Last summer, my wife and I rode our bikes together along the Cambridge to Paris rail trail—an eighteen kilometer venture alongside an out-of-use train track. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fitness queen, but I’d heard that it was an easy trip with a pizza joint at the end of it. I like the kind of biking where you feel like you’re flying, and the crisp pure air and birdsong soundtrack of a forest, but I especially enjoy incorporating pizza into my exercise.
We set off in the morning. I used to be a party girl and 9 AM was only seen on the underbelly of a bad night, but since then, I had become a respectable, bespectacled librarian and I’d grown to like the mornings. They had come to feel like a demi-dream state where magic and freedom were still possible before the stress, responsibility and coffee kicked in and I ground my teeth through the day. I was still feeling my morning fantasy as Andrea carefully removed our bikes from the rack of our car. Andrea never lets me do any heavy lifting if she’s around. Even though I always tell her that I’m as strong as an ox, I actually love it. It makes me feel like a delicate flower. Maybe this makes me a bad feminist, but if we’re both women, can it really be sexist?
We were ready. We set off and I glided along like a hawk after prey. The sparse spindly trees changed to great reaching ones, and light dappled through the canopy.
My Dad had died a month earlier. For three weeks, we sat by his bedside with my Mom, sister, and brother-in-law as his body shut down. I’d always believed that you couldn’t die from Alzheimer’s—that it would be a long and interminable wait as he became just a body and eventually his body was taken—but nope. In 2009, Dad was up at the front of a lecture hall waxing psychological. By 2013, this man of letters could no longer read or write—and now, ten years in, he was gone. It was good to sit together and watch it happen, even though it was a real horror show that I’ll never be able to forget, because it made it easier to accept it as real.
I wear a helmet religiously now. I once had a friend who said she’d rather get a brain injury than be seen wearing a helmet, and I guess she rubbed off on me because I used to ride my trusty, rusty, found-onthe- side-of-the-road bike all over the mean streets of Toronto with no helmet, drunk as a skunk and with music blaring in my headphones so I could hear it over the traffic. Thank gosh I’ve gotten really into safety since then, so now I wear my super cool, super safe helmet. But I can’t dispense with headphones. There is no drug in the world that makes you feel better than slicing through air, wind whipping at your face while you listen to RuPaul’s “Call Me Mother.”
Along the trail, signs notify you when you hit each kilometer, and it was amazing how quickly we passed them. I was moving along for the first little while, happily lost in the trees and plants around me, sweat and breeze washing over me as my endorphins leveled up.
As I continued to bike, it got harder. My legs were getting tired but I kept going. I started to think maybe we were getting close, and then I’d see those dang trail markers reminding me that we weren’t even halfway. As the trees got thicker, it got darker and cooler. The sweat and breeze made my skin cool but my furnace was blasting. Blood pounded along with the music in my headphones. My playlist was shuffling through a random selection of music from the last fifteen years. I was currently rocking out to Cupcakke’s “Crayons” and its irresistible hook “boy on boy girl on girl / boy on boy girl on girl / like who the fuck you like / fuck the world.”
Even though I let my freak flag fly all over town, I was never truly out to my Dad. He was raised in the Catholic church but by adulthood had dispensed with all but the religion’s fear of difference. In the ‘90s, I asked him what he thought about gay people and he told me he thought it was “unnatural.”
I lived at home in our Victorian pseudo-mansion until I was twenty-six. I had a revolving door of gender-diverse guests who were welcomed with respect by my Dad, but he never acknowledged the fact that most of my friends were gay, and what that might mean about me. I bet if he had lived long enough to see this Queer Eye redux world, my Dad would have been dancing on pride floats with the rest of us.
After he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the States finally legalized same sex marriage, I asked him what he thought about it. He said, “Well, I don’t think I’ll do it, because I prefer women—namely Mom.” He started misgendering people, calling almost everyone “she.” Eventually he dispensed with gender pronouns entirely, forgot everyone but my Mom’s name, and simply referred to people as “you,” telling everyone at the nursing home “you are really nice,” or “you seem smart.” When Andrea came into the picture, I was happy to see that my Dad liked and recognized her. When we got married, I sat down alone with him in the dining room of his nursing home and told him. He said, “and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” I said yes, and he said, “oh good,” but I saw a flicker of discomfort in his eyes that made me feel like I had my old Dad back.
