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What Cancer Stole From Me

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ACHESON
Elea Acheson

I left my home on Whidbey Island, WA on October 1, 2009. It was a brilliant Pacific Northwest day. The sun heated my face, and the slight coastal breeze was like a minty wash of cool across my skin.

I perched on my bicycle's saddle, and my handlebars wobbled from the 45 pounds of camping gear draped over the wheels. I had to focus to keep my balance, like a child learning to cycle for the first time. But I felt only relief for the distraction. I kept my eyes on the road, on the white line that would lead me away from my past.

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Forty-two days earlier, cancer finally left my life, taking my 6-year-old son, Vasu, with it. Cancer had also taken my mom four years before that, and had silently shattered the bonds between Vasu's daddy and me. I felt used up, as if cancer had stolen not just my life but my innocence as well.

I had nothing left in the world to lose.

So I abandoned my home, my family, and my friends. Not because they did not try to help me. But because there was nothing they could do to fill the silence that Vasu had left behind.

My goal was simple. I would cycle the Pacific Coast Bike Route, alone, and when the road ended I would find another road to cycle. I lived only for the moment. I couldn't think beyond the next wave of grief, which struck every hour or two.

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I cycled with desperation, and hope, and a little courage. I wanted the road to lead me away from sorrow.

The first day was easy: a short ride to the ferry that would take me one last time away from the island I grew up on. My skills as a backpacker returned without effort as I confidently set camp that afternoon. But I was unprepared for what the next day would bring.

At first it was just the hills that challenged me. The climb from the shores of the Puget Sound up into the foothills of the Olympic Mountains was long, and my legs and lungs burned from the unfamiliar exertion. Trucks blasted by, striking me with their drafts and bellowing airbrakes, and the road's shoulder was littered with sparkling jewels of glass that hungered for my tires.

My body hurt. But what brought my sobs and stole my breath was the unyielding absence of Vasu.

Loneliness, so profound it can disrupt the desire to live.

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Longing, so invasive it gnawed at my thoughts until I wanted to crawl out of myself to find relief.

By the end of the day, I had no will left to do more than set my tent. But I had only cycled 35 miles; how was I going to make it through Washington, Oregon, California, and beyond? As the sun set behind the Olympic Mountains, frost bit at my fingers, and I sat motionless, unable to find enough motivation to protect myself from the cold. Even the happy memories of Vasu were taken from me. Every time I thought of him, my mind was usurped by the images of his last moments, of his still, cold face. I felt as if somehow, when Vasu died, my body forgot to die with him.

The road ahead of me was long and cold, and I sat paralyzed by the fear of it. But there could be no going back. Not to the place where he died. Not to the smiling children he used to play with. I was stuck in a place in between living and dying.

I finally crawled into my sleeping bag and tried not to think about little arms and legs tangled with mine.

I did manage to make it to the Pacific Coast, and on the ocean's shore I found something akin to peace. The ocean accepted me just as I was -- a grieving mother; and the road invited me to move toward something beyond grief.

I began to cycle, every other day, over the steep capes of the Oregon Coast, and at the end of each day I sat beside the ocean and let grief flow out.

The beauty of the ocean is that it is too vast to overflow with your tears, and in the morning there is no trace left of the day before. It is a place to find new beginnings.

By the time I reached the California Redwoods, after a month on the road, my body had adapted to the demands I placed on it. Muscles bulged, and the hills were almost too easy. I was also learning how to ride the waves of grief, and I was finally able to think a little farther than the next campground. I began to wonder what my future might hold. The dream I had had for myself; to work hard, raise my child, love his daddy, was gone. Suddenly, I was free to do anything, if I were daring enough to try. The weight of cancer and death lifted with every mile I cycled, and I cried even harder from the relief of it.

But I didn't know where to begin my new life. I had cycled away from everything, even my own identity. And yet, somehow, that didn't seem so important anymore. I didn't mind the uncertainty, because being nowhere is being somewhere when you are lost.

I realized then that cancer had stolen one more thing from me. It had taken away my limitations.

It's been almost five years now, since my ride down the coast. I travel a different road of grief, one filled with the memories of Vasu's smiles, his simple joy in life. I remember how he would take my face in his hands, and tell me how beautiful I was. And I feel beautiful because of him.

 
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