About 40 years ago, my oldest brother discovered bicycling. When Butch saw him in his chamois shorts with a rear-view mirror attached to his sun glasses, he gave my brother a hard time. He could not imagine himself in a rig like that no matter how comfortable they might be. He caught the bicycle fever slowly. My brother gave Butch a very expensive frame he was no longer using. By the time Butch added one nifty little gadget at a time, he had about $1200 into the thing. But, like using Chevy parts on a Ford, all those pieces and bits made for a bicycle that was always breaking down. He was jubilant when it was stolen from our garage and he could use the insurance check to buy his first nice bicycle. He had long since acquired all the gear he made fun of when he first saw my brother all decked out for a ride.
When Butch discovered that a friend from church was an avid bicyclist, he was launched. Over the course of six years, they rode every inch of the distance between Vancouver, Canada and Tijuana, MX. They slept in camp grounds, not motels!! They came back each year with stories of great adventures. While Butch was a light weight compared to many of his traveling companions, he and his best friend participated in multiple 100 mile rides all over California. (this friend had the dubious distinction of having been around to be part of Butch’s first three heart attacks) One year, he rode from Sacramento to Bakersfield on his bicycle to surprise his sister on her 50th birthday. He rode in the Iron Man Division of the Eppie’s Great race for over 25 years. He always planned to retire at 66 and join his pack of retired bicycle friends in traveling the world on a bicycle. He was 64 when he died.
Because we had been serving in the role of surrogate grandparents to my niece and nephew in Reno, Butch asked if he could buy them their first big kid bicycles. After shopping for my six-year-old niece’s bicycle all over to be sure it was just right, he discovered at the last minute that he would not be able to go with me to Reno to deliver it to her. He spent the day before the birthday party thinking about it. He came up with a perfect solution. The next morning, he got out the video camera and a tripod and gave me my instructions. He put a small blanket on the coffee table. I started the camera. He explained to her that he was unable to attend her party but was going to do a magic trick for her birthday. He raised the blanket, and said the magic words, “Abracadabra, Abracadabra, Abracadabra”. I hit pause while he loaded our 85-pound dog, Max, onto the table and lifted the blanket back into place. I hit record. He dropped the blanket and proclaimed “Tah Dah!” There stood our very confused dog. He raised the blanket again. I hit pause. He removed the dog and placed her bicycle on the table in its place and raised the blanket. I hit record. More magic words and more “Tah Dah” as he dropped the blanket to show that her buddy, Max, was now a beautiful bicycle. To my amazement, he proceeded to sing her the entire “Happy Birthday” song. Next, he explained to her that he could not attend her party, so he was going to use magic to send the bicycle to her garage. He raised the blanket again. I hit pause. He removed the bicycle, and raised the blanket one last time. I hit record. He said the magic words, dropped the blanket again, and proclaimed his last and most enthusiastic “Tah Dah” as the camera showed the now empty table. I then drove the bicycle to Reno and hid it in the garage before ringing the doorbell. We played the video for my niece. It took her a minute to decide to run to the garage to see if there was, indeed, a bicycle out there. She was amazed. After calling to tell him what an amazing magic trick that was and thank him for her bicycle, we headed back into the house. At the door, she stopped to ask her mom if we should leave a bowl of water out there just in case the bicycle turned back into Max during the night and was thirsty.
When it was time for my nephew’s birthday bicycle, Butch and my brother suspended a rope over the top of the house with the bike attached. After the candles were blown out, the party guests watched what appeared to be Butch, saying the magic words and levitating a bicycle to the ground from out of nowhere outside the sliding glass door. A quick distraction gave Butch a moment to remove the rope to allow my brother to jerk it back over the house. My nephew was pretty sure he knew what was going on as he looked up at the roof, but the rope was out of sight. My brother managed to dash into the house in time to be casually leaning against the dining room wall, innocently watching the excitement, as if he had always been there. We watched the video again yesterday. It was so precious.
When Butch received the group text with a video of our first granddaughter sitting up for the first time, he replied, “Can I get her a bike now?” The group text of her teetering across the floor as she began walking was met with “Now, can I get her a bike?” Last October she turned 2 years old. It was finally time for her first handle guided tricycle. The other grandparents graciously allowed me to buy that first bicycle in his stead. It was so sad that he missed that moment he had anticipated with such joy. I can only imagine what kind of crazy idea he would have come up with for the delivery of her first big girl bicycle, but I’m sure he was already working on it. Our second granddaughter was only five months old when he died, so he missed all the milestones that we imagined sharing as grandparents.
Becoming us without them includes an unbelievable number of these moments. More and more, as we move through this second year and the years to come, the searing pain is replaced with a dull ache, and finally with a distant longing. It is our inability to predict which moments will explode, which will be merely bitter sweet, and which will feel lovely and warm that is most difficult as time goes by. Cherished milestones have the potential to become landmines. Just when we settle into our new routine and sigh with the relief that comes from believing we are out of the mine field once and for all, we receive another blow. One event triggers fond memories and a reminder of what we shared. Another ushers in a tidal wave of pain that reminds us of what we have lost. It is at these times it is important that we have included others who are mourning a loss in our support network. People who have never lost someone they loved will try their best to support us but wonder why we appear to be back at square one again. They may say things that are meant to help us “move on” and “get over it”. In doing so, they make it worse. Our companions on the journey of loss will know that this is part of moving on. The only way to get over is to go through it. If we devalue our experience, deny our pain, or feel ashamed of what we are going through, we only prolong the process. We desperately need both grace and truth.
God does not promise to remove us from the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But he does promise us a refreshing drink of cool water, rest in luscious green meadows, and a feast in the presence of our enemies.