I'm poised on the cushioned gel seat, shins flexed, thighs taut, my feet resting on the pedals. With my back slightly hunched, arms straight and fingers coiled loosely around the foam handlebars, I begin to ride. It is early morning, and I am the only one on the trail. After five miles, the gravel path turns to smooth pavement that slides beneath my bike's tires. It continues for miles and the jagged cliffs and steep rock walls bordering the route break up the monotony of the ride. I pedal on intuition, unaware of how I stay balanced. I am, however, very aware of the hot, steamy weather of this June morning as sweat trickles down my belly, soaking the waistband of my shorts. My T-shirt is drenched and decorated with a smattering of dead bugs.
Periodically, I change gears to accommodate the shifts in terrain. My mind wanders as I focus on the path before me. I pedal slowly. Gradually, I increase my speed. Finally, I go all out, pedaling faster and faster until my legs can't pump any faster. Then, I lean back, let go of the handlebars, spread out my arms, and coast. For a moment I pretend I am crossing some finish line. I imagine the tickertape breaking across my chest while I coast to the applause of the cheering spectators—forgetting the reality of who I really am: the mother of a son newly diagnosed with cancer.
This is the world I want to inhabit, to be on a path of beauty, instead of confronting the horrors at home. I am in charge here. I control the gears, speeding up or slowing down, changing the tension at will. Everywhere I go I carry the heaviness of guilt in my heart. I am his mom; what did I do or fail to do to make him get cancer? I pedal so I don't drink or do drugs or fall apart.
Today, I am riding in the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Today it is my sanctuary, where I devote time to beauty. There is still beauty in the world, right?
I continue to ride for another 15 miles. No one is in front of me or behind me. I don't feel tired. It's as if the wind is an invisible rope that pulls me along. The wildflowers tease me to get off my bike and pick them, but I continue to ride empty-handed.
I pedal into a slow glide and look up at the thin layer of clouds hanging in the sky. It is calm here, unlike my house. When you walk inside our home, you sense that something is broken. It reminds me of the oncologist's waiting room. Everyone who enters knows that Evan is ill and that we are waiting to hear the words "he's cured."
Yes, it is summer now and the outdoors is bursting with life, but what will our life be like in October when leaves drop from branches are smashed flat on the bike trail?
I get off my bike and don't bother to lock it. In fact, I leave my backpack as well. I grab only my water bottle and cell phone. My heart is heavy enough.
I hike for about half a mile, straight up through ferns and prickers that sting my bare legs. I place my palms on rough rocks and rest. I see birds circling overhead. I envy their freedom. While their world soars above, mine is anchored below by grief and sorrow.
It is early Sunday morning in October. It is raining, leaving blurred drops on my windshield. Streets glisten and every branch is washed by rain. My headlights go on automatically. Thunder rolls overhead. It is windy, and I know that somewhere birds are flapping their wings aggressively trying to depart—trying to escape like I am.
I witness a lightening storm's distant flashes. I count: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, as pellets of rain pound my car. I drive through it, wipers working on overdrive. The thunder finally stops, but the downpour keeps on going. I have to slow down and slosh through it. I hate driving in the rain.
The rain sliding off my car drains into ditches along the highway. If only it were that easy to wash away my own inconsequential personal history. I feel a private excitement at this thought.
The rain continues but lessens enough to let me speed up. I whiz past towns full of corralled people. People I'll never know; people who will never know me. I drive on past them, shamelessly speeding like a pro.
I grab the gear shift as if I'm grabbing someone roughly by the collar, stab the gas pedal, and start to sing: "Wild thing…da-da-da-da" accenting the da-das with four hard hand slaps on my leather steering wheel—"You make my heart sing…da-da-da-da…You make everything groovy…Wild thing…"
The rain finally stops and the afternoon sun glints through my sunroof. I drive on, squinting through the tinted windshield. Though I pay but casual attention to the road, I am captive to my thoughts. It's as if they are saying, Hey you! We're still here, inside you. You can run, but you can not hide.
As I drive beyond my physical borders, I think about my personal borders: who I am and why I abruptly woke up early this morning, quickly dressed, grabbed my car keys, and took off as my family slept.
I pull down the sun visor and a sheet of paper flutters down and lands on my lap. It is Evan's latest blood test results. I toss it angrily onto the front passenger seat. Immediately I am transported home, to my summer and autumn from hell, to my twenty-one-year-old son, who only six months ago was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. His illness so encompasses our family's life that I have been stripped of my own.
