Somehow I knew this was going to be Seth’s last race. The loss of muscle mass in his legs—indeed his entire body—was obvious. And it was worse this time. I tried telling myself it was due to a lack of protein, but I never was any good at denial. The kid simply lost all appetite for food, just as the doctors had warned us, and as Helen had feared. But the clear enthusiasm in Seth’s eyes seemed to outshine any loss in physical wholeness; he was genuinely happy to be here. His friends were thrilled as well, although they all seemed to share a grim understanding that Seth may not race again after today.
Helen, my wife of sixteen years, fretted over every detail of Seth’s preparedness. I tried reassuring her that kids of Seth’s age didn’t take racing as seriously as the adults, although I’m not so sure I believed it myself, and it didn’t seem to placate her at any rate. She kept right on with the doting mother routine: making sure he had enough water, double-checking his tire pressure, ensuring that there were plenty of gel packets taped to the bars. Wait. Gel packets taped to the bars? “Sweetie, it’s just two laps, and they’re only four mile laps. What’s he need gel for?” I asked. But I knew that Seth might actually need that sort of boost, so I stopped hounding her about it. Let her dote. She needed an outlet that reminded her she was still useful as a mother. But in fact, she was an insanely good mother even before the diagnosis.
Shortly before his sixth birthday, Seth began suffering persistent fever and night sweats. His pediatrician was certain it was the flu, but it simply would not end. A battery of tests ruled out that diagnosis and suggested a cause much darker and more fearsome. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia. I hated those three words, but I soon became an expert in their pronunciation. In addition to the plentiful information given to us by his doctors, I googled the disease and clicked through what seemed like a thousand pages of results, desperate for survival stories. Helen joined an online cancer forum and was immediately welcomed into a tight-knit circle of doctors, patients, and relatives of patients. The cancer had been moderately aggressive, but an effective chemotherapy regimen and bone marrow transplant finally beat it into remission before Seth turned eight. Thereafter, our son enjoyed a renewed vigor befitting a growing child, and at the age of nine he’d expressed an interest in racing. Like me, Seth was wiry, with a narrow torso, slender arms, and oddly—almost laughably—muscular legs. We just seemed to be custom made for cycling.
Helen and I had raced in the years before Seth was born, mostly as a duo team for endurance events and an occasional adventure race. We were ideally matched; Helen could ride endlessly at a moderate pace, and I could rip some fast laps, though I lacked Helen’s endurance. We managed to podium a few times during our peak years, but mostly placed upper mid-pack. To be honest, I think we lacked the singular, competitive hunger that separated the top finishers from the rest. We were fine with that. It was the racing community, the electric atmosphere of a big event, and the many cycling friends we’d amassed over the years that kept us in thrall to the world of mountain biking. When Helen became pregnant, we were ecstatic. Her race participation would have to be suspended of course, but she took satisfaction in pitting for me and cheering me on as I continued to compete.
That seemed ages ago. Now Seth was fourteen, and his cancer had returned. The prognosis? Not as promising as last time. But Seth’s attitude was infectious, and it made him popular and admired among the mountain biking community. Area cyclists of all ages knew Seth, and they knew about his present struggle with cancer. He lived for mountain biking, he adored his friends, and he seemed to love his parents without condition. It’s as if his positive outlook and endearing personality themselves were the biggest threats to his disease. The universe ought to recognize that, I thought. If there’s any justice at all. Helen and I reasoned that, as long as Seth was living life so fully, who were we to bring him down by discussing the reality of his fate? We could grieve in private. And we grieved a lot.
It was time for Seth’s race to start. He was waiting at the front with his two best buds, Dylan Holcombe and Thompson Garner. Helen was there as well, snapping photos with her point-and-shoot, seemingly bent on embarrassing our beleaguered son. Dylan and Thom hammed it up, as they often did, but Seth had donned his game face. “Mom, you don’t have to take so many pictures,” he pleaded, with as much seriousness as he could muster. But Helen continued to click away, pausing only long enough for the camera to regenerate. “Gimme a break,” she answered. “I like photographing you in your element.”
