Saturday, October 22, 2011

90 mile Bike Ride in Memory of Jeremy

Arriving at the Amtrak Station parking lot in San Diego

A few weeks ago, I took Jeremy's bike to have it tuned up. We've had his bike hanging in the garage since Jeremy died in 1992. I would dust it off every now and then, but I never got around to riding it. When we lived in Kent, Washington, I bought fenders for it so that I could ride it in the Seattle's normal wetness. I don't know why, but I didn't ride Jeremy's newly fendered bicycle. It stayed hanging in the garage, as a memorial, of sorts, to our dead son.

I have been riding an old Schwinn ten speed that I've had for nearly 30 years. It works well, although, by today's standards, it is a very heavy antique.

At the end of September, my younger brother, John, and my cousin, Anthony, rode their bikes from John and Winnie's house in Costa Mesa to San Diego. It took them over twelve hours.  About a week after their ride, John asked me if I thought I was strong enough to ride to San Diego with him. He expressed his concern for my heart condition. The distance from his house to the Amtrak station in San Diego was 90 miles. The longest I had ever ridden a bicycle was in 1990 when I rode 22 miles from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach.  90 miles was a distance I had difficulty imagining myself riding on a bicycle. The furthest I had ridden a bicycle in the last year was to Seal Beach and back. That was only fourteen miles round trip. I rode my bicycle to the university pool each weekday morning, but that was only a mile and a half each way.

I thought about it for a day or two and told my brother that I would join him in a ride.  He called and recommended that I get an odometer for my bike, a tune up and a snack to eat on the way.  He told me that he would give me his old bicycle seat which was a better seat than the current one on Jeremy's bike. He suggested that I buy padded bicycle riding gloves because the handlebars would hurt my wrists after riding for several hours. I took his advice and went one step further, wrapping the front handlebars with soft rubber pipe insulation.

I took a 37 mile practice ride from my house in Long Beach to Newport Beach about a week before our planned San Diego ride. The wind picked up when I turned around from Newport Beach. I struggled to pedal downhill against the wind. I rode against the wind for about ten miles. It was a good practice ride.

The night before our ride I loaded Jeremy's bike into the van. Looking at it, I felt a tear slide down my cheek. The next day's ride would fall on the eve of the anniversary of Jeremy's death. Denise and Celeste drove me to John and Winnie's house in Costa Mesa. Denise gave me a heartfelt hug and returned home to Long Beach with Celeste.

The alarm sounded at 5:30 AM. The sun had not awakened yet. John and Winnie still slept. I got up, took a shower and put on the new bicycle jersey that Denise bought for me. I pulled on Jeremy's bicycle pants. I felt awkward walking in them because of the extra padding in the crotch. I walked into the kitchen and ate a bowl of cereal. When I finished eating, John asked me if I wanted anything before we left. I wanted Jeremy to be riding with us. I wanted my son to be alive.

We turned on the bike lights, mounted our bicycles and headed west to the river trail. I felt good, wide awake and magically at peace. Turning south onto the river trail, I said, “Good Morning,” as I passed an older gentleman who was taking an early morning walk. The bike trail terminated at Pacific Coast Highway. I could hear the waves crashing on the sand when we turned east onto the main road. Thoughts of Jeremy pedaled into my heart as we approached the far end of Newport Beach. We had floated Jeremy's ashes off that beach so many years ago.

I asked John, “What happens when we get to the Marine base?”

There was a moment of silence before John replied, “Oh no. I forgot my wallet. We'll have to show our ID when we get to the base. I'll have to call Winnie to bring it to me. I'll tell her to meet me at Dover Street.”

I rode passed Dover and waited for John at the gas station on the other side of the bridge. Looking at the water I noticed the empty dock where a river boat had been moored in the 1970s. I remembered listening to Jason, a friend from high school, sing and play guitar in its restaurant. Jason died, driving off a cliff in Big Sur when in his twenties. John finally came over the bridge.

A morning mist kept us cool, while our strides kept us warm. Newport Beach has no designated bike lane on the highway. Cars passed uncomfortably close to us. We reached our first hill as we approached Newport Center Drive. Reaching down, I shifted gears for the first time that day. I looked ahead to see the sunshine paint the clouds in shades of gray and the grass and trees in shades of green. Up and down we pedaled, through Laguna Beach towards Dana Point. The restaurant that John wanted us to stop at for coffee was closed, out of business. We continued a little further until we reached Stacks Pancake House. We ordered coffee and we tried to figure out why my new odometer wasn't working. The clock worked fine, but it wouldn't track the miles. We assumed that it must be a dead battery in the wheel's sensor.

