“Would you like to bike to Lakes Park with me?” Rich asked.
On the surface it was a simple question. It’s a nice park about six miles from our AirBnB in Ft. Myers. The route is totally flat, with bike trail all the way. The afternoon was sunny and warm, inviting for an outdoor activity.
For eight years we bike toured at least once a year, usually for up to a month at a time, covering around 1,000 miles. Hopping on our bikes together was ingrained in our retirement lifestyle. When we weren’t touring, we were still out there training or just staying in shape. We took it for granted.
But yesterday’s question was not simple. It carried a depth of meaning that was not lost on me. Since Rich’s open-heart surgery over a year ago, he has been fighting his way back to health and persistently pushing to increase his endurance. He no longer takes anything for granted. Nor do I.
I couldn’t remember the last time we biked together. I looked it up in my sports tracking app. The answer – August 31, 2020. That was just over a month before his heart took him down on the trail. Back when there were signs that we missed, when workouts were harder for him but we had no idea why. When we blamed it on getting older. Yet he persevered, and we went on a nice ride in Grand Marais. I didn’t know it would be our last for so long.
Throughout his recovery, Rich insisted he had to fight his own battles. Overcome his demons on his own. He doggedly went out trail running and passed the spot where he went down, his recovering heart pounding as hard as it could as the haunting memory swept over him. He got back on his bike when the weather warmed, walking the hills when he didn’t have the stamina to pedal up them. “Slow and steady” was his mantra. Each time I offered to go with him, I got the same response. “I have to conquer this on my own.” Admittedly, sometimes I set out for my own ride on the same route a little later, just to reassure myself he was still upright, on his way home.
Rich was told that the mental game would be just as hard as the physical side of his recovery. Not knowing how much his body has left to give and the extent of his long-term prospects for active sports has been hard.
Facing all this has clouded my horizon as well. Rich’s uncertainties leave me feeling adrift. What does all this mean for our future? Our mutual love of outdoor active pursuits hangs in limbo. It used to be a no-brainer to dream up vacations that revolved around cross-country skiing, canoeing, kayaking, cycling and hiking. How much of that remains within our reach? It’s understandable that Rich’s interest may wane with his abilities. The gulf between our abilities has plunged us into uncharted territory.
And the big question still looms: Will we ever be able to resume bike touring? I still long for those days in the saddle, grappling with weather conditions, the incredible views from the seats of our bikes, the wonderful people we meet along the way, and the sense of empowerment from traveling under own own steam. I can’t accept that it’s the end just yet. Only time will tell.
Rich’s question really marked a milestone. For the first time, he was willing to share his ride. Which really meant sharing his new reality. Riding with him would allow me to personally witness his capabilities.
Cycling down the driveway, I settled into place behind him, allowing him to set the pace and curbing my urge to forge ahead – an issue even in normal times. The sense of familiarity and normalcy was overwhelming, yet I recognized it as a gift. I was also impressed. Rich kept up a good pace, better than I anticipated. Clearly his efforts were paying off.
When Google misled us on the distance to the park, and the round-trip turned out to be closer to 16 miles than 12, I could see Rich tiring on the way home. He doggedly pushed his pedals to complete the ride, and still carried his bike up the 16 steps to our 2nd floor abode. But not without a cost. I witnessed the weakness imposed by his heart. A good lesson, grounding me.
But the ride held more significance. It was a measure of just how far he’s come. More and more often, I hear Rich utter “I never could have done that a few months ago.” Which I take as a good omen for the future. For our future. He’s fighting a good fight and winning. I’m already looking forward to our next bike ride. This time I don’t expect it to be such a long while.