“I’m not a baboon, mom.”
When he took up racing, Seth had risen steadily through the ranks, but the tallest of the podiums had eluded him. That spot belonged to Kelly Lowden, it seemed. Kelly was a girl. Seth joked that she was in reality a he, as no mere girl could possibly be that fast. But fast she was, and the moment Seth made any gains in speed and endurance, Kelly would simply turn it up a notch, as if she were toying with him all along. “Son, it’s probably genetics. She’s just gifted,” I said, in a weak attempt to reassure him.
“Thanks, dad.” Seth paused and mulled this over a bit. Soon his sarcasm gave way to a question. “I’m gifted too, right?”
“Of course you are. You may just need to train more and eat right. Maybe her diet is better than yours.”
“Well, can’tcha make my diet better?”
“Talk to your mom.”
The fact is, our diet was fine. Seth’s sickness had prompted us years earlier to begin eating healthier: lots of fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, less sugar and starch. The doctors had encouraged us all to eat a diet rich in fiber and protein, and we found that we could actually prepare satisfying meals without having to include lots of fats. Helen and I were thrilled at the resulting weight loss, but we feared Seth might wither away. Our son had difficulty adjusting at first, but he eventually came around and developed a taste for the meals Helen and I concocted. I wanted to believe that Seth’s inability to put on pounds was a result of the new diet, but I knew there was a more sinister cause.
“Go!” the race official barked, and the lineup of eleven racers was off. Seth and his friends were at the front, but it would only take a few short moments for Kelly to make her way to the lead. She had some sort of mechanical issue at the last moment, though her dad managed to get it sorted out. Her start was delayed by about thirty seconds, which she would likely make up in short order. The only racer who might pose a challenge was Thom, or “T-Gar” as he was often called. Or perhaps Seth, I’d hoped. But I knew that he had weakened in the last few months despite his training, and all the gel in the world could not overcome his compromised health. I had to admit to myself that his best chance of placing first in any race had already come and gone.
The race course snaked around quite a bit and there were several sections where it doubled back on itself. The result was a number of 180 degree turns whose apexes were only thirty yards or so from some other part of the trail, but a few minutes away by bike. This afforded the spectators easy access to various parts of the course, simply by walking among the trees and waiting for race participants to round a corner, where we would all cheer enthusiastically for our champions. We had done this many times for Seth, who would most often be among the leaders. Other parts of the trail were long straight-aways that slowly rose in a soft ascent and then rose again to make for a more grueling climb. This is where Seth shined. It was seemingly effortless for him to hammer up even the most daunting climbs, and it was the uphills where he often gained ground on the race leaders. All except Kelly.
By the time Helen and I made our way to the first observation spot, we could hear the clangor of the peloton. Thom was leading, followed closely by Seth. But I was dismayed to see that our son already bore a grimace which betrayed the pain he was enduring just to keep up with his friends. This early on? As I watched him disappear around a high turn, I couldn’t help but notice his paleness, his creeping loss of muscle, the ill-fitting jersey. Even his legs, once enviable pistons of strength, were now sinewy and far too lean.
He was scheduled to begin a new and somewhat experimental drug treatment in Texas the following week, an appointment which he’d begged Helen and me to delay for a few days so he could participate in this race. We hesitated initially, but soon relented. The race meant a lot to him and he’d prepared for weeks. He was already lean to the point of gauntness, I thought, and now another protracted chemotherapy program might undo him. The doctors, however, were more confident; this particular treatment promised to be less harsh, with fewer debilitating side effects. If it worked as they hoped, his appetite would improve.
