100 miles

road pic

 

 

Shadows were creeping across the road and the sun was hanging low in the sky, casting a golden glow over cotton fields and houses along the route as we finally turned the last corner and saw the Orangeburg arts center ahead. It was with nearly indescribable relief that almost nine hours after we began, we rolled past the start point and finished the “race.”

We were dead last.

A few people clapped as we pulled in the nearly empty parking lot, but it was a mostly quiet and unobserved finish without much fanfare or pageantry. There were no medals or recognition. Almost everyone else had gone home. And yet, it was the most beautiful and meaningful finish I’ve ever experienced. My sister and I had just biked 100 miles around Orangeburg and surrounding areas, not only completing our first century but finishing it in memory of Brian. We dedicated every mile to him. I know he would have been honored and proud of us, as well as probably a little amused by our lack of training, the six hour round-trip drive and then the entire day spent pedaling. Our only goals starting out were to laugh, have fun, and finish the race in a manner that would honor Brian. We managed just that.
It was an amazing experience and next year, I hope to be back to ride it again in memory of my love. We couldn’t have picked a more perfect Century. It was a 2 hour and 45 minute drive from home so we could complete the trip in one day making it economical and convenient. The weather was gorgeous (albeit a bit hot), the course was beautiful and the route was well marked with amazing volunteers. Other than a little pain, it was nearly magical.
We were on the road by 4:30 a.m., bikes loaded on the bike rack on the back of my car and snacks and water in the backseat. We made a stop along the way for coffee and breakfast at McDonald’s and pulled in to the Orangeburg arts center right around 7:30 a.m. Dawn had just broken and the air was fresh and cool. It was going to be a beautiful day. Other cars and trucks started arriving and after hanging out for 30 minutes in the car we went and retrieved race shirts and cue sheet with the course directions. 100 miles is a long, long ways and seeing it written out just emphasizes that fact. A man with a NASA sticker on the bumper of his BMW was parked beside us and he kept examining our bikes and asking questions like we actually knew something about bikes and racing. He made ostentatious comments in his foreign accent such as “you will finish in fife hours, no?” And another personal favorite. “I had signed up for the 30 mile race but I see you two, and I think, maybe I should go for the Century.” Obviously he could pull it off in fife hours but as a complete novice it wasn’t likely and moreover I didn’t give care about finishing in a certain time. I just wanted to finish. NASA man then continued on to meticulously scrutinize our bikes, commenting on the placement of the handlebars, the brakes, the aerodynamics. And then he remarked on our clip-less pedals. “It’s good,” he said optimistically, as if we were admirable for committing such a distasteful faux pas as to wear running shoes on a Century. Later, Christie and I agreed next time we were wearing t-shirts that said “After this I’m getting pizza.”
At 9 am everyone riding the 30 mile, metric century and century were gathered at the start. The people participating in the century were a small, elite (heh) group. Most everyone else had on cycling outfits and then there was us. Yoga pants and tank tops and non clip-in shoes.
We saw all kinds of riders. Big, small and everywhere in-between. Two people lounged in recumbent bikes, casually pedaling by looking as relaxed as if they were on the couch at home. There was even a couple on a tandem bike, serenely pedaling in-sync.
We hung out near the back of the pack and after some instructions were given out and a prayer said, we were off. We let the majority of the riders pass us as we cycled through town and out into the countryside. Fifteen miles later we had our first rest stop at a church. We got cold drinks, used the bathroom, and quickly ate a snack before hitting the road again.
We rode past an amazing variety of scenery. Palmetto trees and flat open land and swamps with tall trees and moss hanging from the branches. Some stretches of road were like a tunnel with tall trees growing beside it, branches growing over the road above us and colorful fall leaves raining down around us like confetti. I purposely rode over the dead leaves and they made a sastisfying crunching noise like rice crispies under my tires. It was around 55 degrees at the start but it hit 85 by afternoon. The humidity was thick and heavy and settled over us like a blanket.
We rode by the next rest stop in the city of Bamberg because it caught us by surprise and came up quicker than we were expecting. It would be another long, long 24 miles before the next one. We laughed and talked along the way. I thought about Brian and silently told him I rode every mile for him. I remembered good times and sad and couldn’t stop the longing to see and touch him. The ache of missing him just refuses to dull.
We hit 50 miles and then 75. We genuinely enjoyed the ride but once we hit 75 my body was protesting. My legs still felt strong and good but my tense shoulder muscles and my chafed butt were in agony. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more difficult final 12 miles in my life. Each mile felt 15 miles long and passed by in agonizing slowness. We were the last ones on the course and even two elderly women, gray haired and heavy set had casually cycled by us as if they were going on a Sunday drive. It was a little demoralizing to be left in the dust by two grandmothers but it was also inspiring. They were pretty bad-ass.
When things got tough and I struggled to overcome the pain, I thought about Brian and how much I loved and admired and missed him. I thought about how he had endured so much and how I could certainly finish this race. I also focused on the beautiful scenery and about how lucky I was to be able to do this. I thought about a million things and then sometimes I couldn’t distract myself and just wallowed in the pain. And then, finally, finally, after a million years, we were cycling through Edisto Garden and we had less than a mile left. We rode past Christmas lights and decorations not yet lit and a pond with trees growing out of it, the evening sun reflected in the dark water. Right at 6 pm we reached the arts center and finished, finally getting off our bikes for good. It was a glorious moment. The local police had manned the course and a few officers were at the finish, patiently waiting on us with sandwiches, drinks and snacks. Everyone – from fellow cyclists to the race volunteers – were amazing, helpful, friendly and well organized. It was an outstanding experience. I’m so proud of accomplishing this and I hope I’ll be back next year.
I keep telling myself I need to live as much of life as possible so if – when – I see Brian again I can tell him, “see, I lived for you and me. I lived as much as possible.” And when I draw my last breath, it will be at the close of a glorious adventure.
I don’t much care to live long, so I want to live well.

