Among a stack of pictures we sorted for her funeral were several of Karen and her sisters from when they participated in RAGBRAI, an annual bike ride across Iowa, in the late ‘70s. Dressed in cut-off jean shorts, they struck goofy but proud poses in front of their bicycles. As Karen’s grandchildren sat and reminisced, we collectively decided to ride the 2017 RAGBRAI in her honor. This was something we could do together to make the darkness brighter.
Two months later on New Year’s Eve, Jacob died suddenly at home of an undiagnosed aortic dissection. A 30-year-old furniture fabricator, he was otherwise healthy and active. He rode his bike 20-miles round trip to work on hot, summer days and effortlessly joined me in running a half marathon without training. That someone so full of life and strength could be silently suffering a weakening heart is one of the greatest disconnects of his cut-too-short story.
Enveloped in shock and grief, I was unable to plan my future. The thought of waking up without him day after day made weeks feel like an eternity. As the time passed, I began to look ahead for every way to honor him. It dawned on me that we would now need to ride RAGBRAI for both Karen and Jacob.
I owe my love of biking to him. Our first conversation transpired in the comments section of an Instagram photo of his bicycle next to Lake Michigan. I asked him for advice about where to buy a road bike to make up an excuse to talk to him, and he emailed me back a descriptive guide to road bike fit and signed it with his phone number. We fell in love that summer while cruising from concerts to bars, and from beaches to parks. Our conversations flowed late into the night, but he’d always wake up at 6:30am sharp to bike home and get ready for work. He taught me how to ride without my hands, and to let go of my fears of being hurt. Throughout that summer we’d look forward to the late nights when the Chicago streets quieted down enough so I could balance on my bike with my arms at my side and my love at my back. “I like the view,” he’d say, insisting that I take the lead.
With each small-town cemetery we passed, I felt less alone in my grief, thinking of all of the others who lost their lives too soon.
Our love story will always be punctuated by tragedy — abruptly and without warning. I may never understand why this vascular disorder took his life, but I have stopped looking…