Death Changes Everything, Carl

Bear with me folks. This is a long read, for a blog. I know. I promise all subsequent posts will be shorter, but…..

There is a spot in your lives as a married couple where you live in a sweet zone of not having to check out show times for the latest Disney, Pixar, or other over-hyped animated movie. Your children have grown and left the nest and you do not yet have grandchildren, so as a couple, you can have a date with whatever form of entertainment you choose. A REAL film: action, mystery, science fiction, romance…it’s a wonderful time where you can focus on each other once again. Date night as an adult with grown children is AWESOME!

So, when the movie “Up” came out in 2009, my wife and I didn’t see it. We had hit that sweet spot! To be sure, she showed it to her classes later to discuss the music (she was an elementary music teacher), but not me! I refused to be suckered in! That is until this past fall when I was babysitting my three year old grandson and he wanted to watch “Up” because of Russell and the Habanera from “Carmen.” So, here I am at the age of 58, a widower for eight months, watching this movie with my grandson about a grumpy old man who married the girl of his dreams, she dies, and he spends the balance of his life in an unchanging environment with her memory and the memory of an unfulfilled promise haunting him…until change is FORCED upon him. I bawled like a baby.

The movie is wrong. Dead wrong. Death changes everything, Carl! And it doesn’t take it’s time about doing so, either.

My wife and I were cyclists. Well, okay, I am a cyclist (rank amateur, but a good one), and she enjoyed riding anywhere from 10-25 miles – as long as it was relatively warm, the course was flat, and we stopped somewhere for ice cream along the route (amazing how many places you can find that serve both ice cream and beer, BTW!).

I started cycling seriously in 2011 after bariatric bypass as a tool to keep my weight in check. We discovered along the way it also helped with my …. artistic …. temperament! I started out slowly with a goal of 2400 miles a year. After the first year, she said that it was too easy for me, and suggested I increase my goal each year, with the long term goal of a cycling trip for us from Alaska to Buenos Aires the year after we retired. She REALLY enjoyed having that slim teenage boy back again as her husband, and, again, the change in temperament after I took a ride was noticeable!

The goal in 2016 was to hit 7500 miles. I went off bike in October for a couple of surgeries – one to remove the excess skin from 170 pounds of weight loss that had remained off, and another to repair a broken foot I had been riding on for a few months. We wanted both to be done at the same time so I could get back on bike by Thanksgiving and hit the 7500. Things didn’t go quite as planned and I ended up short at 6700 miles. More distressing was how ill she became at Christmas time. Two weeks later we discovered she had stage 4 gall bladder cancer and were told she had anywhere from three months to MAYBE as much as a year.

It wasn’t fair. I was retired…she was only a few years away. We had three young grandsons, all under the age of three. Her biggest fear was that they wouldn’t remember their Nana. So we fought. She fought. And I was determined to be right there by her side, the way that she was by mine for all those years. The dignity and grace which she maintained during the fight was incredible to watch.

Obviously, my cycling goals were never on my mind. I managed to get in 650 miles in 2017, primarily because she would get tired of my crap and say “You need to get out on your bike. Go. NOW!”

In December of 2017, a bit over eleven months into her battle, we had run out of experimental options and treatments. We had been turned down by a major pharmaceutical company for an off label trial that was showing promising results because they found out we had contacted an attorney about the initial surgeon who had botched her cholecystectomy in the first place and spread the cancer. One night, alone, she softly said to me – through tears – “You have to promise me you are going to get back on track with your mileage next year. No matter what happens.” I refused. I wept. I told her she was far more important and that we were going to beat this thing together.

A few weeks later she had her last chemo treatment, and two weeks after that she began to spiral downwards precipitously. She didn’t want to enter hospice, because she felt that by doing so she would be giving up. Our children had all left for their own homes after the holidays, and once again she demanded that I promise her to get my 7500 miles in and get back on track. This time I caved. The next day she had mentally slipped away even further and entered hospice. She was gone in less than two weeks, passing on February 1st. I never knew how difficult it would be to keep that promise.

We had two dogs and two cats. One of our dogs had been diagnosed with Cushing’s disease just about a month after my wife’s diagnosis, so we had been watching him lose weight over the year as well. Riding in Michigan year round is problematic at best, but with quality gear, bikes, and a supportive wife, it really wasn’t an issue for me. Until she died. So many issues….

Who is going to look after the animals? I had been a pretty active randonneur, among other things. You can’t, however, go off on a 200, 300, or 400K ride for a single day and leave the dogs alone in the house.

Depression is real Carl. I get it. Finding motivation to get out was something I never struggled with until after her Memorial service. To make matters worse, though, is that you feel you are always losing a piece of that person. Every time one of the kids takes an article of her clothing, a dish, or a piece of furniture (which they should, as my wife and I made sure they knew what they each are to take from us), another part of her leaves the house. Nothing in this house has remained the same, Carl. I don’t know HOW you did it.

