AMAC Exclusive – By Chris Skates
When I was growing up, I was the perpetual “new” kid. I moved over 20 times by the time I was 17. I literally walked off the stage from high school graduation and got into a moving van with my gown still on. From the time I was 6 years old till my early teens, riding my bike was a favorite activity. Sometimes, my bike was my trusty horse as I rode into some imaginary western town. Sometimes it was a jet-fighter, sometimes a rocket ship to the moon. Other times pedaling a bike as hard as I could was a way to vent anger, frustration and fear resulting from one of the many physical assaults I suffered over the years. I got pretty good at doing stunts on my bike. I got particularly good at riding with no hands.
As previously chronicled in this space, I am an Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and bone marrow transplant survivor. I’ve reached a point in my recovery where I want to exercise, so I bought a new bike. It’s a dandy, best I ever had. However, a couple of side effects of my treatment have been an arthritis-like inflammation in all my joints and loss of balance. As I have gotten outside and done some walking, I notice I sometimes stumble and weave like a drunk. Likewise, I stiffen up something awful following exercise, and it’s a long, slow, painful shuffle to bed at night.
Some days are worse than others but suffice it to say, I had to approach bike riding gradually and with caution. That first ride after my treatment, I surely must have looked like a 4 year-old learning to ride for the first time, stopping and starting, bobbing and weaving as I tried to pedal. Yet when I finally got underway, I’m not sure words can describe how liberating it felt.
In 2020, I spent weeks in a hospital bed and months confined inside a one bedroom apartment due to my compromised immunity in the midst of COVID. I know riding a bike sounds mundane, but for me, I was back on my horse, in my jet-fighter, riding my rocket ship to the moon.
More than that, on the bike trail, I’ve become “that guy.” When I see an unsuspecting person or couple taking a break, I stop and say hello and my story spills out. I find I can’t help myself. It goes something like this, “Hi, do you want to hear a cool story?” In most every case, the people say yes, albeit with a touch of suspicion. Then I say, “If you had seen me on this date one year ago, I weighed about 120 pounds, had no hair, and was alarmingly close to death. Now I’m out here going for a bike ride.”
In minutes, we have a connection. A few weeks ago, before I got the bike or had any of these conversations, I was still struggling emotionally and physically. Though in remission, I was as weak as a kitten and I was a bit depressed at how far away I seemed from a “normal” life. About that time, an old friend and I were talking and he exclaimed, “Chris, you’re the man with the withered hand.”
I knew immediately what he meant. In Scripture, Christ healed the man with the withered hand. What did that man become after that? Did he want to tell everyone he saw about the miracle that happened to him? Because that’s how my near-death experience and 18-month battle to beat a dreaded foe has left me.
When you’ve nearly lost everything, including almost losing your life, you gain a lot of street cred with people who are perhaps also going through the greatest challenge of their lives as so many seem to be right now. It also changes your perspective. You enjoy the little things more, like bike rides.
So now, I ride like the wind. (Okay…maybe like a gentle breeze). And when the opportunity presents itself, I stop and talk to people along the way from the “withered hand” perspective.
This past Sunday, I finally got the nerve to try it. At first I let go for a second or two, my hands perched mere millimeters from the handgrips, just in case. Then, I tried again, this time for five seconds and my hands a bit further from the grips. Before long, I must have been quite a sight had anyone been watching, my fists pumping over my head as if I were Rocky, my bike soaring down the path. I had made it! I’m alive! I have daily pain and all kinds of side effects but I happily press on. I’m playing with house money. Every day is gravy now. I’m riding with no hands.
(Chris Skates is a freelance writer, novelist, and until recently, a speechwriter. Prior to that he spent 30 years in the energy industry.)