March 23, 2017

AIDS Rider

Victor Frankl believed that to find the ultimate meaning in life, we must transcend ourselves and become absorbed in something (or someone) beyond ourselves. In the winter of 2001, a radio ad caught my attention when it asked for good-hearted individuals who wanted to “make a difference”. It talked about hope, endurance and community… and I- amidst an element of mid-life angst- went to my phone and said, “Sign me up.”

I had no idea what I had gotten into; a “bike ride” to support patients with AIDS seemed like a great idea. I was a relatively new MSW grad and hey, riding bikes is fun.

I discovered that I had signed up for the Heartland AIDSRide, a six-day, 550-mile bike journey from Minneapolis to Chicago.

I had never biked a distance greater than 15 miles.

I was connected to a team near my home, and we started training in March, to prepare for the event in July. After our first ride of 20 miles, I got in my car and every muscle in my body screamed with pain; muscles I never even knew I had. I cried all the way home.

My anxiety began to build and self-doubt assailed me like a cruel, unrelenting tempest. Physical as well as emotional safety were my considerations:

“How do I ever think I will accomplish this? What if I get hurt? What if I get left behind?”

“Will I be accepted, a forty-something, heterosexual mother of five?”

Our team captain, a young and extremely athletic leader, assured me that no one on his team gets left behind, ever. Something about the radiance in his face assured me of his sincerity. Winking as he adjusted his helmet strap, he told me to get ready for the ride of my life. And every member of my team displayed that same determination and altruism. Nobody at all, it seemed, cared about my age or sexual orientation. Everybody, on the other hand, did care about loyalty, generosity and the cohesive effort to support individuals with AIDS.

Day 1 began with temperatures in the 90s and the sun blazing upon us all. Water stations, snacks and sumptuous meals were prepared for all of us.

On Day 3 of the ride, one of our team mates died on of a massive heart attack. Jack was the one who had been arriving early each night into camp and setting up the tents for all of us until we arrived.

When we faced the most severe hill on Day 4, a wave of terror washed over us; many were already walking their bikes up the impossible incline. I desperately wanted to get to the top without getting off my bike but realized that people were walking faster than I was riding. I was on the verge of dismounting when I heard the familiar voice of my teammate Rocky, cheerfully announcing, “Passing on your left!” I looked up to see the determination and the agony on Rocky’s face as he rode by, his IV bag hanging from a pole tethered to his handlebars. I would not be getting off my bike. With tears stinging my eyes, I pulled out of the line to get behind my brave team mate, following his lead. I could not announce my approaching presence to fellow riders but simply gestured to all that “I am with him.”

I lost my fear and much of my self doubt on the AIDS ride because wounded healers all around me demonstrated what love and greatness were all about: negativity fades away when surrounded by kindness and joy. I removed the word “impossible” from my vocabulary and today do not hesitate to say “yes” to tasks much bigger than myself.

In only two months, the twin towers would fall. Since that day we have faced increasing violence, hatred and assaults on the innocent. We shudder to realize that no one is truly safe on our planet and sometimes we fear that darkness has overshadowed the light.

Our world is broken, but when tempted to despair, I stop for a moment and close my eyes. I remember the summer of 2001 when my entire universe seemed friendly, when trust prevailed and differences took back seat to a larger reality… a “conspiracy of kindness”, it was called… where team captains didn’t hesitate to put themselves in harm’s way to protect their members and strangers gave away signed checks to make sure riders met their pledge totals. It was the summer when the very hills clapped for joy and the gravel beneath our tires offered no resistance. Even the rocks cried out with hope.

I am one AIDS rider who will never forget.

Marissa Happ is a doctoral candidate in Clinical Social Work and committed to quality healthcare for all.