By Christopher Cudworth
On Labor Day weekend last fall I joined friends for an organized bike ride called The Wright Stuff in southwestern Wisconsin. Some of you know the ride turned into a painful adventure when my bike began to shake and tremor from what is called “bike wobble” and I wound up breaking my collarbone in a 40 mph tumble into a roadside ditch.
The ditch was a choice, however. Even while the bike was vibrating out of control underneath me, every ounce of my brainpower (and fear!) came into play and I looked at the road surface and decided that was not a good place to go down. That meant leaning toward the side of the road and the somewhat more welcoming appearance of a grassy ditch. That looked a lot safer than spinning down on the hard asphalt where bones might be broken and large patches of skin removed.
I hesitate to call what happened next a crash. It took less than two seconds coursing through the roadside grass for the bike tires to skid and I went down. Wham. Came to a stop in a bed of long grass. Looking around, I tried to sense whether I’d been knocked out or not. My head didn’t hurt. My neck was okay. But when I moved to get up my clavicle (collarbone) made an odd crunching noise. “Well, I finally did it,” I said out loud. The clear blue sky just stared back at men. “Yes, you did,” it seemed to say.
Before other cyclists came along to find me and call 911 it was necessary to crawl up a small slope. To get up the hill required crawling under a half inch braided wire cable, the kind that loops through small posts that stand about a foot and a half over the ground. I realized how lucky it was that my body flung under the cable. Had it struck my head or neck the outcome would have been very much different. I could easily have been killed.
Mostly I was weirded out by the whole sensation of that supposedly solid carbon-fiber bike wobbling under me as if it were made of rubber. Everything in this universe is carbon in s ome form, I thought (right or wrong…). Why did the bike suddenly abandon its form?
I tried my cellphone but it didn’t work. The cyclists who came by to rescue me fortunately had cell service. Later that morning after I’d been whisked off to the hospital it occurred to me to call Linda and let her know the odd news. I’d never gone down on the bike before. “Honey,” I told her, “I crashed.”
Her great sigh came through the phone. “Noooo,” she commiserated. “Why does this have to happen?”
It was supposed to be a joyful weekend with friends while Linda rested in the care of her family.
Then she told me the scary news she had to share. That morning she’d had a series of violent tremors in her belly. We thought at the time it might have been a reaction to some new medications for her cancer treatments.
But over a period of weeks the tremors migrated to her shoulder and back. At first the physicians and medical staff thought it might be an y combination of things. But on December 26 at a checkup they ran a brain scan and it turned out the cancer had formed a tumor in her brain.
It’s not supposed to do that. The so-called “blood brain” barrier is not supposed to let things like ovarian cancer through. That fact wasn’t much solace. But just like my bike half dissolved beneath me at 40 mph, we were suddenly racing down an entirely different slope of reckoning.
8 years of fighting ovarian cancer. Now there was cancer in her brain.
A hard thump
That day felt much the same as my crash. A hard thump of realization and then numbness. Not even pain. We just stared at each other across the bed guard and finally found a way to utter a bitter bit of laughter. What did we expect? Nothing else, we guessed. We’d figure out a way to deal with it.
What followed was brain surgery to drain the cyst and a precisely directed dose of radiation to knock out the tumor. They put a giant metal ring around Linda’s head and used it to calibrate the radiation. Following the test they said a surgery of that sort had never gone better. The calibrations were so good, they told us, it was easy to complete the procedure. God Have Mercy, we thought. Something worked.
Linda went on steroids to help handle the swelling. Well, steroids are quite a trip.
The joyous journey of life
It became a wild and wonderful journey in many respects. The steroids were a mood lifter on steroids, so to speak. Everything was beautiful. Linda felt she was healed. I didn’t feel it was worth arguing with her. In fact it was the opposite. Whatever healing she could feel was taking place was alright by me. At times she was buoyant, euphoric really. The doctors told me that was typical. A friend warned me that steroids can be dangerous in some respects. Hard to wean the body off that high. So I watched her closely and communicated with friends and associates. Waiting to see what might happen.
Linda used the time like her whole lifetime was a gift. She bought a new vacuum, a snappy Dyson like you see on TV. It was like a miracle to her. Then she ordered a new water heater. Lots of light bulbs. She bought an iTouch and we hooked it up in the kitchen with Pandora playing the music she had resourced with our children–The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons. A bunch of new music and some original loves, too. Dire Straits. Leo Kottke. It played almost constantly as she went about the house watering plants. “It’s like heaven,” she told me.
