Biographies & Memoirs

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Chapter 6

The Ride

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Mom asked as she watched Matt, John, Dad, and me buckle our helmets on. She couldn’t hide the worry in her voice. “I mean, it just seems awfully soon.”

“I’m fine, Tammie, I promise,” Dad said as he dropped a water bottle into his backpack. It was a little after nine a.m., the sun was shining brightly in a perfect July sky, and we had an awesome day planned.

It was a little over a year after Dad’s surgery. His recovery from the transplant had been difficult. For the first week, his condition was so touch and go that he couldn’t leave the intensive care unit. After that, he had another week in a regular recovery room before he could actually come home, and even then, he still wasn’t very strong. His body had been cut open and torn apart. He almost seemed sicker than he had before the transplant, because he was so fragile. The first time he left the house for a walk, my mom had to support him the entire way—and they only went to the stop sign at the end of the block. But week by week he got stronger.

Immediately after his surgery, a steady stream of relatives came to stay with us and help out. For weeks at a time, my aunties Alicia, Kitty, and Kristin lived in our spare bedroom and did everything from grocery shopping to taking Dad to his doctor’s appointments. And they weren’t the only ones. Our neighbors came by with plates of food and offers to help with yard work and cleaning. Dr. Katz had become a good friend of the family, and he often came by to check on us, as did our neighbors, Joe and Shirley Abdo. Dmitri and Marina Trouch, Michael Kohli, and all the other people we’d met through dance and gymnastics were always eager to lend a hand. Without all of their support, I don’t know what we would have done. My mom was nearly exhausted from the effort of working and keeping our house together, but with the help of friends and extended family, we were able to get back on our feet.

Weeks turned to months. My aunties went home. Dad continued to recover. The doctors recommended he come in for a physical every half year, to make sure the cancer hadn’t returned. When he passed his first checkup with flying colors, it was like we had all been holding our breath without realizing it. Suddenly a weight left our shoulders. When Dad passed the second physical with no problems, we thought we were in the clear. A year cancer-free! To celebrate, we decided to go on a very special bike ride: the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI.

In Iowa, RAGBRAI is a big deal. It began in the early seventies and has been held every year since. Each summer, thousands of cyclists get together to ride from one end of the state to the other. It’s not a race—there’s no winning—it’s just a great ride through lots of cool small towns and beautiful open fields. It’s broken up into multiple sections, done over the course of a week. Every year the route is adjusted to go through different communities in Iowa. We’d never done it before, but we always talked about it, and this year, the ride was going right by Iowa City. Now, with Dad out of the hospital, it seemed like the perfect year to take part.

And there was another reason: Lance Armstrong was doing the ride for the first time ever! Not only did he survive having cancer in his testicles, lungs, and brain, but immediately after he recovered, he won the Tour de France bike race—seven times in a row. When we heard that he was at RAGBRAI to raise awareness for his cancer work with Team Livestrong, the ride seemed like something we just had to do—even if it made Mom nervous.

“Okaaaay,” she said as we stood in the driveway waiting to kick off. “You boys be careful.”

In this case, I was pretty sure we “boys” included my father.

“Of course!” we said in unison. Soon we were pedaling down Teg Drive and off to the ride.

I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect day for cycling. The sky was clear and bright. I slipped into an easy rhythm, pedaling slow and steady. When we hit the first little hill on our way out of the neighborhood, I stood up on my pedals and coasted into the wind, my eyes closed, the sun warming my face. It felt like riding into pure joy.

We were meeting up with RAGBRAI on day two of the ride, in a town called Coralville, which was about twenty-five minutes by bike from where we lived. We’d heard that Lance was going to give a speech, and we didn’t want to miss out on it.

In fact, since Dad’s transplant, we’d been doing a lot of things to make sure we didn’t miss out on them. Being that close to death had given Dad an awareness of how short life could be. From now on, he said, he wasn’t missing out on anything, so that’s how we lived. Because he loved good food, we went out to eat more often. Mom wanted to find a way for us to go to Nepal, because my father had always dreamed of seeing Mount Everest, but the doctors said it wasn’t safe. Instead, we started planning a trip to California, for Dad to see his mom, who we called Po Po.

I learned an important lesson that year: it’s easy to miss out on great things because they require extra effort, and we think we have all the time in the world to do them “later.” But nothing is guaranteed. Take advantage of now, because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. RAGBRAI and Lance Armstrong’s speech were two things Dad wanted to take advantage of while we could.

On our way to RAGBRAI, we rode in a neat little line: first Dad, then me, then Matt, then John, each on a different-colored bike. I’d had mine forever. It was a little red Trek bike that I’d gotten from Walmart for seventy dollars. It wasn’t fancy, but it fit me well and I’d been riding it for years. Dad had a silver Raleigh, John had a red one, and Matt had a nearly new blue Trek bike. Together, we were just a shade off from being the colors of the American flag!

Along the way, we passed lots of other cyclists. Iowa City is a bike-friendly place, and around RAGBRAI, you couldn’t go more than a block without seeing someone riding. Everyone knew where we were headed, and people on the streets smiled and waved or honked their horns as we passed. I knew it wasn’t personal, but I still felt like they were talking especially to us. “Congratulations,” I imagined they were saying, “You did it! You beat cancer!”

