The Mountain Bike Life

An LED panel flashes the number 5 and chimes. Sliding steel doors open inviting me into a sterile unknown. 3:00am wide awake. Moments ago I was following an ambulance up Interstate 475, a different sterile unknown with my six month boy struggling to breathe inside. Now on the fifth floor of Toledo Children’s Hospital I look for room 1514.
Follow below the break to see how the Mountain Bike Life kept my mind in one piece.

The picture is half as blurry as my mind

It was 1514 right? Off to my right is the children’s cancer ward, for a moment I selfishly celebrate that those rooms start at 1550 and are not my destination. It’s sad that it takes someone else’s misfortune to give solace to my mind. I pause to thank those children who will never realize that their pain gives me a fleeting moment of “it could be much worse” peace. In the back corner past the nurses station I find 1514. The room is already full of doctors. Gabe is awake his little sides draw in deeply as he grunts to get air. He stares off into some distant oblivion. For a brief moment he sees me and faintly smiles. Promptly he returns to the work of breathing. Pulmonologists, pediatricians, nurses, residents and countless others, who I will receive bills from in the coming weeks, greet me with more information than I will ever digest. One statement is enough, “It’s good you got him in here, he is going to be OK.”

It’s now 4am, things have settled down a little. Gabe is still working hard but the assistance of oxygen, Albuterol and Orapred have eased things. His throat and sinuses have been vacuumed out and for the first time in weeks his breathing sounds clear. 45 minutes west of me my wife is at home anxiously awaiting information. She still needs to get the other two kids ready for school, and explain to them why daddy and baby Gabe aren’t home. I give her the entire low down, and plead with her to get some sleep. She agrees and brings the conversation to a close with a question. “Jay, is there anything you need?”

“Grab my helmet, shoes and gloves off of the piano, and my bike out of the garage.”
“Really?” There is a small amount of protest in her voice.
“Yes, please”

My two oldest are in school and my wife now comforts Gabe. Occasionally I leave them and walk down to the nourishment station for a cup of something pretending to be coffee. It is impossible not to look into the various rooms as I pass. A smiling child whose legs are elevated in traction giggles quietly as Spongebob floats across his flat screen. His mom sleeps on the couch. The traction will heal him. He will ride bikes again. Let it be soon. Chains, bars, cranks, and spokes, my traction is now in the back of our van in the parking garage. Later today I’ll be hooked up to it, I’ll be healed. Like fractured bones, the individual pieces of my psyche will fuse together stronger than before, and I will have peace.

The Mountain Bike Life is about great trails, it’s about unique gear, new friends, fast descents, brutal climbs, and yet it is about so much more. It’s about a world transformed before you. The trail head is a gate to Eden which the flaming cherubim forgot to guard. On our bikes, otherwise meaningless things come to life. We battle against rogue tree roots who threaten to halt our mission and we embrace others that send us skyward. Boardwalks send us across marshes, but their frost covered deck demands our respect and offers no free pass. Meaningless stones give us fits of both ecstasy and rage as we coax out of them a spirit of cooperation. On our bikes fantasy and reality intersect, and in these sublime moments there is no boundary between the real and imagined.

Courtesy Neil Ennis

Here in this hospital I need more than just an escape from reality, a good book will do that for me later. I need something stronger than a book, something that will alter reality and not merely deliver me from it. I know that very thing is locked in a minivan five floors below me in the parking garage.

My son is happy and stable and my wife has been here a couple hours now. She sees my anxiety. “Go Jay, you deserve a break.” I walk back down the hallway, traction boy is asleep and Spongebob has been overthrown by “Days of Our Lives.” I walk past the cancer ward and look down the hall, a small boy in a hospital gown rides his tricycle past the nurses station. Silently I weep for his parents but not for him. He is pedaling, he is happy. At least for now. I quickly pray that he grows to experience The Mountain Bike Life.

In 1514 my son rests.

I grab my phone and call Ken as I walk into the parking garage. Ken is willing to meet me in downtown Toledo for a ride. Urban riding isn’t my thing, but it’s the only option right now. One hour from now he’ll meet me there. My bike beckons me to pull it out of the van to kill some of that hour here at the hospital campus. The helmet clicks on, my feet press onto gold platforms and reality shifts. The parking garage is now a playground. Planters greet me with a shy smile, not used to being noticed in the winter let alone played upon. Little flights of stairs tired of being stepped on beg me to fly off them. Persistent snow piles that have hung on through the 45 degree weather serve their final purpose as I attempt to bunny hop over them. They’ll either be sewer water or clouds tomorrow. I’m pulling for clouds.

My 6 year old took this at home – good timing, not the best framing

Thirty minutes have passed since I last thought about my six month old son. I look up from street level for his window on the 5th floor and wave, I doubt they see me. I don’t feel guilty. I owe it him and to his siblings and to my wife to learn this fantasy reality so I can teach them to see it too. I cruise back to the parking garage, winded, alive.

2 worlds, 1 picture

A vacant parking lot in downtown Toledo now greets me, Ken is already here unloading his bike. We greet one another, he asks the appropriate questions about my son, and without further thought we begin to pedal. More stairs, more planters, more snow piles, all providing entertainment. I realize I would love urban riding, if I were a better rider. I vow to practice at home. A fascinating line opens before me, but I’m not about to launch that ledge. The ledge laughs at me. My bike snarls back at it and promises me that together we could take it. My bike has a history of lying. I ride down the stairs instead.

The Maumee river runs through downtown Toledo. Next to the river a handicapped couple takes wedding photos, celebrating a day their parents thought they’d never see. Thoughts of the boy on the tricycle enter and leave my mind. I hop up onto a short a bench and ride off of it. I work on my manual along the river side. I charge back up hills and through alleys and under bridges. Ken follows. He is a good enough friend to know that it’s not a time to race. I pass business men, and homeless women. A construction cone stands sentry over a pothole. I bunny hop and whip my back wheel into it, knocking it over. I laugh to myself, “damn pot hole, who’s protecting you now?” For a moment I’m tempted to spend the rest of the day knocking over cones.

Courtesy – Wikipedia

Downtown Toledo is abuzz. It’s the Saturday before St. Patrick’s day. We dodge drunks. They are as happy as the planters at the hospital, but not quite as shy. Ken and I debate whether or not we should have a drink. Leaving the bikes outside the bar in the midst of daytime drinkers doesn’t seem wise, nor does going back to the hospital smelling like beer. After some deliberation we choose to abstain. We have all summer for post ride drinks.

Eventually the draw of the hospital and my recovering son takes over my ride, and without thought I find myself back in the abandoned parking lot shaking my friend’s hand and loading my bike.

The start/end point of the ride

Up the elevator and down the hall. No tricycles. 1514, my wife and son are asleep. A nurse takes Gabe’s vitals and greets me with a reassuring smile. This morning is now distant. 40 hours of no sleep is wearing at my resolve to stay awake. Following the ambulance from one hospital to another, watching my son’s chest as he struggled to breathe, seeing the rapid response team descend upon him at 3am, all of that is in the past. For the next three days I’ll be nothing but dad and husband. My bike will stay in the van and won’t come out until we are 45 minutes west of the hospital. For now I’ll advocate for good treatment, I’ll try to brighten nurses’ and doctors’ days. I will thank visitors, and thank my God as my son heals. Then I will go home to a new type of life, a life that will involve nebulizer treatments, constant vacuuming and dusting. It will be a life that will include a temporary fear of every cough, hiccup and burp. Even with all of that, it will still be The Mountain Bike Life, and I’m stoked to get home to live it.

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