From the backseat of a motorcycle

On Sunday, I participated in the Ride for Kids, a motorcycle ride to help raise money for children with brain tumors.  My boyfriend and I rode through the roads of Chester County, beginning at the King of Prussia Mall’s parking lot and ending underneath a grassy pavilion in the fields of Longwood Gardens.  A total of 485 riders raised over $130,000, which will go toward research as well as a scholarship fund for survivors of this tragic disease.  With large events like these, there are bound to be different perspectives.  And, being on the back of a motorcycle for 2 hours, I had a lot of time to think about it.

There are the riders themselves, of course.  Many of them were older, had large Harleys and large women to match.  Their massive bikes, with side compartments, radio antennas, plush backseats, and shining chrome pipes towered over my boyfriend and I, with his small (but awesome) Kawasaki Ninja.  Some wore helmets, while others felt the wind blow through their colored bandanas and the sun glare through their black sunglasses.  Some had been riding in this event every year, while others had just started.  As different as these riders were from each other, they all shared a common love for life.  A 2-hour ride with no stops (the police had blocked off the roads to cars) is a big incentive, a chance to appreciate what they have, to remind them that even in a world where lives can end so early, there is still beauty.

Then, most importantly, there are the children.  At the event, the MC said that every day, 10 children will be diagnosed with a brain tumor.  In lieu of other disasters and diseases, this isn’t a large number by itself.  However, 10 children are not 10 individuals but 10 families, 10 social networks that are affected by the bad news from a CT scan.  A small group of survivors joined the ride.  They rode on huge, VIP motorcycles in the front of the long procession.  When they were asked later if they enjoyed the ride, each said “yes” politely.  For them, a motorcycle ride is small in comparison to the thrills that they’ve had to endure.  Rather, living a normal life was the best gift they could receive.  They all spoke about their hopes about college, their future lives, and careers.  Their will to live was much stronger than what had plagued them.

Next, we have the bystanders.  There were people stuck in their cars as over 400 motorcycles passed them.  Trips to the store, friends, or Sunday picnics were certainly postponed.  Some yelled angrily into their cell phones, while others sat, complacent.  Families came out of their houses, bemused by the spectacle.  Some waved flags, others held up their children.  The riders waved, revved their engines, and beeped their horns in return.

Finally, there was me.  I don’t own a motorcycle.  I don’t even know how to ride a bicycle without falling off.  I’m a passenger.  I sit on the back of Devin’s sport bike, holding on to his sides.  I lean with him through turns and grasp anything I can when the bike speeds up.  I should be paying attention to the road, but when you’re not the one driving, it’s hard.  You want to look at everything: the leaves, the gold colored fields, the horses chewing lazily on grass, the old wooden fences, the motorcycle inching closer to your left, the passenger in front of you taking pictures while her husband steers, the logo on the back of your boyfriend’s jacket, the way the sky seems to be too blue to be real, the wisps of clouds like broken feathers. Without the box of a car top, you feel like you’re part of everything you pass.

And you want to think about everything too.  You think of the lives of the other riders; the children, men, and women who die every day, cancer or not; how good it feels to be warm and cool at the same time; how safe you feel behind him, despite the fact you could fall off any second; how soft his hair is underneath his helmet; how bad your legs ache from shifting your weight; how if you had known about this a few days ago, you could have donated more; how different your life is, how 2 years makes such a difference.  You want to catalog every moment, every stray thought or image that moves by as you keep going along a line of riders, whose beginning or end you can’t see, let alone fathom.

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Definitions

It started with little things.  My grandmother would forget words.  Having a conversation with her was like filling in a crossword puzzle:

“I’m looking for my…for my… that thing you use to start a…a car.”

“Your  keys?”

No one seemed to think much of it at the time.  People get old.  People forget things.  We didn’t want to name what she had.  We didn’t want to give it words.

When she got bitten by a snake, she told my grandfather that a bug had bit her.  It wasn’t until the next morning, when her hand was swollen like ripe fruit, that my grandfather knew to take her to the hospital.  My aunt asked her what color it was, how it moved when it slithered away.  That’s how they knew to give her the right anti-venom.

Words began to lose meaning.  My grandmother showed my sister the pictures on her wall.  Each one was labeled with a name.  She would forget my name sometimes, but she still knew who I was.  At least then she did. The last time I visited her, she asked where I was living.  “Boston,” I said.  She asked me again ten minutes later.  I told her again, knowing that it didn’t mean anything to her.  It was a name of a place she couldn’t fathom anymore.  But she nodded, playing along.  She smiled, but her eyes weren’t smiling.

When my grandmother speaks, it’s a jumble of words, like the contents of a torn-up newspaper.  Her voice is quiet, so you have to listen carefully.  At least that’s what my sister tells me.  I haven’t seen my grandmother in two years, except for the occasional photos that my aunt sends me.  I wish she wouldn’t send them, because I don’t recognize the woman in those pictures.

For me, the definition of “grandmother” is a woman who taught me how to buy stamps, who gave me extra candy on Halloween, who made me Polaroid vacation albums, who told me that she prayed everyday that she would live to see my children.  I want to thank her for the bracelet she gave me, the one she wore on her wedding day, the one that she gave me the last time she recognized me.  I want to tell her that I’m sorry for all the years I went to her house as a kid and watched TV in silence.  When I see her in a few months, though, I won’t say any of this.  I’ll sit next to her, trying not to notice how thin she is.  I’ll say “hi”, hoping maybe she’ll respond with the same, hoping that she’ll say anything, hoping that silence won’t be the last conversation that I’ll ever have with her.