Saturday, October 1, 2011

How I got here

I've been under the weather for most of the week with a strange malady in which the only symptom was exhaustion. No nasal stuff, no cough, no tummy woes--most days I simply felt as if someone had opened a vein and drained the life out of me every night as I slept.

Consequently, I did little riding...or at least, that was my perception. I keep track of my mileage on a training log called, and it does a great job of totaling up things for you. Among other gizmos that the log sports, there is a little calendar thingy off to one side that shows a bar graph of your weekly totals for the month, but you have to mouse over it to see an actual number. Imagine my surprise today when I checked it out after my ride and found that I had logged over 100 miles this week.

That I could log that much and not consider it to be an especially difficult week, mileage-wise (illness-wise is another matter) says volumes about where I am in my fitness near the end of the Bike Garden Challenge versus where I was when I began. When I started this thing back in January, I had serious doubts that I could ride 2000 miles in a year, having only ever ridden 1500 or so in my best previous years. And yet here I am, just starting October and looking at, perhaps, only another week or two of riding before reaching that goal.

It was easy...and it wasn't. The easy part was building the fitness. The not-so-easy part was all the normal slings and arrows of life that sometimes slowed me down.

I was telling a friend yesterday that while I am happy that I have been able to do something for the South Plains Food Bank as the result of this challenge, the fact of the matter is that it has been just as beneficial to me--perhaps even more so. Without people depending on me, I might not have re-started on the bike after being temporarily derailed by the bout of influenza in February, the debilitating stomach virus in May, the trip to Chicago, the week teaching at Mary Baldwin College in June, the trip to San Francisco, the two weeks of head cold this September, and this last, mystery fit of exhaustion. In the past any one of those would have been excuse enough to drift away from a fitness routine.

More importantly, though, is how the bike carried me through a difficult summer in which my mother's health declined and she passed away. It was not easy for me to sit with a dying person. Most days she was barely responsive, and when she was, I'm not sure she knew that I was there or who I was. And even when she was awake, I was at a loss for what to do. She seemed restless and uncomfortable, but whenever I spoke to her or touched her hand or face, it seemed not to matter at all. It fell to the professionals to turn her, feed her, and clean her. The best help I could offer was to be there to call someone whenever she did wake up and needed something. The rest of the time, I sat and read, or watched TV.

My sisters, I believe, were better at this than I was. I have never been much of a nurturer, and truthfully, I was at a loss as to how to step up my game when it was needed. I can't speak for them but I found so many days of feeling useless and inadequate to be indescribably draining. I'd taken my bike down to San Angelo, however, and in the mornings, before it got unbearably hot, I would go for a ride, telling myself that it was for the Bike Garden Challenge and the good people of the food bank. In truth, though, it was for me. I couldn't turn my mother or feed her, but I could ride. It was something I was not helpless to do. It put back in what sitting with the dying was taking out. I would like to believe that by helping me, it helped my mother. The hard-eyed realist in me doubts this. As with so many other things in life, I am agnostic about what was going on in my mother's life in her last days. She couldn't tell me; I couldn't devine it.

Rebecca Solnit, in one of her essays called "The Blue of Distance" (she has several with this same title, from the book A Field Guide to Getting Lost), says that we treat desire as a problem to be solved. That phrase has resonated with me ever since I read it shortly after my father died, a couple of years ago. The reason it has stuck with me is because I think it is true of other things that cause us discomfort as well. We treat helplessness as a problem to be solved. We treat death that way. We treat grief that way.

Solnit's thesis is that perhaps we should embrace the discomfort that unfulfilled desire causes us and accept it for its own place in our lives--that the discomfort itself creates an important form of beauty. Some things we have, she says, only so long as they remain lost to us. My head thinks that is probably true of those other "problems" as well. The trouble is that the head and the heart don't always speak the same language.

I dreamed about my mother last night. In this dream, doctors had discovered a pill that they could give her to restore her speech. Bulbar palsy had robbed her of it for most of her last two years, and here, in the dream, doctors had solved a problem they couldn't solve in waking life. The strange thing was that I felt so guilty that we had not been able to come up with a solution before this. Two years! Two years we had let her remain mute, when there was this little pill all along...I apologized to her, over and over in the dream.