A few miles earlier, my heart lifted for a moment and I was singing in my car. Now, this—a reminder of what I've left behind. I reach for my cell phone to call home, but stop. I swallow hard. A voice deep within me whispers, Turn around.
I pull over, get out, and stretch. I breathe in deeply through my nose, exhaling slowly through my mouth. Evan's tumor lies just beneath his clavicle, pressing on his heart and lungs. I feel a gaping hole in my center that's changed me forever. Once his umbilical chord attached us; today we are tethered by his illness.
I get back in the car and head for home.
I stop at a railroad crossing and open the windows to hear the freight train's thundering rhythm and feel its quaking vibrations. The barriers rise, and I cross the tracks.
I turn on my right turn signal and drive slowly down my driveway toward the familiar universe waiting for me.
It is the end of December. We stand outside the hospital doors, pausing before entering.
"I really don't want to be here, he says. "Let's go."
He knows we aren't leaving. He feels cold, yet his palms are wet with clammy sweat; he wipes them on his warm-up pants. Instinctively, I reach inside my front pocket and turn off my cell phone. I bang my hip on the doorframe as we enter the familiar chemo room.
I stretch out my tasteless gum, wrapping it around my finger as his nurse gently presses her fingers on the port that is implanted just beneath the skin of my son's chest. I look at his face and into his eyes. He looks back at me, suffering as he flinches from her poke. I try to distract him by insulting him.
"God, Evan, you're looking fleshy around the middle."
Suddenly I flash back to when he was an infant and I used to play peek-a-boo, trying to catch him off guard when his pediatrician gave him his baby shots. Even then, Evan focused his eyes on his doctor's hands, just as he is doing now.
His destiny is in her small, blue latex gloves. All I can do is watch as she prepares the IV of powerful drugs. The slow drips remind me of the steady accompaniment of a ticking clock, dripping through his veins with the regularity of a metronome. For the next five hours I watch nausea rise in him, starting at his stomach, climbing up to his throat, and flushing his face. I see the defeated expression in his eyes. It scrapes my insides raw.
For months I have felt as if I am constantly treading in deep water. Last April, when the showers made everything look new again and the foliage was just starting to bloom, his cancer had yet to be discovered. Then, it was early summer, and I pedaled my bike through my guilt trips. In the fall, I drove my car for hours, wiping away stains of tears from my face.
I am drowning in rage, while those outside our family's inner circle of pain float happily by in their boats of oblivion. When this is all over, I will unleash my anger. Now, I hold it all inside.
Somehow, Evan and I still manage to smile as if nothing has changed between us. In reality, through these terrible months, we have felt as though we've been blindfolded, handcuffed, and pushed into the unknown. Yet, Evan has found an inner strength, and I have found some kind of strength I never knew I had. Still, we know everything has changed. He will never just glide through life. When radiation treatments end in six weeks, he will stand at the threshold of a new future. Like a sprinter pushing off hard from his starting block, Evan will push off and start life again, trying to feel lucky.
Finally, the IV is disconnected, and his port is flushed. Evan stands up—pale, weak-kneed, and light-headed. He has a terrible metallic taste in his mouth. Just before he walks out of the door, he turns to his nurses and says, "If I'm not cured, it's your ass." His wide smile, inherited from me, fills his face.
We make our way to my car parked in the hospital's upper parking deck, just as we have twice a month for the past eight months. In a few days, it will be Christmas. Evan is finally done with chemotherapy. The air is bitterly cold, and my car is covered with a thick quilt of snow. I turn to him. We are grinning. I high-five him, hard, almost knocking him over, as he shouts, "No more freakin chemo!" The snow swirls around us, and the wind makes us turn our backs to it while I search my purse for my car keys. We tilt our heads back like our dog, Ozzie, and lick the flakes falling from the sky. Evan is still smiling.
As we get into my car, I wonder why people complain when it snows. Snow is so, well, benign.
As the beautiful snow falls like petals, hiding all the ugliness in the world, we drive out of the parking lot and toward home, tethered by hope and by love.
"Tethered" was originally published in A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Sons, copyright 2005.
Leslie a freelance writer working in the genres of creative nonfiction, humor, and flash fiction. She's known as the "Guitar Lady" at the local children's hospital where she leads interactive songs to pediatric ambulatory and oncology patients. She recently released a children's CD—"You Gotta Sing," and an adult contemporary CD called "Heart to Heart" (www.softwindstudios.com).