RAGBRAI 2017, hopefully, will be my fourth RAGBRAI, a modest number compared to the many other riders I have met during my first three. Still, I am grateful for the three RAGBRAIs I have ridden and the nonchalant question that began the whole odyssey. Over a Sunday meal with the family, my brother Bernie casually asked if I would be interested in joining him on the 2011 RAGBRAI. My ambivalent response betrayed my ignorance, and not until my wife pointed out the fact that riding the RAGBRAI was not just a silly summer adventure for two middle aged brothers but a proclamation. For my brother it would be a declaration of victory after battling with bronchiolitis obliterans organizing pneumonia or BOOP, a serious lung disease. Completing the RAGBRAI would denote my brother’s return to a way of life almost taken away. There was just one hitch: to accomplish his goal he needed to appease the concerns of his family; he needed a pedal pushing Sancho Panza to complete his Rider’s Errant.
During the 2011 RAGBRAI, we were overwhelmed with the never ending river of riders streaming eastward; dazzled by the mosaic gatherings of lycra wearing harlequins bunched beneath trees eating pork chops and pie; dumbfounded by the little league baseball fields and high school football fields furrowed with the tops of pup tents. Waiting in line, normally an inconvenience, turned noteworthy as a riders from Dallas, Texas joke around with brothers from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Our cameras couldn’t capture the million stories shared riding RAGBRAI, the laughs exchanged over pork loin sandwiches and fruit filled pies, or the friendships formed among the corridors of temporary settlements.
We two brothers, from Philadelphia, had fallen in love with the RAGBRAI, our fellow riders, and Iowa. Our family quickly tired of our incessant stories to the point where Bernie and I often found ourselves together isolated reminiscing about the ride. We vowed to return for RAGBRAI 2013 and we did, but I believed, after our second RAGBRAI, that it would probably our last if we couldn’t talk others into coming out with us, but then things changed.
The fevers which ravaged my brother’s body back in 2010 returned. It turned out the bronchial disease he battled was a secondary condition to an unknown, deeper issue. The cause of the ebb and flow of fevers was a mystery. The doctors at Johns Hopkins could not fully understand why his blood levels were abnormal until they saw the images of his spleen. It had expanded to the size of a football, revealing the fact that it was devouring his red blood cells. Why they did not know, but it needed to be removed. Once the surgery was completed all his levels returned to normal and the fevers stopped. The family exhaled, but perhaps too soon.
Alone with my brother in the hospital we decided, perhaps unconsciously as means of motivation, that we would return to Iowa for the 2015 RAGBRAI. Then lightening found its mark a third time. Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system, knocked the wind out of all of us. If not caught in time, Guillain-Barre causes a paralysis that spreads from feet up through the chest. It does not spread further as death results if it reaches the lungs. Though most people recover from Guillain-Barre, some experience lingering effects, such as weakness, numbness and fatigue. Bernie, we were all told, was lucky, having been diagnosed early, but still his legs were paralyzed. RAGBRAI 2015 did not look promising, but our return to Iowa was a carrot that helped pull my brother forward as he fought both physical and mental demons. In the end, somehow, he found the strength to drag both of us back to Iowa for our third RAGBRAI.
The heat of the first day drained every ounce of energy Bernie had. If the weather remained as hot as it was on the first day, Bernie had no chance of getting through the second day let alone the entire week. As my brother slept in our tent, I made a call to the leader of our adopted bike club, the Regulators. It was decided that I would call the Regulator’s bus if Bernie couldn’t get going in the morning or was suffering out on the road. That night I stared at the ceiling of our tent pondering the wisdom of our coming out to Iowa, but my prayers were answered when in the early hours of the morning the skies opened and a passing summer rain cooled the hot roadways to be ridden on the second day.
The cooler ride revitalized my brother, but even though, he should not attempt the Karras Loop on the third day. When I stepped into our tent to tell him my opinion about not riding the loop, Bernie immediately told me that he would pass on trying the loop and completing the century. He then apologized and asked if I would pick him up a patch. Today when I think of his apology and his request I immediately fill up. Riding into Radcliffe to pick up a patch for my brother was such a simple request; I am eager to pick him up another patch in 2017.
Days three, four, and five, Bernie struggled, but on the other side of day five waited Bernie’s wife, daughter, and future-son-law. In Mount Vernon we would meet up and my sister-in-law would ride with my brother for awhile. We rolled into Mount Vernon and spotted my niece waiting for us. On my brother’s face alighted a smile I will never forget. Having family and friends nearby on the last two days of the ride made our third RAGBRAI special and made it possible for Bernie to reach the Mississippi. There was nothing left in him when we coasted down into Davenport and circled Credit Island. He apologized for his inability to ride well a number of times during the week but I like to think he believed the struggle was worth it as we stood side-by-side at the bank of the Mississippi River.
We had talked about returning to RAGBRAI 2017 during our ride back to Pennsylvania. We also strategized how we could get others to join us. The problem is there is no more us to join. The fights my brother fought and won left him wounded in the heart. He died Friday, September 25, 2015.
Like many fellow riders who have lost, I find my brother tangled up in my memories and my words, especially when I am on my bike. I want to ride one more RAGBRAI for Bernie, but I do not want it to be in memorial ride but a celebratory parade. I hope, aboard my brother’s gold framed Lewinsky, this coming RAGBRAI will be both reminiscent and a continuum of what my brother loved. I would like to ride and meet as many participants as possible as that was my brother’s favorite aspect of the RAGBRAI, the people. The RAGBRAI was a gift given to me by my brother, and I would like to extend by brother’s gift of sharing with others with a simple hello and thanks to as many riders, drivers, support staff, state troopers, vendors, and locals as possible. How to do this I am not sure. I am hoping the RAGBRAI community could help with some ideas, so I would love to hear back from you.