I post a lot about bikes. I post a lot about sports, active things. Things that get your adrenaline going.
Well. . . yesterday was the 25th of February and 7 years ago on that day, my grandfather passed away. He had turned 90 five days before.
I grew up without ever knowing my father, and although I recently went to Alaska and was fortunate enough to meet and spend time with him, I still consider my grandfather (I called him “Gramps”) the only father figure that I’ll ever know in my entire life.
He was an amazing person. Born in 1914, he survived the Great Depression and WWII (though he was never deployed, thankfully). He was a bike messenger in LA in his younger years and eventually worked for the US Postal Service, where he spent over 30 years. Upon retirement from the USPS he and his wife Helen traveled with my mother for two whole years while she worked on her dissertation on two separate Indian Reservations in Washington State. After my mom returned from Alaska with two little ones, he spent the rest of his life helping to take care of them (my sister and I). He was as family man, an intellectual, a hard worker, and a beautiful person. He had a love for music and art and a ravenous appetite for politics and the news. He whistled all the time. In the late 90′s and early 00′s, he was the one responsible for turning me on to the Tour de France.
As many people know, I’ve always been into bikes and at the time I had tunnel vision for MTB street riding, or “urban assault”, as it was called. I still remember the day that Gramps told me that an American was making waves at a race in France by spinning a gear in the hills that no one could match. He was legendary and no one could touch him. His name was Lance Armstrong. This must have been around 2000 or so, when his rivalry with Jan Ulrich was still new and no one thought that some American could win one, let alone two Tours. The excitement in my grandfather’s voice struck a chord with me and I went right down to the local bike shop and started asking question after question about the TdF. I learned about Mario Cipollini and Jan Ulrich. I learned about sprinters and climbers and the polka dot jersey. I learned a lot and have my grandfather to thank.
In the fall of 2003 the doctor informed him that his heart was wearing out and that he’d need double bypass surgery or else face a couple of months to live. It was a really hard time for our family and for me, but I remember him telling me that he’d make sure to live to see my high-school graduation in 2004. As always, his words comforted me and put my mind and heart at ease. He passed away in his sleep in February of 2004, barely 4 months shy of my graduation. At the ceremony my mother told me that he was there in spirit and that he would be so proud of me. I smiled, but didn’t feel anything. For whatever reason my grandfather’s death triggered an emotional embargo within me and it would be years before I allowed myself to cry or experience anything other than anger or annoyance. That wasn’t his fault. . . I just didn’t know how to live without him in my life.
The closest I got to feeling something was in the fall of 2005, when I entered the Mt. Ashland Hillclimb, a bicycle race from the plaza of Ashland to the ski resort on Mt. Ashland. There were two courses and two races. The road racers left the plaza and rode through Ashland to Hwy 99, past Emigrant Lake and up to the Access Road. The mountain bikers rode up through Lithia Park and onto Rd. 2060, a fire road that eventually would lead you behind Ashland and up to the mountain. Being a mountain biker I decided to go for the off-road route.
I had been training hard that year, logging plenty of miles on my road bike and my mountain bike. The 26 mile Ashland Loop Road loop was a warm up and I spent many an early morning climbing up and out of Lithia Park just as the rays of the sun were peaking over the hills. At the start of the race, a couple of guys took off and attacked, but I just sat in with the main bunch and spun easily up through the park, my heart pounding in my chest with the excitement of the start. Eventually I found my rhythm and steadily picked off racer after racer. After about 16 miles the fire road empties out onto the paved access road and there are two grueling miles up to the resort and the finish line. I know now that I didn’t really eat enough that morning and that I probably had one too many shots of espresso before the race, which would explain the pain that I was in as I hit the access road. The knobby tires that had provided me with such good traction on the dirt and gravel roads were bogging me down on the hot asphalt. My “lightweight” mountainbike was a tank compared to the machines that the road racers were on as they slowly passed me and disappeared around the next bend in the road. The clothes that I had donned early in the morning for the start of the race, when the sun was barely up and everything was cold, were suddenly way too warm and I was pouring sweat. My legs ached and my lungs burned and I wanted to pull over to the side of the road and stop. Not even stop and walk, just stop. Quit riding. My jersey was choking me and I clawed at it, trying to pull it away from my throat. My water bottles were empty and my mouth was dry. This was the last place on earth that I wanted to be. The world around me seemed to be crumbling away and all of my training was for naught. Nothing could have prepared me for this. I hated my bike. I hated myself. I hated the race and the damn road. Why the fuck would anyone want to ride their bike uphill all the way from Ashland to the stupid ski resort? Why would anyone even want to ski at such a small resort?
And then. . . as I rounded a corner and finally caught a glimpse of the ski hills and chair lifts, a breeze came up to me from the forest below. It was a cool breeze, enough to cool my sweat and calm my nerves. Enough to remind me why I was doing the race and why there was no way that I could allow myself to stop or to quit. As the breeze cooled my temperature and my temper, it also gave me a slight push up the hill and all of a sudden my mind was flooded with thoughts and memories of my grandpa. The fire that had been consuming my legs was extinguished and normal breathing returned to my lungs. I took a deep breath and looked around at the beauty that surrounded me and smiled, as a few tears came to my eyes. The breeze seemed to be coming up the hill from down in the valley, making the branches of the trees bend and sway, filling the air with music. I stood up on the pedals and accelerated, the sound of whistling in my ears. The last half a mile was a blur. . .perhaps due to the tears in my eyes, perhaps due to the memory of my grandpa dancing before my eyes, urging me on, urging my forward, urging me upward, ever upward. As the grade leveled out and the finish line loomed in front of me, the breeze faded and the whistling died. . . I crossed the finish line and found the loving arms of my mother and my step-father. I’d finished the race. . . and Gramps had helped me make it up the final push. It would be another two years before I had tears in my eyes again.
|Sometimes I still feel surprised that the biggest male role model in my life is gone and will never return. Even living in Seattle, every now and then I see him out of the corner of my eye, sitting at the table of some restaurant, laughing with a twinkle in his eye. Sometimes as I rush to leave my apartment in the morning, he’s there sitting at my table with a cup of coffee, his cane propped against the wall and the news on the radio. As I run out the door, I hear his voice behind me saying “well Muuqi my boy, have a good day!”.
I’ve slowly been making progress towards allowing myself to feel my emotions and to be okay with that. Some nights I remember the smell of his pajamas and mouth wash, as he kisses me good night on the cheek. On those nights I lay in my bed, surrounded by darkness and the ever present sounds of the city and let the tears well up in my eyes. I yearn to be a little boy again, to get out of elementary school at 3pm and find Gramps waiting my my sister and I. To sit on his bed with him while he watched the evening news and to feel the scratch of his whiskers against my cheek as I kiss him goodnight. Sometimes I just miss his whistle.
At times I still wonder why in the world he’s gone and why I’ll never be able to see him again.
But then I remember that he lives on in my thoughts and my memories. I remember that he lives through me. I remember that he loved me and that he still does and that if I lead a life half as good as his, it will be a life well spent. I remember his whistle and his smile.
A while back I stumbled upon this photo essay of a man and his father. His father is 98 and walking towards the door that no one ever comes back through. His photographs and his writing hit me pretty hard when I first experienced them and they still do now. It seemed appropriate that, on the anniversary of my grandfather’s passing, I share something that my grandfather would find meaningful and beautiful. So check out Days With My Father and be thankful for those that you have and those that you had. You are loved.