It never was about the bike

Thirty years ago, after my knees gave out from pounding the distance running circuit, I took up cycling for exercise.

A neighbor offered me a French racing bike, which he no longer had any use for. It wasn’t a top of the line model, but it handled well. It wasn’t long before I had built up a regimen of short daily rides, culminating with longer treks on weekends, if the weather held out.

Around that time I discovered one of Sam Abt’s early books about the Tour de France on the shelf at the public library and devoured it over the course of a rainy weekend. After that I started to follow the Tour every July, faithfully combing through Abt’s columns in the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. These cyclists were the inspiration I needed to keep going.

Years passed. My son usurped the bike, and I in turn took up lap swimming for regular exercise.

I learned how to swim largely from my father, who had competed in the pool as an undergraduate. Although my skills were rudimentary, I was able to hone them with the help of the members of a local swim group, most of whom had been competitive swimmers in high school and college.

After weeks of regular training, I was able to keep up with the pack, completing workouts of 3500 to 4000 yards three days a week.

One year one of the fellows in the group put forth my name as the most improved swimmer. Although it was a minor laudatory gesture, I appreciated the sentiment.

Sometime after that, this same fellow developed acute myelogenous leukemia. I made it a point to visit him regularly whenever he was admitted to the cancer ward. One time I bought him a small matchbox car from the hospital gift shop, which he kept on his bedside table. And after I read Lance Armstrong’s book It’s Not About the Bike, I inscribed a copy for my friend as a gift.

Swimming, like running and cycling, demands a rigorous and disciplined training regimen. So does fighting cancer. Through tremendous odds Armstrong fought his own breed of the disease. In part, by slipstreaming along with Armstrong’s inspiring story, so did my friend.

My friend’s battle lasted 19 months before he succumbed to graft versus host disease, a consequence of a second bone marrow transplant. This fall it will be ten years since he’s been gone.

This week, as I read the latest accusations of Armstrong’s doping during most of his cycling career, I reflected on how appreciative I am that my friend never lived to see the day when one of our heroes fell from grace.

Lance Armstrong photographed by Mike Hutchings/Reuters

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Potato Chip Factory

Down the alleyway we’d speed
On our American Flyer bikes,
Spitting stones in our wakes
As we dug down the pedals.

Dropping them sideways
In green tufts of grass
Off the ash-strewn alley,
Breathless we’d head

Toward the half-open door
Of the black wooden shanty
To peer around the corner
Into the steamy depths where

The short squat old woman stood
Beside the steel cauldron in which
Slivers of freshly sliced raw potatoes
Boiled in bubbling fat.

The thin old man would bring
Armfuls of peeled potatoes,
Dump them into the shoe-box sized
Shredder that spit the slices out

Into the bubbling grease.
He’d sweep the wooden floor,
She’d stir the floating chips
With a wooden paddle.

When they were cooked to a crisp
He’d skim them off with a long-handled strainer,
Shuck them out into a screened box
To let the excess fat drain off,

Then shake the sharp salt on top,
Scoop them into open-mouthed
Waxed paper bags, and without a word
Hand them to you for a nickel.

The old woman mopped the sweat
From her red full face,
Flesh from her upper arms
Trembling as it swung from the bone,

Her ankles swollen with fluid
That I later learned had a name:
Pitting edema, doctors called it,
Sign of kidney disease, heart failure.

We had no thoughts of death
When we were boys,
Neither that of the old woman
Or the old man, nor even that

Of ourselves. Young as we were
In those summer days we only dreamt
Of salted crisp potato chips
Still warm from the frier on our tender tongues.

11/26/2011

2011 © Brian T. Maurer

Evening Descent

The only other sound’s the sweep
Of downy wind and snowy flake. —Robert Frost

I sit on a wooden stool by the window in the kitchen, watching the snow come down. Across the street in a yellow cone of lamplight tiny flakes swirl about as though encased in a snow globe. Each one in its own time descends to rest against the frozen earth.

Forty years ago after the last bell of the day, I sat on a similar stool in a high school classroom, listening to my teacher reminisce about his boyhood. Outside the second-story windows snow lay along the sills in fluffy mounds, muffling the sounds from the street.

“I never had much direction in life,” my teacher mused, taking a sip of coffee from his thermos. “Maybe that’s why I eventually ended up following in my dad’s footsteps.”

