Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Bringing Mark With Me ... And Letting Him Go

I wasn't sure what the morning would bring when I set out yesterday from Appenzell toward Feldkirch, Austria on my bike. I was with four friends whom Mark and I had ridden with on two previous cycling tours: Tom, from Philadelphia; Kathy, from near San Francisco; and Ross and Patti, from Salt Lake - Ross having been one of Mark's ER practice partners. I was wearing, as has become my custom on the first day of a bike tour, my favorite cycling kit of Mark's, the one I loved seeing him in, the one he had purchased in Cortina, Italy in 2009. Patti and Ross had been there in the store with him when he purchased it. When they saw we wearing it yesterday morning, they immediately recognized the kit and understood the significance of me wearing it.

The sky was blue when I looked out at breakfast, but we knew rain was predicted by 1:00; and it had started to cloud over by the time we set off shortly after 8:00. Our route initially took us through pastureland, though we could see imposing mountains off to our right. Gradually, we started climbing and the landscape became more wooded. I wondered if I would see an appropriate place. 

After a few more miles, we started to descend, and through the trees I caught glimpses of a river valley below stretching out to mountain peaks in the distance. Then, suddenly, the trees cleared and the vista was laid out before us:

I knew this was the right place ... and the right time.

Tom knew what I was going to do. It had been his idea. "Bring him with you," he had written a few weeks earlier as we exchanged emails about the upcoming tour. Tom had written about burying the ashes of his parents, who had both recently passed away. I had replied that I still had Mark's ashes because I hadn't felt that the time had come to do something with them. (If I was honest, I would also have said that I really hadn't wanted to let this last tangible piece of Mark go.) Tom knew Mark, having gone on two cycling tours with him. He knew Mark loved the mountains and loved cycling. He also knew how much our previous tours together had meant to Mark and me.

"Bring him with you," Tom repeated. "Think about it."

I did think about it, and the more I did, the more I liked the idea. Mark had ski-toured in the Swiss Alps and had also done some hiking there. I discussed it with a few people who had been close to Mark, and they liked it, too. I decided to do it. As the time approached, I thought about where I might spread the ashes and how. I eventually came to a place where I decided that, if I felt good about taking the ashes with me to Switzerland, I'd know when and where to do it when the time came.

Then, I remembered something about our 2014 cycling tour from Geneva to Nice -- how Mark made a point of trying to take his daily cancer pills at the top of climbs each day. It was like his own personal "f*&k you!" to cancer. It was a small act of defiance, of will to endure, of pushing himself to achieve in the face of a terminal illness that had robbed him already of so much. The thought came to me of how perhaps I could mirror what Mark had done and spread some of his ashes each day of our tour at the top of a climb or other appropriate place. I liked the symmetry of it.

Mark, Alpe d'Huez, French Alps - wearing the kit he bought in Cortina

But I wasn't sure how it would work out ... until yesterday morning. Suddenly, it seemed so right. Tom knew. Patti and Ross knew as well; I had told them of my plans at breakfast. I hadn't told Kathy yet. Funnily enough, she had asked me earlier that morning why I was wearing a small backpack. "Do you have makings for a gin and tonic in there?" she asked, knowing how much Mark and I had enjoyed our cocktails on our previous tours. I had laughed and replied, "Not far off."

Everyone pulled over. At first, they were captivated by the view, as was I:

Then, I told the others this was the place. I told Kathy what I was about to do and marveled that the five of us - out of the the two dozen riders on the tour - had ended up, without any pre-planning, riding together that morning. Everything seemed so right. I took out the small bag containing some of Mark's ashes, walked a good ways away from the road, then opened the bag and spread the contents below me - a moment Ross caught with his camera.

Then, there were hugs all around. Individual hugs. Group hugs. Hugs of gratitude that we had all known Mark and that fate had brought us all together to witness this special moment in this special spot.

As we continued our descent and rode on across the Rhine River into Austria, I felt a strong confirmation that I had done the right thing. It had been the right decision to bring Mark with me on this tour, to share it with him and to spread his ashes among these mountains that he loved. But if I needed any further confirmation, it came when we returned  to the spot on our ride back to Appenzell a few hours later. As we approached it, I saw a sign, only a couple dozen yards from where I had spread Mark's ashes, which had gone completely unnoticed earlier in the morning. Its message sent chills of wonder and synchronicity down my spine:

Auf Wiedersehen, my beautiful Mark.


  1. Amazing post!! The picture you posted where you "left" Mark is so beautiful, wow!! I hour one day that I can be as emotionally heathy as you are, especially when it comes to letting someone go. I learn a lot from you, thank you!! Sending love and good energy for the rest of your trip!! Í am envious that you are in Austria right now!! Duck