About seventeen months ago, I stood in my garage looking up at my bike. It hung from the ceiling on a hook Ken had installed. His bike was hanging next to mine.
A police officer had returned his bike at some point. My memory of the timing is fuzzy. Was it that night, that horrible first night? I think so. But maybe it was the next day? I have no idea. At some point his bike was back at home, leaning against the shelves in the garage. I remember touching his handlebars, staring at the dirt on the disengaged chain, and trying to decipher the scratches on the frame. I remember hanging it up where it was supposed to be—even though nothing was as it was supposed to be. I wondered if I’d ever be able to ride again. Would it even be possible to ride again given what had just happened?
I used to be a runner. It used to be a huge part of my identity. Not knowing if I would be able to get back on my bike, I thought that maybe I could go back to running. About a week later, I went for a run and quickly realized that running wasn’t an option.
For the past fifteen or so years I’ve had plantar fasciitis. Up until about three years ago, it was bearable; the first steps I’d take in the morning were painful, then the pain would decrease to a low-level constant ache. And for the first five minutes of a run, I’d often have sharp pain, then the pain would dull. It was something I could live with. I loved running so much that the pain was never enough to warrant stopping.
That is, until a specific run in 2018. Sammy, Ken, and I were in Arizona for Sammy’s Nike Southwest Regional cross-country race. He’d raced in the morning and done well. Later that day, he was still on his “runner’s high” and wanted to go for another run, so the two of us headed out to a hilly trail close to our Airbnb. The trail was challenging; it was filled with boulders that came up to my waist. Bounding from boulder to boulder, we were running, laughing, and feeling very alive. I remember a group of other runners cheering for us as we bounded past them. It was one of my favorite runs. It was also one of the last semi-pain-free runs I’d ever have.
I did something on that run that exacerbated my plantar fasciitis. What was I doing trying to keep up with my eighteen-year-old?
After that day, the pain stayed. I tried running, but the pain got worse and worse with each mile.
I went to my primary care doctor, had x-rays taken, went to an orthopedic surgeon, had an MRI done, wore a very sexy boot to bed every night, went to physical therapy twice a week, bought all the Epsom salt, and tried every home remedy I could find on the internet. After a couple months of resting my foot, the pain would ebb, so I’d go for a run, and the pain would return. After a few cycles of this routine, Ken started talking about getting me a bike.
He researched bikes for weeks. We decided to splurge on gravel bikes for our 28th anniversary. I learned to use clipless pedals, which was terrifying at first, but I got the hang of them. And I got some good bike shorts, which was a serious necessity.
I couldn’t run anymore, but I was going to be okay. The bike would make it okay.
Then, it wasn’t okay. Nothing was okay, and I was staring up at my bike wondering if I would ever ride again. I associated everything about biking with Ken. How could I ride my bike now?
I had conversations with myself about it. If he’d had a heart attack while he’d been driving a car, would I never get in a car again? I couldn’t just stay at home forever; I’d have to get in a car at some point. The same thoughts surfaced about my bike.
After a bit, I decided I would get on the bike, go for a ride, and see how it felt. I did, and I felt at peace. I had a very real sense that Ken would want me to continue to ride my bike. It was going to be okay.
But what about enjoying riding my bike? I enjoy my kids and my grandkids, but for a long time now, I’ve enjoyed little else, and when I have stumbled on joy, I haven’t been able to fully grasp it; it eludes me. Grief is complicated. I don’t know how I’m supposed to be feeling or if there is any supposed to in this whole mess. What I do know is that if I feel any joy, any happiness, I feel as if I’m betraying Ken. How can I be happy? How can I enjoy anything? How can joy even exist for me now?
I don’t know.
But I’m discovering that it does.
A few days ago, I had the day off, and I went for a bike ride; I knew rain was a possibility but decided to go anyway. Needed to go. It was a cool fifty-five degrees out and it did rain. I’d never biked in the rain before.
I loved the way the rain dripped off my helmet. In my peripheral vision I could see the droplets form on the edges of my helmet and then release. I loved the way the cool rain coated my glasses and my warm breath fogged them up. I loved the way the rain felt soft on my skin when I climbed uphill and the way it felt prickly and penetrating as I sped downhill. I loved the way I could control the way the rain felt on my skin just by changing my speed. I loved dodging the puddles. And I loved the splash of the puddles when they were unavoidable. I loved that I had mud splattered up my back. I loved that the added danger made me hyper-aware of every muscle in my body and of every move I made.
I loved the ride so much! I loved it for its sensory pleasure but also loved it because I felt something in me shift. I wasn’t just existing: I was alive.
I also felt a shift in my identity. There’s something different, something raw, about choosing to be out in the rain. Anyone can enjoy a bike ride on a sunny day, but there’s a sense in which only a true cyclist can enjoy being out—can need to be out—in the rain.
Even though I don’t run anymore, I’ll always consider myself a runner. I have a strong sense of loyalty to the things that have made me who I am, that have saved me, that have brought me joy. But now I feel a new part of my identity solidifying. Maybe it’s okay to be a cyclist, too. Maybe it’s okay to get as much joy out of riding as I ever did out of running. Even now.
On that day, when I stood there in my garage looking up at my bike and wondering if I would ever be able to ride again, I never would have imagined joy showing up like that: on a bike of all places.
I’m discovering, little by little, that maybe joy won’t elude me forever. Maybe it’s okay to feel joy again. This joy is something I never would have imagined, never could have planned. It’s a wonderful gift. And sometimes gifts show up in the most unexpected places.