When we reached Califia Park, near the south end of San Clemente, we were stopped because of an accident on the bike trail. John and I waited for about 30 minutes with a growing number of bicyclists who were doing the Multiple Sclerosis ride. The fire department paramedics eventually sent off the ambulance. They let us continue as a huge pack. We passed a red emergency truck and saw a paramedic busy working on a bicyclist.

As we passed the San Onofre Nuclear power plant, I thought of Homer Simpson and my friend, Tom, who works there. I've known him since elementary school. I also thought about the tsunami disaster in Japan. I rode eagerly passed the power plant. I smiled when I saw a sign that read, “No Nudity Allowed” as we entered the San Onofre State Park. After we passed the park, the bike trail went under the freeway. We continued south until we reached an MS bike ride rest stop at Las Pulgas Road. They offered us bananas, orange slices, candy and drinks. Jax Bike shop set up a small repair station there. I asked them to look at my odometer, since Denise bought it for me at a Jax Bike shop in Long Beach, the day before. The battery was fine. I had installed the wheel receptor incorrectly. Now I could see how fast I was traveling.

We followed the MS bikers under the bridge and into the marine base. I started to dismount to show my ID, when the guard told me that I didn't need to stop. There was a person behind me, however, who he asked if he was part of the MS group. The guard assumed that John and I were.

Riding through the marine base, I remembered that Jeremy chose to be a hospital corpsman who worked as a medic for the marines. He said that the marines think of themselves as invincible. He got to fix them when Mother Nature proved them wrong. A small slice of pride swelled for our son. As we were leaving the base, I heard a pop and a slow fizzle as the rear tire of the bike ahead of me flattened out. I followed the MS riders under the freeway and onto Pacific Street in Oceanside. John said, “By now you have ridden further than you ever have.”

I had never seen this pretty side of Oceanside. I liked it. People sat along the sidewalk encouraging us, along with the MS riders. The residential streets were not busy and we could see the ocean between the houses. We climbed a small hill from sea level on the highway into Carlsbad. The clouds teased the sun by opening little blue holes every now and then. John and I stopped and shared a large ahi tuna sandwich in a restaurant at the end of the business district. John called Winnie to tell her that we would reach San Diego in about four hours. I talked to Denise who expressed her surprise that were already in Carlsbad.

Replenished, John and I hopped on our bikes and rode along the bluff, overlooking the beach below. John told me that there would be three more beaches before we reached the hard climb at Torrey Pines. The waves crashed and surfers carried their boards to and from their cars. The salt air filled my nostrils, while memories of Jeremy warmed my heart. The road through Leucadia brought us back in competition with the cars and trucks as they whizzed by, inches away, at times.

When we were about to ride down the last hill, along the last beach before Torrey Pines, John told me to go ahead. I picked up speed in an effort to gain as much ground as possible for the long climb. As I climbed, I shifted gears and kept looking at the ground. Up ahead I could see a turn. My knees started to burn, my breathing labored. “Keep pushing, don't look up.” I kept telling myself. When the burning in my knees reached a point where a small voice said, “Don't overdo it,” I dismounted and walked. I looked down the hill, but I could not see John. I walked a bit, allowing my knees to cool down. The Torrey Pines hill shielded the ocean breeze, making the climb all the hotter. I climbed back on the bike and pedaled until I reached the top. I parked my bike and waited about ten minutes for John to reach me. He dismounted and called Winnie, giving her an update.

When we passed the UC San Diego, John stopped and pulled out Winnie's phone to access the GPS. He couldn't remember how to get to get to Gillman Drive. I saw a woman riding her bike and yelled out to her, “Do you know where Gillman Drive is?”

“Follow me,” she said. She waited for John to put away the phone and catch up with her. She led us down a steep hill. We went under the freeway and onto a bike trail. When we came off the bike trial and onto the city streets, John mentioned that there was another bike trail along a river. But he didn't know where it was. When he reached a busy intersection, an older man on a bike was talking to a younger woman telling her to go on without him. John asked him if he knew where the river trail was. It was directly across the street. Without this gentleman's being there to ask, we wouldn't have found it. John told me that the river trail saved us a lot of grief riding in heavy traffic. The river trail terminated in Mission Bay. John and I stopped there to take a break and eat a Payday candy bar.

