Navigating Self-Worth through Middle Age: Every Single Moment

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,” Dylan Thomas
As far as I can tell
I’m nothing like a princess…
Take these girly arms
And ever keep me
“Thirsty,” The National

The last thing my father said was a request for me to help him to the bathroom. He was wheelchair bound, and his breathing had been labored for months.

I suggested the bed pan, but he added he needed to have a bowel movement.

When the nurses came to help him, he became unresponsive there on the toilet of the rehabilitation center he had just moved into with my mother, and within a hour, he was declared dead at the nearby hospital.

What an awful way to slip from this earth, simply asking for help to have a bowel movement.

My father died in the bathroom like Elvis Presley, who my parents idolized throughout my childhood — a cultural phenomenon that should have signaled for me the horrifying leveling of death.

My father’s death, possibly as any man’s father’s death, has forced me to examine again how I have navigated self-worth my entire life, measuring my masculinity always against the unspoken monument of my father.

This summer of my 56th year, then, continues my battle with self-worth, a life of anxiety driven often by insecurity and low self-esteem.

When I first moved to higher education in 2002, I soon secured my first book contract with a respected academic publisher, Peter Lang USA, because of the kindness of a colleague and then a distant but treasured scholar-mentor, Joe Kincheloe.

When the hard copies of that book arrived at my office, the colleague came by to see what I was doing to celebrate. I was working frantically at the computer and hadn’t thought once about the book or celebrating.

“You never enjoy a single moment do you?” she said, matter-of-fact from my doorway.

Self-worth and low self-esteem intersect in ways that push us to ignore our accomplishments and dwell on our failures.

In a half-year scarred with a pelvic fracture, the end of my life as a road cyclist, my mother’s stroke, and my father’s death, I have been passed over for a new position, received a few rejections of submitted writing, and struggled mightily to become the sort of mountain bike cyclist I had accomplished as a road cyclist over 30+ years of intense riding.

Each of these has proven to me my deepest fears about my self-worth — as if my many accomplishments otherwise haven’t happened at all.

The hardest part has been the transition to mountain biking and leaving road cycling behind.

My adventures in mountain biking are often muddy and bloody.

After a good 20 years of being a mediocre road cyclist, in my 40s and early 50s, I had finally established myself as a relatively elite local recreational cyclist, book-ended by breaking the 6-hour mark in the Assault on Mt. Mitchell in 2007 (at 46) and then having my highest placing, 58th, in 2014 (at 53).

Throughout my adventure in trying to be the macho athlete I believed my father represented, I adopted surrogate father-models among my cycling friends; I simultaneously admired them and used them as the bar I could never attain — to prove to myself I was right about my low self-worth.

But I was a ride leader and typically finished official rides and weekly training rides with the best cyclists, the front group.

Shifting to mountain biking certainly wasn’t helped by a six-week down-time for a broken pelvis, or being 56 while trying to recover from the fracture and regain fitness.

However, this new adventure in claiming my self-worth through athletics has been beyond humbling to humiliating.

Over three decades, I acquired both the fitness and road cycling skills needed to ride essentially effortlessly, even as I pushed myself to physical extremes in our attack zones, on mountainous centuries, or during the annual 200-mile-plus one-day ride across South Carolina.

Mountain biking has proved itself much more than fitness and the skill requirement has an added problem — many elements of cycling on trails trigger my anxiety. Rocks, boulders, roots, steep inclines, and creek crossings have more often than I like to admit flushed my system with anxiety and left me nearly incapable of riding.

In road cycling, I controlled my place in the pack; I pulled when I wanted and drifted to the back to monitor the ride as needed.

Mountain biking has shuffled me to the back, and off the back. And there is little I can do about it.

Before being hit by the car on Christmas Eve and before my father’s death, I lived with a lingering and awful fear of when my life as an avid athlete would end. It had to end, of course, simply because with age we lose our physical selves in increments.

Now I am faced with having much of that taken from me in a dramatic intrusive way, and then, in that space, having to re-evaluate what all that means anyway.

Before the pelvis fracture — and living always now with the sensation of being hit from behind and slamming into the pavement — I was already growing weary of the hyper-macho bullshit of road cycling. I was doing fewer large group rides, I had decided to stop entering the Assault (which I participated in about 20 times over thirty or so years), and I was less and less likely to bury myself in the pain of the zone rides.

But I was no better able to negotiate with myself about my father and our many contradictions, about my father and the imagined necessary requirements of my masculinity as the failed athlete.

By college I had abandoned athletic dreams and transitioned into being academic, a writer and poet in my bones and a teacher by profession. Yet in that transition I had also become a serious cyclist and continued the self-flagellation in pursuit of self-worth that had defined me throughout childhood and my teen years.

How do we know we matter to someone else? How do we know we matter to ourselves?

Increasingly, I come to realize how powerful my early adulthood fascination with existentialism has proven to be — my being draw to recognizing Being as a journey without a destination.

Nothing will click, and then I will know I matter to someone else.

Nothing will click, and then I will trust my self-worth.

My father haunted me while he was alive. His last words and moments aimed at simply going to the bathroom and leading him to the great beyond have done nothing to change that, except for the space left where he no longer exists.

My self-worth has never been about my father; it has always been about me.

I was mountain biking the other day with two friends who ride away from me on every ride. We were caught in a horrible thunderstorm.

One friend had a flat and the other rode further ahead, but I stopped to be sure the friend with a flat was ok.

There in the din of the rain through the trees and the periodic crack of lightning, I was about as alone as I have felt in a long time. I thought for a moment about people I love and reminded myself about my father being gone and my mother recovering still from her stroke.

I was terrified of the lightning as I stood with my left foot in the trail that looked more like a creek.

That moment in the storm triggered the morning of Christmas Eve as I lay in the road, stunned and staring at my swollen bloody left hand.

Again as I had there in the road, battered, with lightning cracking, I wanted to be safely back at the car, able to go about the rest of my day, the rest of my so-called normal life because there was so much to enjoy.

Every single moment.