Eating, drinking, and sleeping is different following the death of your best friend, your partner, your cycling buddy. I just don’t have the energy to cook a regular meal for myself anymore, and I was a trained chef as an undergrad. Without the food, the energy just isn’t there to do an early morning or late afternoon ride.

Drinking? Ha! My bariatric bypass was dramatically successful in part because I couldn’t process food for the first several months. We discovered by accident one day that my stomach doesn’t produce the enzymes necessary to break down food in a normal way anymore, but that certain beers will help kick start the process! Seriously. I went from vomiting every meal to being able to hold down a meal and digest it properly overnight. Who needs cannabis when beer is legal everywhere???!!! Unfortunately, I no longer have my wife to rely on to bring a Scotch Ale if I have to stop somewhere mid-ride to eat. And Scotch Ales are hard to come by….especially mid ride.

Sleep? When it comes, it is often for only a few hours at a time and is fitful. I read somewhere recently that sleeping in the nude is better for you, because wearing clothing can create a restriction and/or increase body temperature, making it more difficult to maintain sleep. My wife and I, to the chagrin of our children, slept “aux naturale” for years. With her gone, I now have to think of my children. What happens if I die in my sleep (I’m not that lucky!)? Would you want to come to your father’s house to find him naked in his bed, dead from a heart attack, stroke, or something else??? Ughhhhhhh! Pajamas it is…..

The last issue I am going to address is the security issue. Having a partner you know you can rely on allows you to cycle further and longer with the assurance that if there is a mechanical issue you can’t handle, get tired because you bit off more than you could chew, or if there is a weather issue, that person will be able to swoop in to the rescue. (Let the record show that she encouraged me to become a randonneur because she got tired of this function rapidly!)

My children gently pushed me out the door on my fat tire on February 18th – eight days after we said goodbye. It was 36 degrees and I started into a 14 mph headwind. Perfect accompaniment to how I felt. For the entire 16 miles I rode over the course of an hour and a half I bawled. The tears freezing to my cheeks even through the balaclava I was wearing. Stupid wind-chill, anyway. I went out again three more times in March, but each time I went out, I came back to a mess. The dogs were also going through separation anxiety. We had adopted them five years ago as a pair. Their previous owner had passed and the family gave them up for adoption to the local Humane Society. My wife fell in love with Ginger immediately because of her freckles. This ginormous yellow lab spent the next five years parked on my wife’s lap.

So I gave up riding again.

In late April, for my birthday and what would have been our 35th anniversary, our kids stepped up. They took it upon themselves to build a picket fence around our backyard and a shed in a corner so I could put the dogs out and leave on rides without fear of coming back to a mess. Construction was completed May 8th. They reminded me of my promise, and May 9th I started on the quest to hit 7500 miles by January 1st….but I had only logged 97 miles up until then.

Death changes everything Carl. You didn’t realize that, and maybe THAT’S why you didn’t keep your promise. I had once been able to easily knock out 180 miles plus in a single day. I once did 317! That wasn’t the case any longer, however, and I quickly realized that I was going to have to ride nearly every single day to keep this promise. I broke up the remaining distance to reach 7500 and divided it by the days remaining in the year. I had to average 32 miles every single day to keep my word. Many people would say that just getting close would have been acceptable….and to be fair, some part of me feels she may have as well. However, another part of me knows that she was harder on me than on anyone else she knew – mostly because she knew I was goal driven and obstinate as hell! Another part of me felt that I had left so many promises unfulfilled that I HAD to keep this one. No excuses.

I had never really ridden day after day after day before. I would go out and knock off a century ride and then take a couple of days off. Go out and do a metric century and then take a day off, etc. But after the better part of eighteen months off bike, I lacked the stamina to do this. So 35 mile rides it was. And the gap closed….slowly.

Along the way, I was forced to adapt. I was hit by a distracted driver six days after my first ride in May. This lead to a rear facing camera from my children as a Father’s Day present when they became panicked and realized they had narrowly missed becoming orphans. The addition of the Cycliq light/camera, however, overloaded the rear of my bikes and my accessory holders couldn’t handle the extra burden. Death changes everything, Carl. You have to adapt. So I did.

First of all was making sure I had access to a medicinal Scotch Ale when necessary. They don’t travel well in the typical water bottle, you know. Finally, while on RAGBRAI, I discovered a metal crowler at the Iowa Craft Beer Tent. This marvelous piece of engineering is designed to hold 32 ounces of your favorite beer in an insulated tumbler that preserves the carbonation while fitting in your bike’s water bottle holder perfectly. Good Lord, how important THAT has been!

I have been a huge fan of the Kaddy Rack bike accessory system for years and have a four bar system for the front of my fat tire. Fortunately, Andy is a great guy and an engineering genius. When I told him of my problem and situation, he designed a multiple bar system for the rear of my bike that accommodates five tail lights AND the Cycliq. Adaptability, Carl. Kaddy Rack and Andy are FANTASTIC about it! See the link below!

