Monday, November 30, 2009

My friend is dying, but still he rides

In the mid 1990s, a stranger rode into town. I started seeing this tall, bespectacled man riding his bicycle at a slow but steady pace here and there. His clothes were frayed and worn, but had the air of New England preppy gentility about them. His hair was whitening gray, conventionally cut but often not freshly combed. He looked like a professor or a private school teacher. The latter he actually turned out to have been.

He looked like a run-down version of an extra George Plimtpton, carrying a spare voice module for Garrison Keillor. If I closed my eyes when he spoke, I could sometimes imagine it. He did not have Mr. Keillor's theatrical sense, however. A free-range intellectual, he would quiz me about things, but never in a hard-assed way. Everything was said in that soft voice.

One day, when I called the shop and he happened to be there, he asked to speak to me.

"Spell Poughkeepsie," he said. When I did, he said, "Damn, I should have known you'd be able to." He liked to pull spelling bees on me at odd times.

He had the look of a stray cat that had had a rough life when you got close to him. He had lost a lot of teeth. His shoulders were narrow and uneven, as a beat-up cyclist's will be after sufficient impact with the ground to reduce the collarbone to a formality. And he could get a little drifty at times. He would trail off in conversation or not make absolutely perfect sense.

I'm never one to pry. I wait for someone to tell me what they want me to know, when they're ready.

We established early on that we had almost crossed paths 30 years earlier, when he was a young prep school teacher at Severn School in Maryland in the early 1960s. I would not attend that school until six or seven years after he had left, but my family did live in Annapolis at the time. It wasn't the wildest of coincidences, but it was interesting to share some geography and a near-miss on some shared acquaintances. He had courted the daughter of a boat yard owner in Annapolis until the penniless young teacher was deemed an inadequate match. Or so he told it.

He reminisced from time to time about being a young man just out of college, who liked jazz music, good stereo equipment and expensive Scotch. He also had a passion for sports cars and road racing. At times, bicycling seemed like a poor man's surrogate. But his love for the bicycle became obvious. He studied all aspects of racing, long distance touring and bike construction.

One day he told me that, on the last day of the Tour de France in 1985, he left his house in Milton, NH, to go for a ride because he felt so fired up from following the Tour coverage to its end. He took off on that sunny afternoon and, as he tells it, "woke up weeks later in the hospital. They told me I'd been wandering around the halls for two weeks, pissing on things. I don't remember any of it. I don't even remember crashing. I remember I was going down a long grade, it was fast. That's it. I don't know if someone hit me with their car or if I just went off the road."

He has a handlebar-diameter hole in his skull and permanent neural deficits, as they say. He also has those narrowed shoulders, some spinal injury, this and that. And beat up knees, but he could have been working on those already, from pushing big gears.

In addition to teaching in prep schools in Maryland and the Midwest (that I know of), he recounted working in bike shops and as a dishwasher. This was all pieced together in conversations when he would drop by the shop. We would talk about whatever he felt like talking about. If I didn't know the subject, I would do my best to hang in there. If I did, I could give him a few gems I had mined to add to what he has gleaned. He spent most days in the library, and visiting up and down the business district. He was not homeless or a beggar. He lives with his girlfriend in her house out the north end of town. She's another character. And she protects him fiercely.

My employers, never known for their compassion, and certainly not for their acceptance of people who seem different (I came in under the radar and proved myself too useful to fire, so far) finally found an excuse to banish him forever when he insulted one of their family political saints during one of his neurally-deficited lapses of tact. They didn't know about his injury and probably wouldn't have cared. All they knew was that they finally had a righteously indignant reason to bar him forever. I considered qitting over this piece of cruelty, but I discussed it with Bill and he said not to worry.

"My mouth is always getting me into trouble," he said.

He reached Social Security and Medicare age shortly after he came to town. With normal aging and his accumulated injuries, he mused a lot about how he lived his life.

"You tell yourself that whatever else happens today you will get on the machine," he said.

He rides all year. He rides in all weather. Even if he's just going to town for a newspaper and a cup of coffee, he does that eight or ten miles. He might miss a day. His girlfriend might take him on an outing that requires riding in the car. She also occasionally scooped him up from the far point of a ride outside of town when nightfall overtook him. But for the most part he gets on the machine.