As I nibbled on my candy bar, I thought that Jeremy would have loved to have taken this ride with the little Russian sister that he never met. He died two years before we adopted her. When we finished our break, we hopped on our bikes and pedaled through town. We had to stop and cross a busy street in front of the U.S. Marine Processing Center. Again, I thought of Jeremy.

“See those tall glass high rise building ahead of us?” John asked. “The train station is right next to them. I bet you can't wait to get there.”

“Actually, I'm doing fine. I am getting thirsty though.”

We rode into the Amtrak parking lot and walked our bikes to Starbucks to wait for Winnie and Denise to arrive. It had taken us a little more than nine hours. Sipping my latte and looking out the Starbucks window, I thanked Jeremy for riding 90 miles with me.
Loading up the bikes onto the Jeep at the San Diego train station

Monday, October 10, 2011

White Rose

White Rose

Sunny mornings are rare in October, in the Great Northwest. Thirty miles southeast of Seattle, clouds drizzle millions of water droplets on a normal autumn day. The seventeenth of October, 1992 turned out to be an abnormally warm and sunny day. The brown and yellow leaves of the alder trees littered our backyard lawn. The lingering water droplets from the previous night's rain glittered on the leaves, reflecting the unusual October sunshine. A flock of geese flew overhead, reminding me of the autumn migration of cranes in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.

After my morning run, my neighbor came over to chat about the roses that were still blooming. When she told me that her white rose bush was in full bloom, I told her that white roses symbolize death. They represent our own mortality with their lack of pigment without which they can't color our world.

On that unusually sunny seventeenth of October, 1992, we received a phone call that all parents dread when their children are away. Our son, Jeremy, was a University of New Mexico student, living fourteen hundred miles from home. A nurse from the University of New Mexico Hospital trauma unit was on the other end of the phone asking for permission to provide medical care for our son. He had sustained a severe head injury from a motorcycle accident.

We granted permission and immediately made arrangements to fly to Albuquerque. Our plane landed in the early morning hours. Having spent the day at the hospital, we made our way to a friend's house that evening. She told us that we could stay with her as long as we needed.

Leaving for the hospital, the following morning, I walked out of her front door and noticed a beautiful white rose bush in full bloom, growing in front of friend's home. The pit of my stomach dropped when I saw a few petals at the base of the rose bush. I stopped and stared at the rose and its petals, as much for its beauty, as for its message. The rose was telling me that our first born child would die from his injuries. I walked to the car, not wanting to see or think about the white rose bush anymore.

I drove to the hospital, a little too fast, trying to erase the image of the white rose bush from my mind. I wished it had not been growing at the entrance of our friend's home. But every morning, on our way out the door, on our way to the hospital, I would see the white rose bush. Each morning more white petals collected at its base. Their whiteness blemished brown and yellow as their vibrancy bled out into the dry New Mexico air. I stopped each day, acknowledging the rose and silently pleading with it to stop dropping its petals. I didn't want to see its warning signs that were telling me that our son was dying. Every morning fewer petals lived in the bloom and more lay dead and dying on the ground.

On the seventh day, as I walked out of the front door, I tried not to look. But I couldn't stop myself. My shoulder slumped as tears began to flow over my cheeks. All of the white petals had fallen on the ground and the flowers were no more.

My feet felt heavy as I walked to the car. My mind's eye could only see the white rose petals decaying on the ground. We drove in silence to the hospital. A little before midnight, Jeremy, our first born son, died. The white rose petals gave their life, showing me what my ears were too terrified to hear.

Like the handsome white rose blossom, our handsome grown son spent his last days giving us a last chance to admire him and say good-bye. Jeremy died, leaving behind his body, that was still beautiful and still vital. And like the white rose bush, Jeremy had other branches, his organs. We honored Jeremy's wish to donate his organs thereby giving a new lease on life to many people.

The white rose no longer serves as a warning, telling me of impending doom. Rather it reminds me of the gift of life that our son gave to so many. And yet, when I see a white rose, I cry a few tears for Jeremy.