Weather has been more of an issue than I was prepared for. It has been the year of the Big Wind here in the Midwest. So many days with constant winds of 15-20 mph, I had to explore new routes that would allow me to take advantage of tail winds. Many of these involved gravel portions. In 2013, my wife bemoaned the money we were spending on invitationals every year – we did 14 of them that year alone. She begged me to explore more local routes, and eventually pushed me into randonneuring to satisfy my long distance cycling cravings. This year, she got her wish as far as local cycling….I put new wider tires on my cyclocross bike (700×30/32) and took advantage of routes that used both paved and gravel roads. And spent less time paying attention to my stats on my Garmin and more time paying attention to the scenery.

As November 1st hit, however, I was still more than 1400 miles short. This was a HUGE problem. My biggest November for road mileage was in 2015 when I pounded out 535 miles. Similarly, my best December was also in 2015 when I logged 325 miles. As the days became colder, and we had a pretty significant snow and ice event before Thanksgiving, it became more difficult to get out every day and grind out the miles. To further complicate matters, our dog Jasper finally succumbed to his bout with Cushing’s and died on the 25th. But a promise is a promise, and I could hear her voice inside my head “You are a stubborn, stubborn man.” At the close of the day on November 30th, I had logged 895 miles for the month…more than May, more than June, and more than October. Then I knew it was going to be possible, but would require a strong finish.

I became ill December 7th, with 250 miles down in December already and just 220 miles remaining. My Uncle also passed that week and his funeral was that weekend. Nothing about this was going to be easy. It was as though my wife was sitting beyond laughing and saying “This is a character building exercise. You’re going to be stronger because of this.”

But I got better. The four days’ rest did a great deal of good. And the final push began. The morning of the 18th dawned clear and cold, but promised to be in the mid 40’s by the end of the day. A friend I had made on a cycling Facebook page was coming to join me. I only needed 41 miles to keep my promise. The forecast called for all day rain on Thursday. I was determined to finish it Wednesday. But, again, my wife wanted a good laugh.

One of my most prized possessions is a video recording we did three weeks before she passed. We styled it after the famous Story Corps recordings on NPR at a suggestion of the nurses at her oncology center. One of the questions I asked was “Why me?” My wife was a goddess. She never allowed herself (unlike me) to get out of shape. Stunningly beautiful inside and out. We had a series of couple shots taken about five years ago by a former student who is a professional photographer. My nickname for these shots is “The Princess and the Frog.” So, indeed, why me? She said in that interview “Because you could always make me laugh. No one else could lift me up like that.”

I decided to take her bike that day. Wear her helmet. Wear a kit we had designed for a fundraiser ride for the non-profit we organized in her memory (more on that in a later blog). But remember what I said about the conditions necessary for her to ride? Her bike didn’t want to go out in the cold that day either, apparently. After struggling with the pedals, the chain, the seat post, the accessory bars, etc., I finally was able to get out about 45 minutes later than intended. Then it hit me. I was really going to do it. I was going to keep the last promise I ever made to my beautiful and loving wife. That another tie to her was leaving me. And the tears started just as they did on that first ride after she passed. Okay, Carl, maybe not EVERYTHING changes.

At this writing I have logged 7560 miles on the year. The kids are all home for the holidays. The yard is cleaned up finally (since I had neglected it for much of the year while chasing down this goal). The tree is going up tomorrow. Ostensibly, honey, nothing has changed. But everything has. You aren’t here to share it with.

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Forced into retirement at the age of 55 because I was foolish enough to finish a PhD program in an era of teacher bashing and budget cutting, I turned to cycling full time. Until my wife passed away in 2018 from a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Now I navigate the highways of the US on my bikes in search of a good Brew, good times with our grandsons, and in memory of her.

8 thoughts on “Death Changes Everything, Carl”

  1. I am so proud of you, brother. Your Angel is always with you and will always be there to push you further than you think you can. And so will we. With love, your baby sis.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Man, that hits like a boulder to the chest!

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful, inspirational, and emotional story. She was an incredible woman and the personal strength she “forced” us all to find makes us better each and every day.

    I have to compliment your writing for a moment, though I know that is not why you posted this piece.

    You do this fantastic job of narrating the story and walking us through the events of 2018… as if it were a voiceover to your life. We can see it all, like a Sundance Film before our eyes.
    But all the while we know that this wasn’t really meant for us to hear/see. We’re just guests in this conversation with Carl, the animated character from “Up.” These moments remind me so much of an Arthur-Excalibur exchange, minus the crazy of course. And I love it.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing this blog as a glimpse into your world.

    Thinking of you and sending you love and strength on this 2nd anniversary of her passing!

    Forever your student,
    -Stephanie Pierce


    1. Oh Stephanie! Thank you so much for thinking of us and taking the time to read this! Yes, it started as a way for me to grieve and process…it has started to morph into a way of allowing me to feel like I’m back in a classroom…like our life still matters. I’m honored you joined me here today! I think of you often, truly. Don’t be afraid to shoot off an email or PM.


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