On a cool, clear weekend west of Madison, Wisconsin, a group of us gathered at Governor Dodge State Park in early September of 2012. Our plan was to camp out, ride the Wright Stuff Century (or thereabouts) and float down the Wisconsin River on inner tubes.
Simple stuff. Midwestern joys.
For me, it was a brief escape from caregiving duties back in Illinois. My late wife was in her seventh year of ovarian cancer survivorship. She’d been through so many chemotherapy treatments and operations by then it felt like she was a science experiment.
In many ways, that was true. Treating cancer is not some cookie-cutter regimen. Everyone’s body reacts differently to chemicals being dripped into their bodies. The side effects are enough to kill some people.
In his book “It’s Not About the Bike,” cancer survivor Lance Armstrong tells the story of how he told the doctors, and I paraphrase, “Give me everything you got, doc. You can’t kill me.”
To which the doctor replied, “Oh yes, I can.”
That’s how chemotherapy works. It seeks to kill various kinds of cancer by attacking the most active, aggressive cells in your body. One of the tests used to detect cancer is a radioactive glucose. It is pushed into the body in a PET scan. Then a scanner takes an image of where the glucose is being used most in the body. Basically it shows where cancer is excited by the presence of sugar.
We also tracked my wife’s CA-125 numbers, a test frequently prescribed for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. When the numbers are low, it indicates cancer is in remission. When those numbers rise, they possibly indicate cancer activity returning in the body. The first time that happened following two years in cancer remission, my wife had an emotional breakdown. She’d done everything they told her to do, and hopes were up that she’d conquered it. Then it came roaring back. She was crushed. It was like she’d been thrown off the bike of her life.
And it came back a year later. And again. And again.
During those eight years we sat through dozens of chemo sessions. We were in and out of hospitals getting tumors removed from her body. I was in and out of work taking care of her. Money was tight. Keeping insurance coverage was tense. We received help from many people over those years.
By September 2012, there were signs that the cancer was never going to quit. She’d developed tremors and seizures that seemed to worsen whenever we went for a walk. All this created tension in our lives and put pressure on our relationship as well. So we agreed that I should go bike riding with friends up in Wisconsin while she spent time with her family back in Illinois.
We started the ride late, almost the last people to head out. But I felt great in the cool morning air and we were soon passing other cyclists.
As we topped the long climb above the American Player’s Theater in the Wisconsin hills near Spring Green, I was feeling really great. Despite the long summer dealing with my wife’s illness, I’d gotten out riding enough while she rested that I was in decent shape and felt ready to cover 60-70 miles even in the steep hills north of Dodgeville.
One of my buddies topped the hill and went tearing after other cyclists headed down the hill toward the Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright property next to the Wisconsin River. I hit the pedals to stay with him, then quickly glanced down at the speed on my cyclometer. It read 45 miles an hour, but the road was getting rougher. So I tapped the brakes…
Shudder to think about it
At that point, my bike began to shudder in uncontrollable fashion. It swerved and wobbled. I tried braking but that only sent the bike into worse vibrations. The entire carbon fiber bike frame was whipping about at a width of six inches or more. That clearly meant trouble.
Looking ahead, I knew that I did not want to go down on the asphalt at that speed. Leaning left, I got the bike to the road edge and the front tire slid down across gravel and hit a lump of dirt. That threw me over the front of the bike as my feet unclipped from the pedals and I flew through the air. I saw a blur of ground and felt the hard thud of my left shoulder striking the earth. My body flipped and skidded sideways down a grassy hillside. I came to rest in a ditch of tall grass and late season wildlflowers.
For a moment I lay there trying to figure out what just happened. To my right there was a low cable strung two feet high between a line of concrete posts. Staring at it for a moment, I did the grotesque calculations of what might have happened if I had hit that wire. “You’d be dead,” I said to myself. I closed my eyes for a moment but the sun turned the eyelids red in the morning light.
Opening them again, I looked up at the blue sky and, realizing that I was quite alive, said a quick prayer of thanks for that. I moved my right shoulder a little but heard a crunching sound in my left collarbone. Lying back, I sighed and swore out loud. Some prayers are answered in the strangest ways.
It was clear that I had to get out of that ditch and figure out a way to get help. I leaned to my right and discovered that it didn’t hurt the fractured collarbone to move in that direction. What I did feel was a sharp tug in my right inner thigh. Something down there got pulled, I realized. So it took a few minutes to crawl up the bank and sit there, perhaps in shock, wondering if anyone would come along to find me.
Two women stopped their bikes when they saw me. They had started the ride even later than us. Thank God, I thought. One of them walked over and asked, “Did you have bike wobble?”
Looking up at her face, I nodded and said, “Yes,” even though I’d just learned what the term bike wobble even meant.
Back home, my wife was having shudders of her own that day. The seizures she’d been having came on even stronger during her visit with her parents. My daughter watched with worry and a bit of horror as her mother dealt with the tremors. Everyone wanted her to go to the hospital, but she refused.
Up in Wisconsin, I was picked up by ambulance and driven to a small hospital in the hills south of Dodgeville. They fed me Vicodin and tracked down my fellow campers, which was not an easy task given the dodgy cell phone reception in the Wisconsin hills.
It all took place one September eight years ago. The entire scene comes back to me every year when the light takes on that September tone and hits a certain angle.
It strikes me that I could have died that day. It was also somehow the day I realized it was likely that my wife would soon die. She passed away that following March after eight years of being wobbled back and forth by news good and bad.
Such is the nature of life, and what a wild ride we’re all really on.