 

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He always called me Green Bean. Not babe. Or honey or dear. Sometimes just Bean or sometimes just Green but always one or the other. It was my favorite thing in the world to come home from work and hear him say “hey Green Bean.” I remember one night I started to drift off to sleep with my head on his chest and my arm around him but even though he was wide awake he wouldn’t move ¬†because he didn’t want to wake me. I loved his hugs or just holding his hand. I don’t care much for physical affection from others but I never got tired of it from him. Even after 11 years I wanted to hold his hand, to kiss him and to have him near me. I would give up everything in this world to have that back. He told me he didn’t know what he’d do without me but I have no idea what to do without him. I just can’t fathom living every day of my life without him. There better be some kind of eternity following death because he’s going to be mine for every day of it. I’ve always been selfish and wanted him all to myself. This life took everything from me so death better give me something back.

I bought my first, and one of only packs of cigarettes, in Florence, Italy in the summer of 2005. It was evening and already dusky out when I stopped at the little store on the crowded street and randomly picked out a box of menthol Pall Malls.I had no idea about filters or regulars or lights or brands but I wanted to try them and I found I enjoyed, though never craved, that acrid taste on my tongue. I smoked the whole box and shared a few with an Iraqi street artist who drew me a picture of an angel and who invited me home for coffee to his small apartment he shared with a couple of roommates.

When I worked in a convenience store I would often buy a cheap potent single from the styrofoam cup on the counter for twenty five cents and when there were no customers in the store, I would stand outside the door and puff it down as fast as I could. Years later, I much preferred the smoky taste of Brian’s kisses, a taste I craved, over smoking them myself. I found him intoxicating and his habit was part of the package. He always kept a box of Marlboros tucked up under the visor of his truck along with a lighter and he would expertly light it up, shift gears, and roll down the manual window seemingly in one fluid motion. I can still hear the sound of his nail flicking the ashes from the tip and then the quiet exhale of breath. In the summer when we sat on the porch, I would watch that grey smoke slowly drift upward, hanging on the humid air, reluctant to disperse. Sometimes, when it rained, he would prop open the laundry room screen door and sit on the top step, out of the dampness but close enough to watch the drops fall. I would sit on the washing machine while he lit up a cigarette, holding it between his long beautiful fingers. He first started smoking before he was legally allowed to buy them, filching them from a buddy’s mother who would leave them lying around for easy access.
Later, his habit would be a point of contention. It was costly when there wasn’t room for extra costs and damaging to his already precarious health. I always felt like a bit of a hypocrite though because I secretly loved that he smoked simply because it was such a part of him and because he made it look so damn sexy. When I pictured him as a Marine, impossibly young and impossibly handsome, I always see him with a cigarette between his lips.
If it weren’t for his nicotine addiction I’m not sure we ever would have met. He first came in the One Stop store where I worked to buy his coffee and cigarettes. I remember him asking for Marlboro Lights in the box and joking that his doctor told him he needed to eat more fried foods and smoke more cigarettes. He used to say that he had a buddy who would purposefully forget his pack of smokes on the counter so the clerk would have to run after him and bring them to him. He laughed and said that he was going to try that trick one day. And then he accidentally did. I chased him down and caught him just as he was opening the door to his patrol car and he grinned sheepishly when I handed them to him. I had thought he had done it on purpose at first but when he looked embarrassed I knew he hadn’t. Three months before he died, he quit. He’d quit before but this time, at last, it was for good.
I plan to buy a pack of Marlboros and keep them under the visor of his truck along with a lighter. Maybe I’ll even smoke one for him.

