Monday, February 8, 2016

SALLY (1934-2016)

I just received word that an important person in my life and someone I called my friend passed away last month.  Sally died when she was 81.   

I remember where we were when she told me she had been diagnosed with Parkinson's.  We were riding the Stevens Creek loop on our bicycles, which meant a long climb and a steep descent into the village of Saratoga, where we always took a break at a cafe where people hung out with their dogs.  Besides loving to bike, Sally adored her animals, so this particular cafe had more appeal than just loading up on caffeine and enjoying conversation.   

When she told me, we had passed the reservoir and were riding single file on a narrow bumpy road, and as usual, I was behind her, bringing up the rear.   People who ride in the back intentionally are called the sweep, but I didn't deserve that esteemed title.  I rode back there because I was slow.   Sally turned her head and yelled something back at me, but the wind made it difficult to hear, so I didn't catch it all.  I heard her say I haven't told many people yet, but then her words were garbled until I heard her say Parkinson's.  Hearing that word stunned me.  I didn't know whether I should ask her to tell me again or ask her to get off her bike so I could hug her.   

"Let's stop," I said, but she didn't hear me so we kept on riding until we came to the bathrooms at the bottom of the first steep climb.  We leaned our bikes against the fence, and that's when she said  "I've talked with Bob,  and told him I want to go to Oregon when it's time to die.  I don't want to be hooked up to a machine."   Just a few years before, the State of Oregon had passed the Death with Dignity legislation that allowed terminally ill patients to end their life voluntarily.   When I heard these words, I looked at her more closely than I had looked at her before.  She didn't seem any different, she didn't shake, nor did she look sick.  The symptoms of Parkinson's were not obvious.  How could she be sick?  She rides strong, I thought.  I don't remember what else I said, if anything.  I'd like to think it was something comforting like  I hope you don't go to Oregon for a long time.  She swung her right leg over the bike seat, clipped the cleats of her shoes into the pedals, and started to climb the hill before us.  We never talked about her Parkinson's again.  I wasn't ready to face her mortality and talking about it might have made me face mine.  

I met Sally on a club ride around 1994, shortly after I bought a bike.  She and her biking girlfriends were older than I, but they didn't take themselves too seriously, and as a new rider I felt more relaxed riding with them than with an established bike club where testosterone could be called an infectious disease.  When riders talk about bike clubs, they often assess whether it's easy or difficult to fit in, but for me it wasn't so much about fitting in.   I suffered from lack of confidence.  I had anxieties about keeping up.  And most of the time I didn't, and no one likes being dropped on a club ride.

After riding with Sally off and on for about year, I thought I might do a bike tour in New Zealand.  Sally pushed me to give the tour company my credit card and sign on the dotted line.  She urged me to rent a lighter bike so that when I came home, I'd be ready to trade in my heavy hybrid for a lighter road bike. The best advice she gave was to take my own pedals and my own bike seat.  As it turned out, the shop in Christchurch only had mountain bikes for rent, and although the rental bike was even heavier than the one I had at home, it didn't matter because Sally made sure I understood that bicycle touring was also about having fun.   

As a role model, Sally energized me, and helped me to believe that some day I would ride as fast as she did.  She inspired other people too.  Many of us, especially women, who rode bikes looked up to her as someone we wanted to be when we grew up -- even though we were all grown ups at the time.  Until I met Sally, I never knew a  woman who had ridden her bike across the country.  Across the entire United States, I would tell people.   And I'm not sure, but I think she did that ride self-supported, meaning she carried all of her clothes and other gear in panniers that were attached to her bicycle.  She often clocked 10,000 miles a year on her bike.  You could do it too, she would say to me, but you need to buy a lighter bike and spend more hours in the saddle.   She loved to challenge us physically.  When I met her in the early 90s and didn't know what more hours in the saddle really meant, she was the strongest woman cyclist I knew.  She even passed my then-husband going up a steep hill, and for days after, he talked about how Sally passed him.  Her legs moved like pistons.  Although she was a good climber, her nemesis was Quinn Hill, but she made it to the top.   Not too many people can do that.   She stood in her saddle and her weight shifted side to side as she cranked up that hill with fast riders, but she never complained when she rode with me as I climbed slowly in my granny gear, promising her that some day I would buy a lighter bike.   And although I eventually bought a carbon-fiber bike,  I never came close to riding like Sally.

After Sally mentioned her illness, we biked off and on for a couple of years, but as her disease took hold, she didn't ride as much, and because she wasn't biking with her girlfriends, neither was I.    At the same time I met a couple of other women who loved to bike and were about my speed.   Over time I heard from people who knew Sally well that she still rode her bike, but to be safe she and her husband rode the Baylands trail or around the neighborhood to avoid the hazards of traffic.   We didn't see each other after that, but I would hear about her decline from friends who were close to her. 

Now that she's gone I am sorry I didn't stay in touch,  that I didn't make an effort to visit her.   Someone told me that she'd had some type of procedure that enabled her to type and use email, so I emailed her once, but she never wrote back.   When I saw her friends, I would ask how she was doing, but their news was never encouraging.

Sally leaves a legacy within the biking community.  Her many friends will always remember  her encouraging words and what an inspiration she was.  Sally, we miss you.  Wherever you are, may the wind always be at your back and your sweet dog, Ginny, close by your side.

(Taken at a party for my biking friends to meet Lisa who was our guide on the New Zealand trip)