My younger brother, Jackson, would have been 29 on September 11th, 2017. He passed away on April 9th, 2016 after a long battle with drug addiction. This is my story of the day he died.
I will never ever forget that spring day last year. I had been anxious about that Saturday for a while, because I was trying to become the first woman to finish the King County Classic, an all-day, self-supported (besides for a mid-day Domino’s delivery to the Tiger Mountain parking lot) mountain bike ride in the greater Seattle area hosted by the local fast guys. I knew I could ride my bike all day, I just didn’t know if I could hang at their pace or keep up on the downhill. My only goal was to finish and not get dropped. Little did I know how hard that day would be.
After surviving the first 40 miles (about 2/3 of the ride) and feeling pretty good, we got to a rest point at the radio towers on Tiger Mountain. I saw a missed call and text from my dad—“Call us ASAP”. My dad never texted me. Instinctively I knew that something was horribly wrong, and began to feel anxiety rising from the pit of my stomach. I debated ignoring the message until the ride was over, but I had to know. I called back and my mom answered, telling me what I had been terrified I would hear for years. My brother had overdosed and he passed away at some point in the night.
In shock, I hung up the phone, sank to the ground, and started shaking. One of the guys noticed and asked what had happened and I shared my devastating news. This group of 20 guys—most of them acquaintances or strangers, gathered around me, offering comfort (and a beer), and asked me about my brother. I will never ever forget the kindness and compassion I received at that dark moment from a bunch of biker guys I barely knew.
After I had somewhat collected myself, someone asked, “what do you want to do?”. Realizing that there was nothing I could do to change what had happened, nothing to be lost by continuing, and still wanting to stubbornly achieve my goal, I said “I want to f-ing finish this ride.” And I did. My friend rode behind me for the next 20 miles, making sure I didn’t crash and reminding me to eat and drink. I don’t know if there is a good way to find out your sibling has died, but being able to just focus on pedaling through the woods for a few hours before dealing with the fallout was just what I needed.
Over the next few weeks (and months even), cycling and my grief continued to be intertwined. I raced my first big pro XC race, the Whiskey Off-Road, three weeks after Jackson’s death, and after spending the pre-ride sobbing at the side of the trail, just reaching the finish line was an accomplishment of its own. I came back to my weekly Wednesday night short track series in Seattle and my “bike family” gave me big hugs and offered support. I leaned on my friends in the cycling community and went for long rides to talk things over and escape into the forest.
Some days I didn’t feel like training or riding, other days I went out and rode as hard as I could to try and deal with the loss. For me, grief was both emotionally and physically exhausting. I battled horrible insomnia and a fog in my brain that never seemed to go away, yet I kept riding as therapy and as an outlet and had my best season of XC and enduro racing. As fall rolled around and cyclocross started, the grief became less of a sharp constant pain and more of a dull ache, and I finally started to feel like my normal, happy self once again.
Every big ride, every climb, every mountain I summit, I think of my brother and the things he will never get to do or see. It’s a reminder to me to enjoy each and every moment on this beautiful earth, both the good and the bad, and experience as much as I can for both of us.
We all go through tough times in our lives, but I’ve certainly found that heading out alone (or with a good friend) on the trails or pavement can provide some clarity and comfort. Things change, people come and go, but my bikes are always there, waiting, ready to help work through whatever life has thrown at me.