Now he is dying. I'd heard from people who had seen him that he wasn't looking good. Then someone told me for sure that he had cancer. The same person also confirmed something I had just heard a rumor of: Bill is a talented guitarist. His brain injury gave him some odd quirks, but his friends found and refurbished a guitar for him and he played with them for a while. Even as I heard bad news about his health, I was learning more about how he lives.

I hadn't managed to see him for months. We just kept missing each other. He has no telephone. We would simply stop to talk wherever we ran into each other. He's a nicknamer. He didn't like my former coworker Ralph's name, so he would call him Ethan or Elliot. He calls me Mr. Vails, after the 1980s sprinter, Nelson Vails. I'm pleased to be given a nickname that crosses racial lines to follow cycling lines. It's especially sweet considering my employers' bigotry.

So, the other day I was driving home from a dentist appointment when I saw the unmistakable figure of Bill riding toward me. I hastily shoved the car into the ditch and ran across the road to wait for him to get to me.

He is gaunt. His face, never very rounded, is long. The bones of cheek and jaw push against the skin as if the skull demands acknowledgment. He wore a balaclava under his helmet on this raw, damp day. I felt almost ashamed of my newish clothes, my relative youth and the fact that he found me driving. But Bill is not a cycling Puritan.

"Mr. Vails," he saluted me, laughing a little wheezily. "Biggest thighs known to medical science." He grinned. He is too kind. I took in how he no longer fills his clothes. His thighs are just femurs under cloth.

He noticed the car I was driving, a 1991 Toyota Corolla LE. He'd had his eye on it for years, when it belonged to its former owner, the mother of a friend of mine.

"What's that, about a ' '91. Is that the LE? If it's the LE it has a red coach line." He knew more about the car's cosmetics than I did, and my wife has been driving it for more than a year. "Yeah, the LE is unusual. You don't see too many of them around here. Beautiful little body."

I also finally got to tell him about the Alex Singer. I'd hoped he would ride by while I had it in the shop. I would have defied the edict and brought him right in to see it. Fortunately, the bike lives in a neighborhood near the house where he lives, and the owner of the Singer had spotted Bill as someone who looked interesting to meet. Having urged her to pursue it, I now urged him.

He said, "I've been diagnosed with colon cancer. I refuse to take the chemotherapy. I figure I'll be in pain either way. I don't expect to make it next year. I don't want to go into the hospital."

There's no way to ease into a subject like that. One minute you haven't said it, the next minute you have. And there it is.

"I don't know what I would do," I said to him. "I tell myself I do, I think I do, but I don't really know. " I do know that I would hate to spend my last days in a hospital, and if I knew for sure that I was going down I would head for the open range as fast as my last strength would carry me. I want to see the sky over me when I go, and I want to be alone.

"I can't complain, really," he said. "I've done about everything I wanted.

"I just don't want to give up the bike," he said. His even tone broke for the first time since I've known him, but it didn't break by much. "I don't want to stop riding. I don't want to be driven around in a car." Was it the raw breeze that made the glistening moisture in his eyes momentarily top the dam and flow toward his cheek? Again, it was only a moment before he regained control, if indeed he had lost it. He took a deep breath.

"I guess I'll go on into town, get a cup of coffee," he said.

We never had a touchy relationship, not even a handshaking one. I'm not much on contact unless I'm reciprocating the contact of someone who prefers to be that way. But as he flipped the toeclip up and resumed his slow trek to the village, I patted his shoulder. Whatever else was happening that day, he had gotten on the machine. He's welcome to whatever energy I can give him.


twister said...

Bill sounds like a man facing his sunset with more than a little bit of courage. A living lesson we should all learn. Well said, thanks for saying it.

Steve A said...

He's getting to do something he loves. There's a lot of dignity in that. Thanks.

Unknown said...

A nice accounting of a great story - thank you.

Like a friend has written - there isn't much a nice bike ride can't cure...

RANTWICK said...

My Dad died of cancer just under a year ago... your honest and natural writing made me cry, and that is fine. Thank you for it.

There's no way to ease into a subject like that. One minute you haven't said it, the next minute you have. And there it is.

So very well put. Thanks again.

cafiend said...

Rantwick -- Truly sorry for your loss.

I'd wanted to write something about Bill for a couple of years. The way he had bounced around over the years, combined with his scholarly nature, he had accumulated knowledge and experiences that are difficult to categorize. I identified with him in many respects. When I saw him the other day I knew I had to write it soon, because it's about how he lives, not the aftermath.

Ham said...

Thanks for writing that.

getinlost said...

Thank you.