Friday, January 22, 2010

Why Will You Ride?

I don’t remember her name, but I’ll never forget her story.

It was about five years ago. I wasn’t yet a Ride for the Feast rider, but I knew about the ride. I’d volunteered for it, but I wasn’t as involved with it as I am now. I was working a fulltime research job that required that I periodically visit various AIDS service providers to interview their clients about the types of health and social services they needed. It was on one of these visits, on a snowy late January morning, that I met her.

She came into the interview room looking fragile—emotionally, not physically. She was timid. I couldn’t tell how old she was; she could have been 25, she could have been 45. Her hands trembled slightly as she took a seat across from me, and she made only the most tentative eye contact. She seemed…almost apologetic. I couldn’t imagine for what since we’d only just met, but then I got it. She was apologizing for being there, in my day; for her existence. I was witnessing shame like I’d never seen before, coupled with a desire to be relieved of it that was so strong I can still feel in the pit of my stomach. As our interview began, she provided long explanations for what were essentially “yes” or “no” questions. She needed to tell her story, needed to know that someone would listen.

She told me about the abusive relationship she escaped, the way she believes she became infected, the shame over her diagnosis that kept her from seeking medical care for more than two years, and the frustrating insurance problems that were threatening her continued care. That’s what brought her to the agency where our interview was taking place—she was meeting with a social worker to try to get some emergency funds to pay for her medications.

I asked her about her home situation, whether she had anyone to help with her care. She told me she lived with her daughter, and that she was great about reminding her to take her meds and making sure she got her meals on time. That’s when Moveable Feast came up.

      “We get our meals from that Moveable Feast and they are the one thing that always goes right. They always come every day and the meals are good and they are so easy for my daughter to just heat up in the microwave. That’s what I worry about the most—my daughter, how it will be for her.”

I don’t know why I asked my next question. It wasn’t on my list of survey questions, I didn’t need to know it, and I’m not even sure where my suspicion came from. But I asked anyway.

      “How old is your daughter?”

Her face changed in a way that any mother would recognize. The tension disappeared and was replaced by a beaming pride. She smiled a big, wistful smile.

      “Oh she’s so grown! I can’t believe how big she is already. She just turned six.”

I wanted to hug her. I wanted to run from the room. I wanted to find the daughter and hug her. I wanted to go home and crawl into bed and under my covers and never come out. Six years old? Damn.

      “Six years oldso grown! She takes good care of me. She makes sure I get my breakfast, and then she’ll tell me, ‘Mama, you should try to get up and move a little. You’ll feel good if you do. Come on, come to the door and watch me walk to the bus stop. I’ma go to school and learn a lot for both of us today. Watch me go!’ She’s such a sweet girl…”

Her words trailed off as the pride on her face dissolved into a storm of worry and guilt and hope. But noticeably absent from that look was resignation. She had burrowed up out of shame so deep it let her disease go untreated for two years, she had sought out a social worker to help her negotiate with her insurance company, and she was doing everything she could to make sure she’d keep getting meds. Resignation was not part of her makeup; this woman was a fighter.

As we finished our interview, I silently hoped that her daughter was a fighter, too. I couldn’t even begin to understand the challenges they faced—a single mom and her first grader battling critical illness, poverty, social stigma, uncooperative corporations, and complicated web of social service institutions. 

Gradually, a 140-mile bike ride began to seem like no challenge at all. And that’s when I knew I had to ride.

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