautiful as this with my Dad again reached into me. I couldn’t even tell him about it when I got home. The thought roared up and smashed me in that deep place. I couldn’t stop sobbing. Jesus, I’m not even an orphan (I love you, Mom, and I probably owe you a phone call!), but there I was, keening at the side of the road.
Luckily, I was far enough ahead of most other cyclists that I didn’t have to try to explain away the sobbing state of me. I gave myself five minutes to waterfall, then breathed myself back in. I was still crying when my ass hit the saddle, but I was able to pedal. I spent the next several miles remembering how Dad taught me to ride a bike, and what an amazing gift that proved to be. I breathed and thought and cried and can’t remember when I have felt so grateful to be on a bicycle. Dad would have loved it.
What I learned at life that day: Own grief fully and pedal through it.