Then she got inspired one night and got up from bed to research the car she’d always wanted to buy. We had some money from insurance to spend and we went out and got the Subaru Outback she’d been wishing for all these years. We brought the printout she’d gotten from the computer that included even the VIN number of the exact make, model and color of Subaru she wanted. We walked into the dealership and shocked the guy at the desk when she held forth the sheet and said, “We want to buy this car. Is it still on the lot?” It was.
She got to drive the Subaru home that day. And that was it.
Yin and yang
Some health issues swooped in to change our perspectives as fatigue and some pain took over her existence. Her jaw hurt and that required morphine. But we still got out for a few rides in the Subaru. Trips up the river and back in the wan winter light. Then I’d tuck her into bed to rest. Yin and yang. Light and darkness.
During the time she was on steroids there was so much Linda going on it was almost overwhelming. She was capable of so much spirit and light at times in life that it wasn’t all that different from her regular excitement about things. Yet to see it sustained was to witness the gift of life in compressed form. I decided not to worry about the money for the moment, and as it turns out all that is working out. There are things to do financially when someone dies, and bills to pay. But that’s the business of life. It comes with a price.
Instead I savored the energy and joy of the woman I love. She woke from sleep one morning to tell me she’d seen a program about a woman who travels and writes about Europe and Linda told me, with tears in her eyes, “You need to write. You need to paint. You should do what you want. It’s all going to happen.”
She still dreamed of us traveling together and who knows where all she wanted to go. Europe was one place. Back to Glacier National Park was another. I figure she’s traveling all she wants now, and I’m with her in spirit. And some of her ashes may yet make the trip to Glacier. We have a spot picked out high on a mountain top where we both wanted to go and never reached even though we’d been there three times together.
We’d gone to Glacier on our honeymoon and again while our son Evan was 1.5 years old, and he recalls riding in a backpack on my shoulders when I pointed out a line of angelic clouds along the line of a mountaintop.
Our family made the trip again in 2001, and my daughter Emily marveled at the scale and beauty of waterfalls large and small.
It was a long drive to Glacier and back in our then-new Chevy Impala. She took good care of that car. It still runs great, and looks pretty go d too. Linda took care of everything that way. Washing and waxing. Cleaning and tending. Planting and growing.
Those thoughts were going through my head as I drove to church in the Subaru this Easter morning. The sermon by our Pastor Mark Larson at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Charles was beautiful and chilling all at once.
The sermon presented the truth that everyone has doubts at times about their faith. To think otherwise is to not regard the resurrection with sufficient seriousness. In the absence of some doubt, perhaps there is no real gift of life in return.
The call of an act so unbelievable as a resurrection is to understand that its meaning, both symbolic and true, is both a redemptive force and a challenge to change. That it is ours accept the often difficult task of living our lives in a different way.
To love fully, and without judgment. To seek out the poor and heartbroken. To have and show compassion for anyone and everyone you meet.
You don’t need to be Christian to realize how difficult all those things can be. We’re human. We all fail. I certainly fail. Yet we ask forgiveness because of those failings and hopefully are rewarded with the success of knowing that we can be forgiven. That is the greatest gift of life.
In the movie Saving Private Ryan we are swept through the horrors of war in which limbs are torn off, lives are shattered and lost, and people in war are hewn to the very bone by what they experience. The character of Private Ryan had unknowingly lost several brothers already in the war. The army decides to try to bring him home as an act of kindness to his mother waiting back home.
Before the unit can save Private Ryan, they get ripped by a German onslaught that comes down to hand to hand combat in some case. Then their leader gives his life by sitting with his remaining weapon in his hand, firing at an oncoming tank not out of some heroic sense of honor, but because it was his job to lead. Everyone has to pitch in. Everyone has to sacr ifice.
Years later Private Ryan returns to the hilltop gravesite where hundreds of American soldiers have markers set up in their honor. Ryan kneels before the small white cross of the man who led the unit that saved his own life. He breaks down in tears and his family gathers around him in solace. He stands up then and looks into the eyes of his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve lived a good life.” His wife assures him that he has.
That is our calling, to live the best we can with this gift of life. When we’ve been given a gift, it is right to respect its source. That is how I feel about the 8 years that Linda gave our family and her friends. Her will to live was that gift, and it has affected us deeply. Our blessings have been fulfilled. Now it is ours to live the best we can, given this gift of life.