You bloody well should be.
I was ready to write about the total bloody awesomeness of a weeks’ sustained technical riding in the sunny Rhone-Alps. Then – as John Lennon so presciently wrote ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’ – I arrived home to the dreadful news that a friend of mine is dying.
My friend was diagnosed over 12 months ago with stage IV lung cancer. Don’t Google it, it’s not a diagnosis, it’s a death sentence. Life expectancy is dependent on fortitude, drug reaction and bloody mindedness – while you cannot be sure exactly where the end of the line is, it’s no coincidence the disease is called terminal.
I had just returned from a ride when the news broke. It was a bit meh. One of those when I wondered if it was worth the effort. Trails were fine, bit muddy but still hanging onto a hint of summer. Weather was fair and I was mooching along with an old mate who I hadn’t seen for months. It was pleasant, enjoyable but no more than that. We talked about the oncoming winter and how our motivation would be tested once more and maybe how, this time, we couldn’t be arsed with it.
That attitude feels pretty bloody stupid now. Even understanding we aren’t the best of friends – meeting more in the virtual world than the real one. She’s been very kind about my words and I’ve been repeatedly inspired by hers. When she told me of the cancer, it was with her usual brutal pragmatism and a declaration of war on the ‘fucking thing’.
She’s carried on a life of adventuring be that in riding, running or writing refusing to let the cancer or the treatment slow her down much. She didn’t really talk about it – not because it upset her – but because she refused to let it be the thing which defined her.
I knew some drugs had made a hugely positive impact, but also aware of many recent setbacks. I’d seen a picture on a social media site where – for the first time – the look in her eyes suggested the lights might be dimming. But even so have it so starkly laid out in public on her host website was still a shock. A wrench of reality.
We’re all dying. One day at a time. But most of us are delusional about it. My friend has dealt with the grim reaper clearly signaling with a level of fortitude and humour I cannot begin to comprehend. The bloody injustice of it has left me feeling angry, sad and – because I’m so bloody self absorbed – scared. I don’t feel my age but I fear it.
I know there is a time coming when some white coated professional calmly explains there is nothing else to be done. The clock that is always there just started ticking more loudly. I might be eighty years old when the creeping hand of time beckons me, but there is nothing in my life so far to suggest I’ll deal with it with the dignity and ‘oh-just-fuck-off-ness’ of my friend.
She’s faced it down with the same honesty, practicality and simplicity found in her writing. There is no space in her world for self pity, denial or false hope. I’ve always envied her single mindedness and sense of purpose – all of which are so apparent in her response to the darkness of endless treatment lightened by being finally back at home or trips away under big skies with her loved ones.
I sit staring at this flickering screen wanting so hard for the world to be different. But these words mean nothing so actions must speak for them. I will go for a ride and consider fate, frustration, injustice and bravery and return more balanced to a world tilted by brutal circumstance.
You cannot read the stories or see the pictures splashed across every channel without understanding how privileged we are. And yet we’ve become desensitised to human suffering somehow absolving ourselves from compassion and action. It takes something closer to home to kick you up the arse and make you realise every day must be a day to be embraced not endured. That you can determine what is important and what is not. That you have the opportunity to love your family and friends. That you get to choose how you live and what you do.
We’re are so damn lucky in all those ways and one more. For the cycling tribe, bikes are not just self propelled transport. They are an extension and expression of our values, desires and fears. My friend gets that completely. She’s embraced it and treasured it and not for a singe day taken it for granted. She’s packed more into her cruelly truncated span than many of us will in our lifetimes. There is a little comfort in that.
And if I’ve learned anything it is that you cannot still the passing of time but you can make the most of every day, hour and minute. When I’m shivering cold on a wet, muddy night-ride miles from home, I’ll think fondly of my friend and how she’d be grinning at the delicious stupidity of the whole enterprise. And any tears following that will be because of that biting wind.
In the end though, there’s a friend of many and a wife of one we’re losing to a horrible disease, callously inflicted. Sometimes life is just a total bastard.