But there wasn't a little pill in real life. In real life, all we could do was watch helplessly as she drifted away from us, unable to talk, to tell us how she felt about things, what made her happy, what made her sad. It was a problem that couldn't be solved, but the heart doesn't speak that language.

I don't know what the dream meant or why I had it. It was just my brain, working overtime to solve the larger problem of grief, I suppose. I awoke and wondered why I hadn't used the opportunity presented by the dream to have a conversation with her. There is so much about the last two or three years that I would have liked to talk to her about, to hear what she thought about things, to have her counsel. But I woke, and then it was too late. You can't go back to a dream.

On waking, the strange exhaustion was gone, so I got on my bike. Toward the end of my ride, as has sometimes happened over the past few months, I thought about my mother, and I cried as I rode. It is easier to manage than you might think. It is more healing than you can imagine. Somewhere in there, I rode past the point where I have fewer than 100 miles to go on the Challenge. And in this way, day in and day out, riding and letting the unsolvable problems ride along, I have arrived, finally, at this point.

Both my mother and father are gone now, and I am still uncertain what to make of this or how to proceed in a landscape in which they do not exist. For the moment, however, I am going to try not to treat grief as a problem to be solved. I am going to tell my brain to take a break and let the heart have its day. For the moment, I am going to let it ride.


  1. Susan, what a touching essay. I might suggest that your exhaustion this past week may be your way of working through the grief cycle, too. It takes whatever time that it takes to move through this process. You are lucky to have a bike 'therapy' program that is your vehicle for processing. Take care.

  2. Lovely writing. Words are inadequate. *hug*

  3. Just this: thank you. Oh, and a hug from me, too.

  4. I'm sending a huge hug from across the pond. As Clare has said already, I believe your exhaustion is another part of the grief cycle. And looking after yourself is also important, so it's great that you've had the bike challenge to focus on during this time.

    I also believe that losing your parents is the final stage in growing up. I've only lost one parent so far and losing the other seems quite daunting to me.

    Thanks for your advice the other day - within seconds of our arrival at the restaurant, we knew it was the right thing to do. We've just had the best meal (and service) of our lives.

  5. Like VP, I believe we remain children until we no longer have our parents, no matter how old we are. In the back of my mind I am dealing with a time in the future after I have lost my parents. They are both very much alive, but are nearing their 80's. The miracle that is modern medicine has turned what once were life altering circumstances into mere bumps in the road. However, I know at some point miracles cease, both medical and spiritual.

    I know you get on the bike and ride when you need to sort things out, but I am sure you also do a good bit of sorting when you write, and you do that well.

  6. Susan, keep riding ... keep writing ... and know that you have many friends holding you in their hearts as you navigate this grief journey.

  7. Clare, Deborah, Susan, Les, VP, Cindy--you all are the best.

  8. I don't feel like you take to compliments well, but very powerful essay, Dr. T. I'm glad you made us read Solnit's essay. I still think about them a lot, too.

    The feeling of helplessness is draining - I can relate to the exhaustion from it. As a student, I experience it all of the time --- being in a field in which I have the opportunity to stand in a room before a family and their dying loved one. As a student, there's not much I know how to do, or what to say, and sometimes it drives me crazy; I'm there, after all, because I want to fix them. Fix, fix, fix. Because we're raised to believe that that's the only solution. In efforts to maintain my sanity, and spirit (I realize these are from the same tree), I've found that sometimes just being there, in the room, like you've mentioned is the only, and if not only-- best solution likewise. Upon realizing that there's nothing useless, or helpless, about just being there with someone, and realizing that there are no heroic measures to "fix," but to let it be, life got much less fatigued, and I felt much more fulfilled.

    Remembering that you checked off the only box on the page there was for handling the situation might help if or when you forget. There were no boxes on the page for the miracle pill, or "gave excellent emotional support," or "knew/said the exactly right thing to say at _____moment," just the one: you were there. That was what was there for you to do, you did it, and you did a damn good job; and while it's in our nature to try and find some other box on the page to check off, sometimes it's just the one.

  9. Eileen, you are going to be a good doctor.

  10. Susan, I felt so touched reading this. You have such a beautiful way with words. I feel so nurtured knowing you.


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