Don’t feel like you have to read this now, or even ever.
While Today I’m in Burlington Vermont, my mind is in Amarillo, Texas. I remember the parking lot behind the church we stayed for a week. It was a thunder storm unlike the kind we see up North- you could see it coming far in the distance before the heavy rain broke the sticky heat. My arms were wrapped around my strong, trusted leader as he sobbed his goodbyes into my shoulder. Time stilled as I imagined a life where I never left to bike across the country- would I be by at a fire with my friends, or carelessly watching Netflix? I try to imagine continuing on without him, without Bridget, without Patrick. I did not want to re-enter the church, because I was not yet ready to finish our journey.
Today in Burlington I feel as lost as I did that night.
This time last year, I thought that no one could understand what we were going through. I received letters from strangers like the one I am writing to you now. They said things like “I’m also from the East Coast” and “Ride on.”‘ Some people said they had lost loved ones on similar accidents.
I remember the morning of the accident knowing the ambulance was for one of us as it flew by on a mostly quiet road. We could show you pictures of us smiling, haloed by the rising sun. When we got back on our bikes after a worrisome text, stop at lunch and do not keep riding, we immediately crashed into each other. Our adrenaline made us startle, and we could not speak the unspeakable. At the half way point we quickly tallied who was in and who we were waiting for. With every returning face we rejoiced for another life safe, but silently, for we knew that not everyone would return.
I wonder now where my leaders found the strength to make the calls.
Our mourning shattered us. Sometimes we would hold each other but our minds were miles away, replaying that stretch of road, the events leading up to the accident, that last conversations we had had with our two friends.
I was right though- no one truly can understand we went through. Your individual battles with your emotions will be unique and yours only. I want you to know that grief is a strange beast, and although you are already aware that your team is forever changed, that grief will surprise you in the way it affects you, or your team mates. Grief can also dig up some old feelings, past hurts or traumas, self-doubt or insecurity. It’s okay. You are not being dramatic or selfish. Do not let grief make you feel weak or think less of those mourning around you.
The few days in Wheeler, Texas, I spent outside on the pavement against the church wall. I had a journal out but I only wrote three lines. We fell asleep watching Disney movies but all woke up to someone’s night terrors. I shared a cigarette with a team mate and I don’t smoke. Time was as heavy and thick as the Texas heat. Five days have passed for you, CUS riders, and I wonder if it has felt like an eternity.
If you choose to keep riding, continue to check in with yourself, and feel no shame if it feels different. Support your team mates as they make their own decisions about safety. There is no weakness in stepping back. Something scary I realized is that sometimes when you feel passionately wronged and hurt, it is easy to cloak yourself in reckless behavior. I rode some days with anger, and those days I endangered myself and team mates.
It’s hard enough to leave Bike and Build even as a “normal” trip. Our bodies are transformed, different from the ones we left with. We are used to being transient, yet surrounded by our family. In the safety of home after ten emotionally and physically exhausting weeks, one can forget that grief aches with the rain like a missing limb.
I am going to be very candid here. I think one of the greatest challenges for me was what followed the wake of our trip. It is so easy to bury back in your life. I did not know I would feel guilty for surviving, or that I would wish I could have been a better support for my peers. It was hard for me to check in with Bridget’s recovery because I worried I would remind her of what was lost. My lowest moments began the day we packed our things, friends leaving on planes abruptly, chamois and water bottles left behind. I felt unprepared for real life.
I did not know I would be so angry. I wanted to blame cars, roads, or sometimes myself. This anger did not peter out throughout the year- it disappeared and came back only in inconvenient moments. CUS riders, a lot of us needed intensive support after our trip. Sometimes this year felt like being a boat come loose from a mooring. Be present for your peers. Not everyone will want this- some people will need space to heal- but for those who do. Also, be brave and reach out when you, yourself, are overwhelmed.
Be honest with yourself, your friends, and your family. The biggest mistake is denial. Your souls are already naked, your comfort as a living being has been shaken, and you have felt loss. Accept your feelings as they wash over you, and be patient when others do not understand.
I ride my bike every day here in Burlington. I make sure my voice is heard by my neighborhood planners and city councilmen about bike safety. I take long day trips with friends and am very vocal about enforcing safety rules. I did not know if I would want to bike after this trip, and I do not think everyone does after such an intense experience.
Knowing that a person who had such a positive impact on the world is no longer here, I work hard to be my best, as do many of my team mates. I continued service work after my trip. We collectively can not replace what was lost, but it is our responsibility to compensate for the imbalance. I will always carry that spirit with me.
Something remarkable that you will learn is the strength of the people who surround you during this time. I never felt exposed to such a high concentration of wisdom and resilience. Our leaders, Patrick’s loved ones, Bridget and her family, all became more than human. They are symbols of success, reminders that individuals can overcome impossible odds. My team mates shared bone chilling insights that felt like answers to puzzles I hadn’t realized I was fumbling with. I know you will have those people in your team, companions being beacons of willpower and determination.
Let them know so that they may have the strength to continue on.
And know that you are that person too.
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