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Out There: The Grieving Process

An old bike brings a connection between Susan Lacke and her friend.

“You know you’ll spend more on fixing up this bike than what it’s worth, right?” My bike mechanic smiled—not kindly, but in that you-poor-sap-how-can-you-be-so-stupid? kind of way.

And he was right. Ten years ago, when this bike was a brand-new specimen, it was considered the best. The technology was state-of-the-art, the frame geometry innovative, the brand coveted. But that was 10 years ago. In comparison to today’s bikes, it’s an outdated piece of shit. Correction: an outdated piece of shit that’s costing me a lot of money.

When I hauled the bike into my local bike shop, my mechanic laughed. The tires were empty and cracked, the skewers missing, the frame covered in dust. A twisted cobweb dangled from the handlebars, which dangled from the frame by the shifting cables.

“You really want to ride this?” He asked. I nodded. The mechanic cocked his head curiously. “Don’t you have other bikes?” I nodded again before declaring I wanted to ride this bike. He sighed, muttered something under his breath, then began writing up a repair estimate.

This outdated piece of shit is not technically mine. It belonged to my mentor, Carlos, who loved and cared for this bike over the span of 10 years and 13 Ironman triathlons. It’s the bike he rode on almost all of our Sunday morning rides together, and—when cancer treatments made him too sick to ride—it’s the bike he loaned to me when my own ride broke beyond repair. It’s the bike I never got around to returning to him—in part because he said I could ride it for as long as I wanted, and in part because I was too cheap to spend money on a new bike.

“I’ll give it back to you as soon as you’re healthy enough to ride again,” I promised.

Carlos smiled and patted my hand. “Sure.”

But there’s one thing I didn’t tell him while he was sick: without our regular Sunday morning rides, I had lost my motivation to train for triathlons. Long rides just weren’t as much fun without him as a conversation partner. His bike was collecting dust in my garage, and I had shifted my focus to running.

And then Carlos died. His bike was still in my garage.

The night before the funeral, my friend Ashly asked how I was holding up. “I haven’t cried yet,” I confessed. “Do you think that’s weird?”

“People grieve in different ways, Susan,” Ashly replied. “I don’t think that’s weird at all.”

Still, I felt like I was doing the grief thing wrong—wasn’t I supposed to be doing something? My closest friend was dead. Shouldn’t I be wailing? Gnashing my teeth? Shaking my fists at the sky in anger? Surely if I could do those things, I could check off a few boxes in the grieving process and get my life back to normal. I tried many times to will a watershed moment into being; it never worked.

Grief is a weird journey. As it turns out, you can’t really push through it to get to the finish line, because there isn’t really a finish line. Even the idea of getting back to “normal” is an absurd one. Months later, I’ve accepted that Carlos isn’t here anymore, and yet I forget. Something happens, and I think, wait until Carlos hears about this. Sometimes I even pull out my phone to text him. And then I feel the sharp pang of reality.

RELATED: Out There: A Winning Legacy

Before Carlos died, we talked about what he wanted done with his ashes. One of the things he requested was to be sprinkled in Austria, where he did his first Ironman. He asked if I’d do the race and take him along for the ride.

“It’s perfect,” he said excitedly. “You’ve already got my bike!”

Ah, yes. That outdated piece of shit in my garage. It hadn’t been touched in almost three years. Could it make it through another Ironman? Could I make it through another Ironman?

Last weekend, I finally got around to fixing up the bike. As soon as I picked up the spiffed-up bike from the shop, I took it out for a long ride in the sunshine.

This is the heartwarming part of the story where I should say putting all my disposable income into fixing up this bike turned it into a brand-new steed; that this 10-year-old machine suddenly transformed into a sleek bolt of greased lightning.

Or maybe this is the cathartic part of the story where I should say riding my best friend’s bike was a intense moment; that at the summit of some beautiful mountain, I finally cried.

Neither of those things happened. I remain tear-free, and the outdated piece of shit is still an outdated piece of shit.

And yet on that ride, I felt better. Lighter. Almost—dare I say?—normal. Wait until Carlos hears about this, I thought.

I looked down at the bike and smiled.

“It’s been a while,” I said. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

* * *

About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.