When we finally reached the official rally point, it was like a giant street fair. There were blocks and blocks of food stalls, games, and street vendors selling souvenirs. We locked our bikes to a lamppost and wandered through the crowd.

“How are you doing?” I asked Dad. The ride had been his idea, but I couldn’t help but worry. Even though there were no signs that his cancer had returned, he still had bad days when he had no energy and everything hurt. If getting there had been too hard for him, I figured we could enjoy the festival and skip the ride. The important part wasn’t what we did, it was that we did it together.

“I don’t feel good,” Dad replied.

My heart started pounding. If I called Mom now, I wondered how soon she could pick us up. Or maybe we should just find an ambulance, I thought. I scanned the crowd for an emergency first-aid station.

Then Dad laughed.

“I don’t feel good,” he repeated. “I feel great! It’s a beautiful day, I’ve got my boys with me, and we’re going to hear Lance Armstrong speak. And I can’t wait to get back on my bike!” He put one arm on my shoulder and the other around Matt. Together, the four of us made our way to the stage where Lance was being introduced.

I was so excited I could barely contain myself.

In fact, I was so thrilled to hear Lance talk that I didn’t listen to a word he said. I spent the whole time thrilled. Wow! That’s really Lance Armstrong! Then, the next thing I knew, he was getting off the stage. I’d been there for the entire speech, and yet somehow I managed to miss the whole thing. I know he talked about cancer research, and raising money, and making a difference, but if you asked me now, I probably couldn’t tell you a single specific thing he said.

Oh well, I thought to myself. At least I can say that I heard him. That means something!

I was a little bummed out, but I didn’t let it show—mostly because I didn’t want Dad to know that I’d daydreamed through the whole talk. As Lance stepped offstage, the four of us began to worm our way out of the crowd and back to where we’d left our bikes. But it was impossible to get anywhere. There were thousands of people, some milling around the booths, others trying to get on their bikes and head to the starting place. We managed to move about three feet in ten minutes.

“Excuse me,” Dad said. “Sorry! Coming through.”

People tried to get out of the way, but there wasn’t anywhere for them to go. The crowd pushed us this way and that. I stumbled over someone’s foot and looked up to apologize.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the tall man before me wearing bright yellow. He looked down at me and smiled, and that’s when I realized:

I’d just stepped on Lance Armstrong!

“Hey man,” he said. “It’s cool.”

“You’re—I—you!” I was so excited, I couldn’t speak.

“I’m Lance,” he said. “Lance Armstrong. You guys riding today?”

He gestured at John, Matt, Dad, and me. We all nodded furiously.

“I’m Alex,” I introduced myself, and so did Matt, John, and Dad.

“Alex, John, Matt, Sam,” Lance repeated. I felt a chill run up my spine. Lance Armstrong knew my name! “Good luck.” He smiled. “I’ll see you out on the route!”

He shook each of our hands and then turned back to his friends. The crowd shifted again, and as suddenly as he had appeared next to us, he was gone. I couldn’t believe it. I’d actually spoken to Lance Armstrong! It was a dream come true.

“Wow!” Matt said. “We should have gotten his autograph.”

“Next year.” Dad smiled. “We’ll be back. Now let’s grab our bikes and get pedaling!”

We only rode ten miles or so with the crowd—just enough to say that we had done it. Even though we were our own little slow-going bubble, we were within the larger river of RAGBRAI. It was like a parade with no floats, or a party on wheels. Everyone was laughing: me, John, Matt, Dad, and a thousand smiling strangers who were all happy to see us. We jockeyed for position playfully, each of us passing the others and then slowing down, like we were leapfrogging our way through the race. It was one of the best bike rides of my life.

Next year, I promised myself, we’ll do the whole thing.

But it didn’t work out that way.

On that perfect July afternoon, I felt like I could see forever. The road stretched out before me: gentle and smooth, filled with family and new friends. I wanted life to always be like this, but of course nothing ever stays the same. Even though I could see all the way to the horizon, I couldn’t see what was coming.

Dad’s cancer was returning.

Six months from now he would start to feel tired and achy again. In nine months, the doctors would confirm that his cancer was back, and it was worse this time. It had spread beyond his liver to his entire vascular system. It was in his lymph nodes and his blood vessels. There would be no second transplant. Once he was diagnosed, he was already too sick to get on the list. In fact, he was too sick for most treatments. His body, which seemed so strong as we pedaled our way through Iowa City on that July day, would give out all at once. By the time RAGBRAI came around next year, Dad was dead.

My family had a perfect summer, and we cherished every moment of it. Somehow, it seemed like both the longest and shortest summer of my life. In my memory, every day was sunny and warm. We did more than ever, but it ended far too soon. The days flew past us like birds in a flock: one moment you can see hundreds of them coming toward you, and the next just a few stragglers, struggling to escape the cold winds of winter.

But amid all the terrible things that were headed our way, something amazing happened—something I had wanted my entire life but thought would never occur. In the two brief months between my father’s second diagnosis and his passing, he gave me the greatest gift any child can receive from a parent: his blessing.

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