Kelly had made her way past the stragglers and was mid-pack, several seconds ahead of a fairly competent rider, a boy named Martin Hertogen. Martin was another friend of Seth’s, whom Seth had mentored for a few months as he got the hang of racing. He started impressively at every event, only to fizzle out after a few minutes. He was therefore never really much of a threat, even at short track races. Some of the other boys began calling him “Hurt Again” because he would often claim that a sudden onset of muscle cramps was the only thing that kept him from taking first place. And now he was followed closely by the remainder of the riders, all of whom were poised to overtake him.
Hand in hand, Helen and I walked with a number of other parents to the next section of trail to await the competitors. I looked at my watch and gauged that it would be another couple of minutes before we saw the leaders. After about twenty seconds, however, Kelly crested a hill that would then drop her into a massive whoop-de-do, the far side of which was a challenge to even the strongest riders. This is where we liked to stand and encourage the racers, since they would be going much slower when they mashed up the steep incline to exit. We clapped and whistled while Kelly mastered the climb-out, as we would for all the riders. “She must have been hammering hard to take the lead so early,” Helen said. I caught Kelly’s eye when she pedaled past, but the look on her face did not express the customary triumph we were all used to seeing. It was a resigned half-frown, almost apologetic. Instantly I worried that Seth had crashed. “What do you suppose that was about?” Helen had noticed the brief, unspoken exchange as well.
“Eh, I’m sure he’s fine,” I offered, with no real sureness at all.
T-Gar was next to summit the hill, followed by another rider directly off his wheel. Was that Seth? No, it was Dylan. I cursed to myself that they wore identical jerseys. Why wasn’t it Seth? Moments passed. Helen and I looked a question at one another. Should we make our way down the trail to see if he was okay? Wait! Another rider. Again, not Seth. Grimly, we prepared to negotiate the steep gulley that formed the giant whoop. We had to check on our son. Suddenly, the familiar sound of drivetrain chatter stopped us in our tracks. A rider was approaching. It was Seth. While Helen clapped and shouted her approval, I tried to get a read of his condition as he began the sharp drop into the whoop. No good; he was head-down in anticipation of the climb ahead, and I was unable to see his face. But when he hit the nadir, he looked up. What I saw was an agony so visceral it was gut wrenching. His eyes were pleading and wet. He shot a look at his mother, who was now standing speechless, hands over her open mouth. Seth was spent, and the climb out of the whoop would prove a challenge. It had never been difficult for him in the past; he had mastered it after only a few months of riding at age ten. As we watched him struggle, a group of six riders appeared over the crest, bulleted down the drop-in, and spun up the rise in hot pursuit. Three of them overtook Seth as they pedaled out of sight through the trees and around a turn.
We picked our way back to the first lookout spot where we could greet the racers who were on their second lap. There was plenty of time to chat with the other parents while waiting, and some of them expressed concern for Seth. None of us were accustomed to seeing him so exhausted. When Kelly was the first to appear around a corner, she had both T-Gar and Dylan close on her heel. This is odd, I thought. She ought to be several minutes ahead of the pack, but her body language suggested she was holding back. I wanted to make eye contact with her again and gauge her intent. Was she playing games with the boys? She was faster and she knew it, but it wasn’t like her to constantly tease. Kelly did not meet my stare, and neither did her riding companions. As they rode past and disappeared down the trail, I could hear them talking in tones that sounded almost earnest.
The rest of the riders soon passed as well, but it was several more minutes before Seth arrived, beaten and dejected. He slowed to a stop in front of us and slumped on his bars, attempting to get a sentence out between wheezes. “Are you alright, sweetie?” Helen asked while stroking his back. “Do you need more gel?” I noticed both gel packs had been ripped from their tape mooring on the handle bars. Much of it had spilled over the top tube where it mingled with dirt and sweat. I wondered if Seth had actually ingested any at all.
“I need some gel,” he managed to say at last. “I spilled most of it.”
Helen fished a gel pack out of her pocket and handed it to him. “You don’t have to finish, you know.”
“I’m good. Just need to down this stuff.” He was getting his breath back by slow degrees. “I think I can catch ‘em.”
