On a cold December night in 2016 I was sitting at a bar by myself. The Christmas season had traditionally been a joyous time of year for me, especially when my mother was alive. But this year I sulked about the recent end of a personal relationship that, while fractured towards the end, had been full of promises of starting a family and having each other’s back until the end of time. My life, at times full of purpose and direction over the year, suddenly drifted and felt confused. On this night I wanted to commiserate by myself but suddenly a friend found me and told me something that I least expected but badly needed to hear: when some of life’s doors close others open. And the door of opportunity had now swung wide open for me to pursue a dream that had somehow slid off my radar screen.
That dream had really started in the winter of 2014. On March 15th of that year I eulogized my mother during a memorial service celebrating her life and legacy. It was a horribly cold and dreary Saturday for me, less than a week after Mom’s death from lung cancer. On March 9th I had watched my mother draw her last breath through a morphine-induced coma. Shortly thereafter, in the front hallway of my boyhood home, a long zipper drew a black bag to a close over her lifeless body. I was still in complete shock that such a strong and vibrant woman had lost her life to lung cancer only 5 months after being diagnosed. The pain of her loss burned in me, her youngest child. I vowed that something good would come out of her life being taken by such a horrible disease. I vowed that I would contribute to fighting cancer in some personally meaningful way.
Even well before Mom’s cancer diagnosis and death I was familiar with the excellence of Duke University’s medical programs. An estimated 25,000 miles of running and 10,000 miles of swimming over the past 35 years of my life, as well as several emergency orthopaedic mishaps, have required medical intervention to get repaired; Duke University has provided impeccable medical care in treating my overuse and accidental abuse of my bones and joints. Of course Duke University’s medical programs not only address research and treatment for orthopaedic ailments but for major issues in other medical disciplines as well. Duke provides care to over 70,000 cancer patients annually and has a world renowned vibrant research program to help treat and defeat various forms of this disease. My own history at Duke, its world-class reputation and location in my home state, and the nature of my mother’s death make the Duke Cancer Institute a logical choice for me to raise funds for during a charity bicycle ride. I am riding not only to benefit Duke’s oncological research programs but to draw attention to a horrible disease still too common in many families’ lives…including mine.
I’ve been blessed with good health, boundless energy and a sense of adventure. Now is the time for me to harness those elements of my life so that I may contribute to a cause bigger than myself. Cancer killed over 8 million people in 2014 and my mother was one of the people that this horrible disease took that year. Like my friend first reminded me half a year ago, my door of opportunity has indeed swung wide open. Now is the time for me to ride through that door and into the great beyond to raise funds for a cause bigger than myself. Cancer is not just an ailment relegated to my family or any one segment of society; it is a disease that affects families, friends, and colleagues – mine, yours and others. Fighting the disease is a cause we can all get behind, for it affects most of us in one fashion or another. It is my sincere hope that you the reader of my blogs and follower of my 2017 trans-continental bike journey will get behind my cause: to raise awareness about cancer and help defeat the disease by raising research funds for the Duke Cancer Institute.
My fundraiser will entail a self-supported bike ride mostly across the northern tier of the continent. Why that means of transportation and location? Well I can kind of thank my Mom for that. She and Dad taught be to ride. Maybe they weren’t just teaching me how to ride. I think they were probably teaching me how to get on my feet again after taking the inevitable falls in life. And why through the north? Because the northland has become a part of my fabric. When I was young Mom and Dad sent me off on wilderness expeditions to the northern states and Canada. I was horribly homesick over my first journeys but then eventually fell in love with these wide open spaces. I’ve spent many winter nights pouring over maps of faraway places I’ve yet to see – the Yukon, Great Bear Lake, Lake Winnipeg – places with endless views, the haunting cries of loons, and the Northern lights arcing over the nighttime skyline.
There’s one more reason why I am fundraising for Duke University cancer research. When I eulogized my mother I implored those attending her service to not let Mom’s legacy die with her. I urged them to make Mom’s spirit of benevolence and giving their own, to spread her warmth and kindness to others. In eulogizing her I, of course, was also speaking this message to myself. In an era hell-bent on tension and cynicism, with political friction and world turmoil driving us apart, it is now my calling to do something that, even in some modest fashion, helps bring people together amid a sea of divisiveness that seems to surround our lives. So really this ride is about spreading that everyday essential goodness that was my mother. And my ride, in turn, is about finding Mom’s everyday goodness in people that I will meet – both virtually and in person – along the way. I consider this journey, then, my search for the giants among us.