I carry with me the dead. Their names are written on small, folded pieces of paper and tucked into jersey pockets. Or etched in Sharpie into the soft skin of my forearms or the backs of my hands. Their images are taped to my handlebars or my ski poles.
I have never been asked to this; nor have I volunteered. It is a simple fact for me that it must be done. There is no choice.
It is not easy to carry this precious cargo. Their weight is noticeable. But rather like the keel to a sailboat, it provides stability. So my pedal strokes are resolute. My foot strikes are solid and measured. My pole plants are powerful and uncompromised. I have nothing to offer but strength and sacrifice, although I don’t know what difference it will make. I offer it, and more, all the same.
I suffer because I believe that it will ease the pain of others, a law of conservation of grief. But the real reason I do this is selfish, not some existential balance of forces. Without it, my own grief would lay dormant, beyond detection, to fester and grow. It would take me over, prevent me from getting out of bed, confuse my thoughts, draw off all of my energy. It would stop me in my tracks. Momentum does not mean forgetting. There is but one direction to go.
A few weeks ago, I suddenly lost a friend and co-worker. It devastated his family. I took me back to my own darkest moments. From the memorial ceremony on a farm bright and warm with early autumn sun, I carried his name with me to the city and the cool breeze off the water. I lined up to race the Boston Mayor’s Cup, with his name and the names of the dead folded into my jersey pocket. I went deep because there was no alternative. Sitting up was not an option. Quitting was not an option. Getting dropped was not an option. I would ride until my legs and body failed me – which they nearly did – or until my penance was complete.
When I crossed the final line, I was exhausted, laid bare, vulnerable. I was unable to hold back the tears, powerless against the sobbing, with neither the energy to control it nor the voice to explain it. I knew I would recover from this place because that is what I had to do at the very beginning, now so many years ago, when I lost my own son. I knew I would recover because I have done so every time since.
After the race, in the dark of night, I dropped into a votive candle the crumpled, sweat-soaked paper containing the names of the dead. It flared briefly then became faint, failing. As the paper absorbed the melted wax, it came to life again, uncurling. The flames danced around and up the sides of the glass, burning with a dazzling white light, popping and skipping, until finally, exhausted, they settled to a gentle slumber.