A Year of Loss and the Things that Define Us

People who quit smoking often explain that part of the struggle with quitting is that without smoking they don’t know what to do with their hands.

Smoking often defines the smoker, and quitting is more than an end to smoking; it is a terrifying experiment in redefining the Self.

My parents were both smokers who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s; and they both quit, although on much different terms — Dad quit while I was in high school, and Mom only many years after I had moved out. When my mother died (7 December 2017), the final straw was stage 4 lung cancer.

That was just a bit over five months after my father’s death.

2017 for me was a year of loss that began with the thing that defined me being taken away as well — road cycling — after a senseless car accident on Christmas Eve 2016 that impacted directly four cyclists in a pack of 10, but resonated throughout our entire cycling community as well.

Mountain biking and some running have slipped into the gap where road cycling used to be, but like ex-smokers who don’t know what to do with their hands, I remain often lost without road cycling.

My life as a road cyclist stretched over four decades since the 1980s with some waxing and waning, but from about 2003 until 2016, I was logging around 9,000–10,000 miles a year on the road and leading weekly rides as well as organizing pretty big cycling events.

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Social media can be cruel; this image from 2015 captures the thing that defined me that was not a part of my life in 2017. I take a break here at the back of the pack, riding the green Ridley that was destroyed in the car accident.

I was cycling seriously about 4–5 days a week without fail, regardless of weather, regardless of professional and personal obligations.

It was what I did.

It was who I was.

And for the most part, that meant no questions asked by family, friends, or colleagues.

— — —

My first class meeting of spring 2018 was my evening course, a new writing/research-intensive offering for my department and university. As students filed in, I arranged the handouts and such on the table at the front of the room, and checked that my smartphone was on vibrate, placing it face-up and in easy view near the piles of papers.

Then it hit me.

My smartphone obsession was in part due to having had infirm parents for many years, always on alert that they could call during class, and if so, it was probably urgent.

That moment was the first time I confronted that part of my life being oversince both parents died in 2017.

In that flash of realization, I also thought about the beginning of class in January 2017 — when I was barely able to walk, using a cane to counter the limp from a fractured pelvis.

Over the weeks and months of physically healing from the fracture, and looking for ways to regain my athletic life, I was forced to think about the other things that defined me.

Fortunately, as a teacher/professor and writer, those aspects of who I am were mostly unscathed — although all loss reminds us of the fragility of being human, the temporal nature of all that we do, all that defines us.

My journey through my 50s was already haunted by a lingering fear of the end of my cycling life well before the accident. I was riding at very high levels of intensity and with elite cyclists.

No one maintains these physical levels of exertion, I was quite aware, but having that fear turned into reality in a blink, and in a way beyond my control, was far more psychologically scarring than I really would like to admit.

But here, yes, I am admitting that.

— — —

When people refer to me professionally, they still tend to say I am an English teacher, even though I have not been one in over 16 years.

When people talk about me as a writer, they mention that I blog — I tend to hear “just a blogger” — and that I am prolific, often a back-handed compliment that carries more than a whiff of brushing aside.

I tend to weather those pretty well, I think, because my teacher/professor-Self and my writer-Self are quite resilient after well over 30 years at both. Those moves have much left to improve, but I have them in pretty good form; people tend to think I do them effortlessly, and that is a testament to all the hard work leading up to now and all the hard work I do when no one is watching.

Teaching and writing are things that define me, and I love them, I cherish them.

I am equally terrified of losing them in the ways road cycling was stripped from my life.

Alzheimer’s. Blindness.

— — —

Yesterday in the just-at-freezing midday temperature, I joined two friends, Rob and Wayne, to mountain bike for the third day in a row over the MLK holiday weekend.

Rob and Wayne were close members of my road cycling life — Rob and I mostly about equal in our cycling abilities, and Wayne an elite cyclist who inspired me to keep at it on rides even as I reached my limits.

We planned to ride about 1.5 hours and wanted to head over to a trail we typically avoid due to heavy horse traffic. The trails were muddy from recent rains, but some of that was frozen, making for an interesting day of slipping and plowing over and through sections both slick and solid.

Just a couple years ago, Rob, Wayne, and I were regular members of the so-called A group of area road cyclists. Yesterday, Rob and Wayne simply rode away from me, waiting at intervals as I crept up to them — at one regroup, me tumbling over with a disturbing thud just as I reached them.

Especially after my year of loss, my MTB rides are equal parts bitter frustration and a constant reminder that at least I can ride.

I used to be a fairly accomplished road cyclist, and now I sputter off the back; slip, step off, or crash; and generally flounder as a mountain biker; this simply is not the thing that I want to define me as I approach 60.

— — —

I have never been one for arbitrary traditions and things like holidays or celebrating the new year, especially with resolutions.

But with 2017 being a year of loss, and as I age not so gracefully, I feel the tug of a new year, and the allure of having some hope to regain the thing that defines me.

I know I am tired after 2017, psychologically drained and physically weary.

I also know I am tired of sputtering off the back, floundering on mountain bike rides, and too often dreading all of that against the Siren’s song of just riding that I still hear loudly.

Smokers quit for many reasons, I imagine, especially now that public smoking is shunned, but primarily, I think, smokers quit as some sort of very human resistance to death. Not many people inhale a cigarette gleefully expecting to die of cancer.

My last accident on a bicycle involving a car was actually my fourth incident so I must admit that road cycling always confronted me with the specter of death — like a smoker lighting up each time.

I lay in the ER Christmas Eve 2016 realizing all the people I would have to look in the eyes, most of them again, with some anticipation about if or when I would once again pedal along the road. That last time was the first as a grandfather, and I couldn’t shake the weight of those eyes as I thought about the very real likelihood that I would never again be a road cyclist.

It’s been fourteen months since then, and I still don’t know what to do with my hands.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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