This is a story about when I rode my bicycle from Chicago to Detroit to see my mom when she was diagnosed with cancer.
Many of you know how it is to have a mom who by all accounts, and for reasons beyond anyone’s control is really just not a happy person. There’s nothing to be done. When she doesn’t want to face that she needs help, it’s frustrating. When people she irrationally trusts are gaslighting her for their amusement, and enabling her illness, it’s not fun. But we don’t give up, we try anyway. We hope. We are dutiful.
My mom and I had our moments. She was a smartass, that’s for sure. On her best days she was funny as hell. She had a massive vocabulary and I don’t think I ever remember anyone beating her at scrabble. There were people who tried, too. People would come to the house just to play her in scrabble and they would leave losers; beaten, despondent. She gloated.
She was mostly a hit in the kitchen, but don’t tell my dad. He could never say anything nice, even just to be nice, or even just to be honest. My mom’s bread and butter pickles were the bomb. It was a great recipe. People would ask her for it all the time and she’d never give them an accurate version. Mean, right? I remember several times she handed me a recipe to ride my bike over to so and so’s house to deliver it them because they wouldn’t stop bothering her for that recipe. I know the recipe, and I’d see what she gave me, and I’d say “but wait, you left out…” and she’d tell me to just shut up and take it over to them. That was hers and you did NOT get the real version. Oh well.
Easter Sunday fell on the day I was born (not the other way around). That was something we had. On Easter, she’d always give me some kind of small gift. It was kind of like having two birthdays. It was between us. It might be a chocolate, or some small gesture, but she always did that. This was the kind of thing that we did not discuss with my siblings or my dad because they were already pissed that all their dreams had fallen through due to my birth as the youngest kid of six. I came five years after the real family had already been, so this drain on the resources was not appreciated. I was, quite literally, lucky to be alive (just ask my dad). I was, quite literally, lucky to get out of that house intact.
After I’d moved out and was on my own. I had a thing worked out with her that went very well. I’d call her each Sunday at the time when she would be getting home from Church. This was my strategy to keep her from calling me whenever she wanted. We had this habit, and it worked very well. There were no cell phones back then, so I had that going for me. She did not inundate me with answering machine messages, because I do what I say I’m going to do, and I’m going to call on Sunday.
On a Saturday night I was working an overnight security gig to make extra money in what in those days were the hinterlands of northwest Illinois. During the day I painted houses, then a few nights a week I’d hang out in this warehouse and do rounds. I was delirious that night. I had worked all week and had a music gig the night before, so there wasn’t a lot of sleep happening that weekend. My head was wide open for all kinds of weirdness. I was drifting in and out of a dreamlike state in between rounds. I had a really emotional moment that was almost hallucinatory due to a lack of sleep. I sort of saw myself at a funeral. I think the funeral was for my dad in this dream. Somehow I knew when I called the next day it was going to be some kind of bad news.
I called at the usual time and strangely my dad answered instead of my mom. He told me she wasn’t home, that she was at the hospital, and that I should call later. I did. That’s when she told me she had cancer. It was an especially gruesome form, and it has this really long name, I don’t remember it. I don’t want to know, and you’ll be spared all those details. Her case is in textbooks and research books though.
At the beginning of this, it wasn’t chemo, it was removing lymph nodes and whatnot. Then there was some chemo, and this stage of things went on for a while. Then there was the surgery. When it came time for her surgery, that’s when I decided to ride a bicycle from Chicago, where I had moved, back to my hometown, a few blocks off the City Limits of Detroit. That’s something like 300 miles, taking the route I used.
Now we are going to get into the ride itself. You can skip ahead to the part where I get home if you want to, but it’s part of the story, and I’m finally writing something about this thing that happened 30 years ago, so here’s what it is.
I had a killer bike. A very well made, medium-high-end model Mountain Bike. I set it up for trails and roads. I made my own pannier system with a couple of backpacks and some aluminum angle iron. Lunch was was Indiana Dunes Dunes National Lakeshore. That was roughly 50 miles. I left at about five o’clock AM and got there to take stock of everything. Had a protein shake and a couple handfuls of mixed nuts, and did some stretching.
Next was Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan. A total of nearly 100 miles the first day. This is where I camped for the first night. I spent the entire next day at the Dunes. I had to gauge things out, do some writing, some hiking, have nice swimming, and just get myself psyched up for the rest of the trip. It was a good long first leg. I checked in with my mom at a pay phone, and she couldn’t figure out what I was doing riding my bicycle all the way to her. I called one of my sisters. She told me where to get cheap hamburgers or something. She lived about three hours up the lake, so I thought what the hell, give her a ring. Not how are you, are you safe, just some nonsense about hamburgers. Ate some veggies, and some soy groats. Soy groats are pretty neat because they soften up with cold water. You don’t need heat. I was chugging instant coffee with ginseng in the AM and just maintaining with various dried fruits and nuts during the day. During the training for this trip, and for a couple of months afterwards, I was 100% vegan. Way way way before it was cool, or hip or whatever. I was healthy. I had a lot of energy, and I am a physical freak of nature anyway. I can simply do physical things other people can’t do. It’s always been like that.
Now I went to Three Rivers, Michigan. That was about 65 or so miles. I left the Dunes at about 11 AM, so I was getting to Three Rivers as things were getting Dark. I just stayed on the road looking for a place to camp outside of town. This picture I’m using isn’t the actual billboard, but it gives you an idea. I found a billboard like this where there were two, back-to-back. There was overgrowth all around it, so beneath the two billboards there was space, like a hut, or a shelter. It was totally enclosed. It was about 4 feet high, better than a tent. Way better.