Embracing freedom

I would give up my freedom in a heartbeat if it meant having you back, but despite my earnest and desperate wishing i can’t will it to happen. If a person could change circumstances merely by the force of their desire, you would be here with me now. Since it hasn’t happened I have to reluctantly let go of what I wish for in order to live. If I don’t, I’ll remain a martyr to the past and what I can’t have and that is a useless and sad endeavor. Instead, I will look to what I now have. Some days it’s impossible but other days, or even moments at a time, I embrace the freedom to simply belong to myself. I do not have to please anyone else. My decisions are based off my own wants and needs and I no longer have to parse out my time and feel guilty when there isn’t enough of me to go around. I didn’t ask to be set free but here I am. I decide where I go and when. I only wait on myself (and Nat) and my decisions and their consequences are my own to enjoy or bear. If you have the strength to allow yourself to be alone there can be a great sense of freedom and joy in it. Something many people never learn. I have had many well meaning friends tell me I’m young and that I’ll marry again but perhaps belonging to myself will be enough. I had one great love- maybe it’s time to see what all this life has to offer beyond that.

I remember

…. that night you came in to the store and it was one of those rare moments when no one else was there and my shift was almost over. It was your night off so you weren’t in uniform; instead you were wearing jeans and a black leather jacket. I remember it was dark outside and cold, mid winter, and you looked so good. You told me this story about doing battle on a wart on your knee and I laughed at how goofy and charming you were. I barely knew you but I knew I liked you. Your smile was so infectious.

I remember a warm summer night near a church graveyard, down in a hollow, where we watched the bats and stars appear and listened to 90s music.

I remember when you held my hands in yours and we slipped rings on each other’s fingers and vowed to stay together in sickness and in health unto death do us part.

I remember your scent.

I remember our last Monday together when you fell asleep on the couch with your head on my lap and I sat with you and read and watched you sleep.

 

 

Porch heaven

porch

I start a new job tomorrow and I’m part terrified and part excited. It’s quite a change from my prior job, which is a good thing all around, but it’s still something completely unknown and new which can be a little intimidating. A part of me is scared I’m going to have a hard time handling everything while still mired in a grief that leaves me in tears at random times and in a black hole of despair at others. But then maybe it will be a good thing to have some purpose and structure in my day and tasks to accomplish. Not that I haven’t stayed busy but it’s been a lonely and somewhat shiftless kind of busy. Maybe this job is just what I need to find new hope in life. For tonight I’m just going to enjoy the peace and quiet and forget that a tomorrow exists.

I feel as if my life has been divided into two time periods: Before Brian’s death and After Brian’s death. Everything is still so fresh, including the pain, that it’s hard to imagine a time when I’ll be okay. I feel so not okay. I feel like a vase that has been thrown on the floor and is now in a million tiny pieces. A lot of the time I feel broken and worthless and alone.

One of the projects I’ve been working on to keep myself busy is beautifying my porch. Brian and I spent countless hours out there, him in particular since it was one of his favorite smoking spots, and I wanted to make it pretty since it’s mostly just been functional and somewhat cluttered in the past. I put up white lights all around the porch and hanging baskets of pink and white flowers. I ¬†got new green cushions for the bench since Charlie had run off and destroyed the original ones and put out a small table and plants. Its like my little oasis now and I like to sit out there and write. It makes my sad heart happy. I don’t really know what to believe in regarding an afterlife, and some days I have a hard time believing we’ll suddenly be granted happiness in some magical heaven, but I like to think of it as being all the places we loved here. I hope with all my heart we get to be together again and I like to imagine that our heaven will have a little porch where Brian and I will sit and listen to the robins sing in the pear tree and talk and laugh and hang out as long as we like.

Stepping stones

There was this good moment today, at the tail-end of the day, when I took Biscuit outside to use the bathroom and I just stood on the sidewalk and breathed. The night sky was black but a waning, nearly full moon hung just above the Bradford Pear tree in the front yard and lit up the darkness. A slug slowly slid his way across the sidewalk and everywhere around me was the sound of frogs. The air seemed alive with the delicate chorus of creaks and peeps from the tree frogs and deep throated wheezes from the bullfrog across the street. It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. I stood and listened to the creatures call back and forth to each other and felt some of the darkness around me lift just a little.

That slice of goodness gives me hope that I can make it to another happy moment. These brief interludes are like stepping stones leading me forward out of this dark valley. Some days they are close together and others they are far apart but they continue to come and I continue to collect them and cling to them and save them up.