He was a tall man with reddish-brown hair that hinted at his Scotch-Irish ancestry.

“My dad was raised on a small farm across the river. My grandfather continued to live there after my dad left home. When I was a boy we would visit my grandfather on the farm. It was tucked away back in the hills off a winding blacktop road. You turned off onto an unmarked dirt lane and followed it a quarter mile to the farmhouse.

“My grandfather was a big man. He and my dad didn’t always see eye to eye. When things went well, the two of them would sit on the porch and talk. Sometimes they took a leisurely stroll out to the orchard, leaving me behind to play in the yard. When they had words, my dad would quietly walk me to the car; and we would head back out the dusty lane to the road.

“One winter day we made the trek to the homestead. The fields lay buried beneath a thick white blanket of snow. It started to snow again shortly after we arrived, and by late afternoon it was coming down heavy. My dad decided we had better go before the roads got bad, so we headed out in the old Chevy down the lane. The plow had already gone by, throwing a big mound of snow at the entrance. We couldn’t get through, and we couldn’t turn around.

“My dad left me in the car with the motor running and the heat on and walked back down the lane to the house. After what seemed a long time, he appeared with my grandfather. Each of them carried an old coal shovel. In the yellow beams of the headlights I could see them working together to clear the pile of snow from the end of the lane.

“When they finished, my grandfather reached out his hand for the shovel my dad had been using. My father hesitated, then surrendered it. Together they disappeared into the darkness through the swirling snow.”

My teacher stood quietly by the lab bench, thermos in hand, staring out through the high vaulted windows. I shifted on the stool. “What happened?” I asked.

“It wasn’t long before my dad came back. He dusted himself off as best he could and slid in behind the wheel. He gave it the gun and we broke through onto the plowed road.”

After a brief moment of silence he said: “That was the last time I saw my grandfather alive. The darkness had swallowed him up; he disappeared into the falling snow forever.”

Although he was a chemistry teacher, we had been talking about writing, how to craft a story, an impression. He was very interested in writing and had managed to produce several stories and the beginning of a work of science fiction.

Somehow I managed to find the words: “Maybe one day you’ll write that down, just like you told it to me.”

Sitting on the stool by the kitchen window this evening as the snow swirls down in the light across the street, I wonder if he ever had.

The pond in winter

“After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep.” 
                                                                           —Thoreau

After my early morning workout in the pool, I stopped off to buy fresh-baked bread for the evening meal on my way home. My wife had just gotten up and stumbled into the kitchen where I was cleaning up the dregs of the previous evening’s holiday reverie. She poured herself a cup of coffee and retreated to the bedroom upstairs where my granddaughter was still asleep.

Later that morning my younger daughter and I took the dog out for a walk along the river. Several men wearing camouflage suits had set up a covey of decoys near the entrance to the cove across the river. We watched them as we stood on the frozen sand beach. The little white dog began to shiver in the cold air. My daughter bent down and scooped it up into her arms.

We retraced our steps back to the pond, now an unmarred glassy frozen surface that reflected the stark trees along its edge and the blue sky overhead.

“Do you think we can skate on it?” my daughter asked.

“The temperature’s been in the twenties for nearly two weeks. It must be several inches thick by now. Did you check to see if the skates fit?”

“No. I found them in a basket in the garage, but I didn’t try them on.”

“I found a pair of old hockey skates in the basement. They might fit somebody. If we could find a few suitable pairs, we could come down one evening when the moon is out and skate like we used to do when you and your sister were little. We could build a fire and make hot cocoa to stay warm.”

“That would be fun.”

We turned to go. I thought about skating on the pond in the moonlight with my daughters when they were little girls, holding each one by a mittened hand as we glided around the periphery, working to keep my balance when one or the other would stumble and tighten her grip.

Now my daughters are grown up. Other young men have come to hold their hands as they move in long graceful strides around more refined rinks.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon preparing the annual Christmas Eve meal. This year there were nine of us. Afterwards my granddaughter watched “A Christmas Story” on TV with my wife while my sons went to midnight mass. My daughters fell asleep early. I finished the dishes and said goodnight and climbed the stairs to bed.

It was a still winter night, unbroken except for a dream about skating in the moonlight on the pond.