I threw some rocks into the brush and used my bike horn to scare out any critters that might be in there. I dragged my bike and my pack under there, set up my little reading light and called it home for a night. I was up bright and early, having crashed at about 8 PM. I awoke at 4 AM and decided to try to get some more sleep. I had a long ride for the next day. I wanted rest. I managed to get another probably hour and a half of sleep.
Now I needed food because I was almost out. I had my coffee and ginseng and got on the road, on the way I stopped in some little grocery on the St. Joseph River and got supplies. There was a little cafe, or some kind of thing in the grocery, I don’t remember, but I got a bean burrito, opened it up, took the cheese out, jammed some groats and sunflower seeds in it and ate it so fast. I was so much more hungry than my stomach was letting on.
Next, I was going to stay in Spring Arbor, Mi. I went through town to speak to a few people to find out about lodging. People were really unfriendly and treated me as if something was wrong with me for riding my bike. Not wanting to spend any money on these people I decided to just go all the way to Jackson. That was around 80 miles from Three Rivers.
Things weren’t as built out back then, Jackson was still mostly a countryish town. I found a campsite, where I was glad to pay the guy 10 dollars to stay. During the ride to Jackson, my left knee really started to act up. It wasn’t swollen, but it hurt. I had an ankle injury as a teen, and my body would compensate for the weakness by stressing my knee. I can remember once, three or so years earlier, when I was playing baseball on an instructional team, sometimes we were lucky enough to get film of our games. I hammered a double and was rounding second base, limping. As we watched film, my coach asked why I was limping. I told him I wasn’t even aware that I was limping. I didn’t feel anything. But it was that ankle that never healed properly. He then told me that you can’t play pro-ball with nerve damage. So that gives you an idea of how that went. But the point is my knee felt weird.
My plan was to go all the way to my brother’s house in Westland, Mi., which was only about 10 miles from my parent’s house and maybe 55 miles from Jackson, but my knee had other plans. Between Jackson and Ann Arbor, is a lot of hills. At least by Michigan standards. That left knee blew right out. I was over packed on my bike. I didn’t really know what to expect, so I over packed. That made the ride harder, and it really stressed the knee on those hills. It was so scary looking. It was all purple and there was a dark purple fissure/ vessel looking thing. I knew exactly what I had to do and where to go. Ann Arbor is about 30 miles from where I was.
I was Familiar with Ann Arbor. I used to hitchhike there when I was in High School to go to open baseball workouts at The University of Michigan and other baseball stuff. As I got older I got more into music and would go see shows and buy records. There was a communal type place that had a bulletin board for people looking for rides and places to crash, so I just called numbers till I found a house with the kind of people who could help me figure out my knee. You might think I found med students, but nope. I found a house where it was some natural types and there was a woman there who knew about herbs and healing. I threw down some grocery money for the house, and they hooked me up with a small room to crash for the night, but not before this genius lady fixed my knee. I can’t remember all she did, but I ate some Damiana that I had with me to relax my muscles, and then she heated up some Calendula oil and added some of her own herbs to it. I wish I could remember what she had, I have to think there was Arnica involved. She soaked a piece of really thick, heavy flannel and wrapped it very tight around my knee. Then she used an ace bandage to tighten it even more, to the point that I could not move my knee.
She read my cards, and told me about the Knight of Cups. I slept like a rock. The best sleep I’d had in a really long time. In the morning, when I unwound the dressing on my knee I couldn’t believe it. There was no swelling. Just some light bruising and that scary dark purple fissure thing. No pain. My mind was blown. She was truly Jesusy, or the best kind of Witch, or both, you choose. Then I got on my bike and was at my brother’s place in Westland in a couple of hours.
It’s a lot of down hill from Ann Arbor going east, so that really helped. When I got to my brother’s I checked in with my mom from his phone, unloaded all the stuff from my bike, and just cleaned up and hung out there for the rest of the day. It was quite a relief. I wasn’t all the way there, but I was close.
The next day, all I had to do was get on my bike and go see my mom, about 9 or so miles away. My bike was free of the load. It was just me and I hauled ass. My knee felt good, I was jamming. I hit all the parks on the way so I could enjoy myself.
Here’s the part that it all comes down to. When I come home and see my mom. Coming up the driveway was like a million times before. She was cooking food, because she knew I was coming. So I could smell it as I approached the house. There are no numbers that can be used to calculate how many times I’ve experienced this. I leaned my bike on the house and came into the back door, off the kitchen. There she was like a million times before. Sitting at the sink, peeling some potatoes of something. Like so many times, indelible memories coming in from after school.
“Hi mom, I made it”
She’s sitting there working on a potato or a carrot, her glasses are down on the bridge of her nose. She turns her head and looks over her glasses.
“Do you have a car?”
“Yes mom, I have a car, there are also trains and airplanes and all that.”
“You should have driven your car, we could have had a few more days together.”
“Mom, you gave birth to this thing, it climbed onto a bicycle and rode 300 miles to see you, if you can do this, you can beat the cancer.”
She really did fight it. She had a major surgery that’s just too scary to talk about, and I went back to visit her several times. I made her do her breathing exercises and the physical therapy. She had a few very healthy years after that. She even started riding a bike with her neighbor friend again, like they had done when they first started having kids so many years before.
In 1994 my mom passed away at the age of 68. My dad is 95. He still lives close to where he and my mom had their house, where I grew up. I go see him from time to time. When he’s gone, I doubt I’ll have a reason to visit that part of the world.
There isn’t anything at all you can do about it. You take your mother with you throughout your life. Make the best of it, you have to. Make peace with it. You have no choice. No matter what, regardless of what anyone says or does, regardless of her limits, or the cruelty of those she trusts, who do not deserve her trust. Those are her faults, not yours. Be dutiful.