“Seth, you don’t need to pr–”
“I’m good I said!” Seth snapped. His frustration had turned to anger, something we rarely saw in him. After a moment, he was off again. He looked weak and awkward as he vanished from our sight. Suddenly, I found myself eager to be in Texas with Seth and Helen. Eager to beat this cancer back again. For good.
We turned around and went back to the whoop-de-do for the second time. All the riders crested the hill in a line, with T-Gar in the lead. They did not appear to be racing so much as hosting a beginner ride. When they reached the bottom of the whoop, they all dismounted and walked their bikes up and out. “What’s going on?” one of the parents asked.
“Nothing. Just tired,” answered Kelly. A few of the parents exchanged looks of disbelief. No one was buying that excuse. Whatever they were up to, Kelly seemed to be the leader. Naturally.
One by one they marched their bikes passed us, each determined not to speak to any of the adults. When they mounted up once again, they talked in muffled voices, looking back as if careful not to reveal a secret.
Seth arrived sooner than I expected, but he was not going to catch the rest. The whoop section was at mile three, and the faster riders could be at the finish line in five minutes after the climb out. But at the pace they had been going, it would be more like ten minutes, I reasoned. I had to help Seth up the climb after he executed the drop-in more tentatively than ever. If he couldn’t even ride the descents fast, he was done. None of us spoke as he wearily mounted his bike, but his eyes expressed a gratitude that needed no words . “We’ll see you at the finish!” Helen yelled at his back. He raised a hand in acknowledgement and formed a peace sign before clutching the grip again. Then he was gone.
“Those kids are up to something,” Helen said as we headed back to the pit area for the finish. I nodded in agreement but said nothing.
My thoughts were in Texas again. Would the new drug regimen show promise? What if it had no effect? Familiar fears were returning once more. I wasn’t thinking much about the race now. Just Seth. When we came to the long stretch of doubletrack leading to the finish, I couldn’t be certain I was seeing correctly. Dozens of the adult racers were straddling their bikes and lined up near the start. Only they weren’t lined up to begin their race; they were facing inward, across from one another. Now I noticed something else. There were heaps of riders strewn about on the trail in front of them. I felt that Helen and I just missed a serious racing accident by mere seconds. As we got a little closer, it looked like a yard sale to end all yard sales. But why wasn’t anybody helping them?
Helen too was in disbelief. “Oh no!”
“Seth!” I yelled, as I broke into a run.
“What?” The question came from behind me, however. I turned around to see Seth apply his brakes and ride up next to Helen and me.
“Oh man, what happened up there?” asked Seth. He was no longer breathing hard since he wasn’t killing himself in an attempt to place.
The crowd began cheering. I slowed to a trot. This is bizarre, I thought. Helen kept running, as if convinced that she was the only one willing to help and everyone else was in a deranged stupor. Then she slowed to a walk as well. She threw up her arms and started laughing. Now I saw what she saw. Bikes were in a tangled pile in the middle of the trail beneath the finish flag. Some of the racers were lying on the ground in comical contortions. Others had tires around their necks. Yet others had their bikes upside down, feigning mechanical failures. One kid was hanging from a tree branch, and another stood looking up at a bicycle that dangled from the same tree.
The cheering became louder. There were piercing whistles and everyone was clapping. Some of the adult racers motioned Seth to keep coming. I looked back to see him astride his bike in the middle of the trail, dumbfounded by the spectacle. I motioned come on as well. Greet your adoring public. He seemed to get the message, a smile forming on his stricken face. He pedaled into the thick of the crowd as it closed and fell over him. T-Gar, Dylan and Kelly pushed him and his bike toward the stage area, the throng parting like the Red Sea. By the time they reached the podiums, the melee was so thick it was difficult to tell precisely who hustled him up onto the first place spot. But there he stood, raising high a trophy that seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Helen was in tears amid the joy. So was I, and so were many others. I knew he was loved, but I had no idea how much.