We reached the halfway mark on the trail and Andrea whooped back to me in celebration. My body was working hard on automatic with my mind tethered above me like a helium balloon. The song “Love” by John Lennon came on my playlist. I skipped it right away. I couldn’t hear it. I don’t know when I’ll be able to listen to it again, but I’ll never take it off of my playlist.
My Dad was a really smart guy. In high school, he was featured in the Globe and Mail for being a “math wizard.” In university he became a weed-smoking hippie and fell in love with psychology. He went to Harvard where he got his PhD, wrote multiple books on language development, and met my Mom. He had long hair, studied the psychological concept of “knowing,” dabbled in painting, took psychedelics, and loved John Lennon. He wrote my Mom love letters, and they threw dinner parties. I only have a few deeply buried memories of this version of Dad, but I do have them. I remember when I was five, thinking maybe he was John Lennon.
My parents moved to Waterloo, where he got a job teaching language development, and they had us. When we were young, he would take us out to lunch every Saturday, and while we waited for our food he’d quiz us with IQ questions to prove to himself how smart we were. He was funny, and thought we were funny. He was almost too generous with us. He formed my musical taste. He loved celebrity gossip just like me. He thought my mom was the most beautiful woman in the world, and the best cook that ever lived. He hated it when anyone cried.
He had to try increasingly hard to get his work done in his fifties, rehearsing lectures for hours in his study. Reminders, written by my Mom, were Scotch-taped all over the house. He became obsessive and needed to talk simple concepts over endlessly, which would cause fights before we understood why. He became a hypochondriac, and took to wearing black leather gloves at all times. He stopped hugging us to avoid germs. He still loved music and had a rigorous ten-point rating system for creating mixtapes he deemed the best of the best. He didn’t know how to do the actual recording, but I did, and we made almost thirty volumes together.
When he was dying, he was mostly asleep, only waking up when his cough got too bad or he realized we were there. I downloaded the song Love by John Lennon and played it for him with my hand on his chest, the same chest I slept on as a baby. “Love is real, real is love / Love is feeling, feeling love / Love is wanting to be loved.” I hope he heard it.
TIME, AS A SYMPTOM
The ground on the trail didn’t feel as flat anymore. It was getting hot as hell, even in the shade of the forest, and tears were flying off my face. My arms suddenly felt weak. I pulled over to the side of the trail, and sat in the dirt against an old tree. Andrea came back for me. We went to a lookout point over the Grand River, and watched the beadyeyed blue herons wading in the water and circling over their nests in the air. I understood why scientists say birds are descendants of dinosaurs. These scions of pre-history didn’t give a fuh about our bike trip or my dad, nor should they. I tried not to think about the trip back. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to finish this side of it. But giving up wasn’t an option. I needed to get to that pizza
We got back on our bikes and continued on. In my headphones, Joanna Newsom’s “Time, As A Symptom” came on. In the first few bars, she mixes the song of a mourning dove in with the music, and if you’re already in a forest, it’s hard to tell what is real and what is recorded. As the light in the forest started changing to foretell the end of the trail, her words echoed:
Stand brave, life-liver
Bleeding out your days in the river of time
Time moves both ways In the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life
The moment of your greatest joy sustains
Not axe nor hammer, tumor, tremor can take it away, and it remains
Love is not a symptom of time
Time is just a symptom of love
These words were revelatory. I was able to pinpoint the moment of my greatest joy as the day I married Andrea. I had finally gathered myself up from my disastrous teens and twenties to become a truly happy and well-adjusted person, because of and in spite of my Dad. And what hit me is that my Dad’s greatest joy was me, my sister and my Mom. This joy remains.
The nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating wheel of that day will remain with me, and there is a chain that now connects me to my bike, to Andrea, to my Dad, to the doves that cooed outside his nursing home, to the leaves that canopied over me, to the herons that waded in the river unconcerned, to the dinosaurs that once stomped the rock we rode on, to the wind that whipped my face. They are all one, and they are all love.
We got to Paris and the punk teens who work there put aside their hangovers to lovingly make our pizzas from scratch. On the way home, I got my period and it was much hotter in the afternoon sun. Full of carbs, I’d lost my philosophical approach, bitching the entire way back, taking constant breaks to sulk and look up numbers for local cabs. But we kept on, and we made it. Andrea cheered for me when I popped out of the end of the trail back into the parking lot where we began.