My brother lands on his feet. Literally.
He told me a story a few months ago about a time back in college at Michigan State, when he was riding his bike on campus. He was riding FAST, since it’s a huge sprawling university, and it took a while to get anywhere. So he was speeding along, and suddenly something happened to the front wheel – maybe the brakes seized up, or the rim imploded, or an object got jammed in there – anyway, something traumatic happened to the front wheel and the bike came to a complete, jarring stop. My brother (his name is Jeff) went right over the handlebars, did a front flip, rolled up as his shoulder barely brushed the ground, and landed on his feet. Another student, watching from a dorm window above, yelled down, incredulously, “Are you okay?” Jeff stood solidly there on his feet, checked himself, looked around, and said, “Yeah! I think I am!” The wonder in his voice still came through when he told me the story, almost thirty years later.
I talked to him again a couple of days ago, and he told me another story. He still loves to ride his bike, especially his road bike. He lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and last week he did two big rides. The first ride was three miles each way. Two hundred and fifty other people were with him, including his two sons, my nephews Jeffrey and David. They rode, silently, from a church to a site where five old-style bicycles, painted white, stand by the side of the road. The bicycles are a memorial to five people who were killed by a driver on June 7th. Five. Five people. One driver killed them all.
Four others were seriously injured in the crash. My brother knows the leader of the bike group, who was injured. He knows the road where it happened, and rides in that area frequently. It could have been him.
I saw news about the crash online Tuesday night, before any names of the bicyclists were released. The first story incorrectly stated that there may have been children in the cycling group. My heart seized up. I tried calling Jeff, but got his voicemail. He didn’t return my call before I went to bed. I spent the night praying, hoping that he was alright; praying, hoping for the families of those who weren’t alright.
I had been here before. Fifteen years ago, Jeff and my niece Katrina went out for a bike ride. They were hit by a teenage driver, who wasn’t wearing her glasses, and couldn’t see them in the angled evening light. Katrina, who was almost six years old at the time — lion-hearted, funny, brilliant, terrible, sweet Katrina — We lost Katrina. We almost lost Jeff, too. He did not land on his feet that time, but gradually, stubbornly, worked his way back. Which amounts to the same thing, in the end.
Jeff still rides. He loves to ride. He’s never articulated to me exactly what it is he likes about it; I imagine it’s the speed, the fluidity, the glide. Feeling your body extend beyond its usual limits, becoming part of the bicycle. Flowing through the landscape. The freedom of it. The pure joy.
The second memorial ride in Kalamazoo last week was bigger than the first. “Finish the Ride” was an event where a group of bicyclists set out to complete the bike trip that was tragically interrupted last Tuesday. At twenty-eight miles, with an average speed of fifteen miles per hour, this memorial was intended for cycling club members and distance riders.
Seven hundred people came out.
Even though Jeff rides a lot, it’s early in the season and this punishing speed and distance would be a real push for him. But he and his friend Sandy wanted to do it. It would be a challenge for Sandy, too. They parked one car at the start/finish, and staged another car at a point where they could drop out if they needed to. But after about a quarter of a mile, they realized they’d left the keys for the drop-out car locked in the finish car. “I guess we’re committed!” they said, and rode on.
The route was totally police-escorted, traffic was re-routed, and supporters lined the sides of the roads. The countryside north of Kalamazoo is lovely: rolling hills and lush summertime. “It was a good ride,” said Jeff. “I’m gonna need a wheelchair for work tomorrow,” said Sandy. At mile twenty-five they were feeling it, getting pretty tired, but they both finished the full twenty-eight miles. They made it, full circle, back to the beginning, back to the end.
What will you do with grief?
What will you do with rage and hatred?
Will you lash out in reply?
Or wallow in the pain, refusing to let go?
Or, instead, will you do something heroic, creative, peace-making, beautiful?
Is your heart big enough for all that joy?
Is your faith strong enough to finish the ride?