by Emily Brown
Even though there was frost on my windshield this morning and I sipped on a hot coffee with a scarf wrapped tight around my neck as I drove to work, the afternoon is warm and the sun on my back nudges me to unwrap my scarf and save it for the cooler days that are sure to come. There is no wind, and it almost feels unsettling for this time of year. As I step outside, I reach for my hood, prepared to pull it tight, and bow my head low, bracing for the gust of wind that would typically bite my cheeks and color the tip of my nose red, but, instead, I am met with happy sun and a silent calm. Not even a single leaf tumbles across the sidewalk. I mention to the woman passing by how odd it feels to not need a heavy jacket, and she adamantly agrees. I have a few errands to run before I meet my friend for an afternoon bike ride.
I have 30 minutes before the ride begins. I butter a piece of bread, pile two slices of swiss cheese in the middle, fold it in half and throw it on the sandwich griddle while I change clothes and fill my CamelBak with water. I return to the kitchen to my now overcooked sandwich, grab it with my fingers and quickly throw it onto my plate, then shake my hands and blow on my fingers after touching the bubbling cheese.
I eat outside in my backyard and share my crust with our chickens that seem just as happy as me that the fall has decided to linger this year. This bike ride was scheduled almost a week ago, and I am so glad because, had it not been, I probably would have wasted the afternoon away drinking beer under the warm rays of the sun that are savored and adored more wholeheartedly because of their impending departure as cruel winter settles in. Plus, I might die soon.
My friend pulls up in her husband’s old Pathfinder, since a deer apparently ran into her car. We laugh about how ridiculously hard it is to put bikes on a roof rack of a tall car. With a grunt, I lift my bike over my head to my friend who stands on the seat of the car with the door open. She places the bike awkwardly in the rack and secures it. I grab us each a sparkling water and we hop in the car and take off. It feels like vacation.
A few hours earlier, I had been told very seriously by my dentist that I need to get my bloodwork checked. Anytime a health professional starts a sentence with, “Not to scare you,” what follows will most certainly scare you. I heard the word “leukemia” and then some other words about my gums and systemic health. I walked out of the exam room pretending to be totally calm. I made another appointment for six months later and walked out the door to be greeted again by the eerie calm of a windless Wyoming fall day.
Since my family is gone for the weekend, I also walked into the eerie calm of my house. I began to make phone calls, trying to figure out where I go to get this bloodwork done. I found out there is a little lab that offers nearly free bloodwork every Wednesday. Wednesday? Really? After the short drive from the dentist to home with the word “leukemia” still bouncing through my mind, I am almost convinced I won’t make it that long. No matter now, time never stops moving, and I only had a short half hour to eat and prepare for my ride.
My friend and I arrive at the trailhead, get out of the car, and are greeted by those same happy sun rays that I already tried to convince me that the extra layer of clothes were unnecessary. I heed their advice once again and strip off my sweatshirt. We hop on our bikes and pedal up the trail.
I am following and the pace is quick, and perfect. My heart starts to race and my legs feel cranky from the abrupt and harsh warm up. We stop at the top of the hill and exchange comments about wishing we had worn tank tops. Etched in our comments of clothing and sunscreen was awe and gratitude for this perfect day. We were both beaming, pleased with ourselves for clearing this space in our schedules. Most days we both let our meetings, grocery store runs, house chores, and guilt stop us from being out here. Without saying it in words, we exchange smiles that say, “Can you believe we would have missed this?”
I continue to follow my friend. She knows the trails a bit better, and I love not making decisions about turns and times and trails. She sets a pace that says, “We are strong, we are alive, AND we have nothing to prove to each other or ourselves,” and I silently agree by keeping my tires just a bike length behind hers.
We come to a part of the trail we are both quite familiar with. There are a series of slanted rocks that swallow up the dirt path we are on. I watch my friend glide up and over the first one, only to crash her front tire into the lip of the next. I go next. I make it partially up the first rock and have to bail. I clutch both brakes, put my foot down, and hop off my bike. We walk our bikes up and over the rock, get back on dirt, and walk over the next set of rock obstacles. I say, both to her and myself, “One of these days, I’m going to clean that,” imaging some day far off into the future when I am braver, stronger, and much more capable. She stops, turns her bike around and says, “Well, let’s try again.”
These words surprise me. I find that when I ride with most of my girlfriends, we scurry up, over, and through obstacles as quickly as we can. Often, we have to dismount our bikes and some weird shadow of shame is cast over the moment. Usually, there is a self-deprecating comment made, then we hop back on our bikes and race away as fast as we can, feeling anxious about getting up or over the next technical part.
I have always hated these moments of shame that are shared between friends on a bike ride. It’s as if the failure to get up or through an obstacle on the trail represents all of the shame of every failure we try to hide in our lives, but we can’t hide it now because there is someone watching who now knows the truth. In a short five or so seconds, we feel all of our unworthiness exposed, and the friend who is with you knows this somewhere inside her and looks away quickly, like she accidently walked in on you standing naked and crying, and pretends she didn’t see so you both can get back to your ride and pedal fast away from the uncomfortable exposure of a deep human wound.
But, today, my friend does not look away. My nakedness does not frighten her. Instead, she turns toward me and when she says, “Try again,” she transforms the shared moment between friends.
She walks her bike back down the maze of rocks and I gladly follow. We try getting up and over those rocks numerous times. We watch each other, give tips, and discuss lines to take through. “I’ve gotta try just one more time,” is muttered from each of us more than once. Eventually, I do make it up and over. Stunned, I keep pedaling until I make it to the top, then stop and throw my fist high in the air, and my friend, who is still at the bottom, turns toward me and puts her fist up, too.
The ride continues with many obstacles. We don’t tackle all of the same dismounts with the same enthusiasm, and we don’t have to. Our legs get tired. Our conversation gets quiet. We are two girls, riding bikes on a perfect day in the late fall, who are willing to face each other and say, “You’ve got this. Try again.”
On the drive home, I remember that I might be dying. The dentist appointment and the calls to the clinic for bloodwork all come back as we get closer to town. Now, the looming health struggle seems less intense, less scary. I have already become the braver, stronger person I thought was waiting for me in the distant future. I’ve been her all along. And the truth is, I will die. We all will. But, today, I went for a bike ride. I felt my heart pump, my legs burn, and the sun smiling on me whispering, “It’s okay to undress,” and a friend who didn’t quickly look away when I did. I am more captivated and filled by my aliveness that perhaps was felt so deeply because of, not in spite of, my mortality.