Christmas Day, 2010: A magical moment

I made French toast from the leftover loaf of coarse bread on Christmas morning.  Everyone gathered in the kitchen and took turns eating at the small table as the toast came out of the skillets, thick and hot and golden brown.

Afterward we opened the gifts.  This year there were useful and useless presents—garments and books, gift cards and money, toys and electronic devices.  I retrieved A Child’s Christmas in Wales from the small marble-topped table in the parlor and read Thomas’s section on the presents.  When I got to the part about the “celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow,” my granddaughter hugged her stuffed slice of bacon toy to make it say “I’m bacon!” and everybody laughed.

We redd up the boxes and the wrappings and then I took the dog out for a walk up along the ridge to the power line cut where you can look out over the wide expanse of the valley.  Off to the northeast the Barndoor Hills lay nestled in at the base of the far ridges.

The dog and I stood for a moment surveying the scene when a cacophony drifted in from across the valley.  Louder and louder came the cries.  Breathlessly I studied the far ridge line, which began to undulate, as though inked in by an unseen hand in real time.  Then suddenly the whole line lifted up against the backdrop of the overcast sky.  Black dots appeared along the now broken line as bleating and honking reached a deafening crescendo in the cold air.

Closer and closer they came, companies and battalions of geese flying in formation, rising up across the grey sky, a massive ornithological sortie.  There must have been three or four hundred, perhaps more.  In a moment the sky was filled with the deafening cries of geese as they passed overhead.

The dog and I stood stock still with our eyes raised.

A few breathless moments more and the entire gaggle had disappeared over the second ridge to the south, leaving no trace but an occasional stray bleat.

It was only after the last straggler had gone that I realized my heart was in my throat.

The Shirt

I awake in cool morning darkness, slide to the edge of the bed, hang my legs over the side and sit up. Various shades of grey swirl before my eyes as fuzzy shapes begin to form. Instinctively, I reach out in the darkness and find the shirt hanging over the chair by the bed.

I thrust my arms through the sleeves and proceed to button it from the neck down, leaving the throat undone. The chill on my skin subsides, replaced by the warmth of the insulated flannel shirt.

I finish dressing in the dark, make my way down the stairs and grab my fleece off the coat rack. The canvas bag with my workout paraphernalia sits by the corner hutch. I step through the kitchen door into the mudroom and pause to pull on my woolen stocking cap before stepping outside into the pre-dawn cold.

It’s a short drive to the gym. Soon I’m stripped down again, standing in my swimming suit at the end of the pool, stretching my neck and shoulders. I plunge into the cool water and begin to stroke down the lane. As I approach the wall I give a short kick, somersault and spring off the wall. Twenty-four laps later I surface to find the adjacent lanes filled with my companions warming up.

Together we tool through the workout—today, a series of short interval swims repeated in several sets. One hour later we pull ourselves from the water and head for the showers.

In the locker room I towel off and dress. One of the guys notices my shirt. “Nice shirt,” he says. “Where did you get it?”

I turn an answer over in my mind before selecting the words. “It was a gift,” I say, and leave it at that.

I grab my bag, don my stocking cap and step outside. A pair of geese passes overhead, honking in the greyness. The air is cold and still, but I’m toasty inside as I walk to my car, thanks to the insulated shirt on my back.

This shirt was a gift—one of several flannel shirts given to me by the widow of the fellow who used to service my car. Avery was an outdoors sort of guy, one whose idea of a great day was a long walk in the woods with his favorite dog. Gardening was his hobby. He loved to smoke cigars when he worked outside, stacking the wood that he’d cut and split himself.

It’s been two years since Avery succumbed to cancer. I was a pallbearer at his funeral. His wife gave me the shirts several weeks later when she cleaned out his closet.

On these cold grey December days, when the geese pass solemnly overhead, I remember Avery—and those shirts still keep me warm.

“Notes from a Healer” — Mothers at the Window

Frequently I glimpse their faces when I dash through our front office between patients—mothers standing at the check-in window above the receptionist’s desk. Mothers waiting for forms; mothers stopping by to pick up prescriptions; mothers who drop in for an informal chat with the women in our office.

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerMothers at the Window — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online clearinghouse for manuscripts dealing with the humanities and medicine. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.