Please welcome TTAC writer and my racing teammate, W. Christian “Mental” Ward, to Riverside Green. He has a story to tell you — JB
I have always been a two-wheel enthusiast. I get it genetically. My Dad rode, heck, even my mother rode. My brother used to ride. I just enjoy motorcycles. I have almost always have owned one motorcycle or more since I buried myself in a 17% loan for a Kawasaki 250 Ninja in 1989.
You learn some rules when you spend that much time balanced on two wheels. Good rules, lifesaving rules. In September of 2010, I forgot every one of them.
You see, my wife had breast cancer.
It started in the spring. I was out of town on a trip for the Air Force on the running track at Barksdale Air Force base when she called me.
“They found something.”
“It will be fine. You’ll be fine.”
That July I was out of town again when the biopsy had come back. The Doctor called her, and she called me. She was her standard resolved self, but it wasn’t fine.
“I love you, we’ll get through this.”
The much-hated-and-maligned annual mammogram had caught it early, before even a self-exam would have noticed. It was an area smaller than the point on a thumbtack. September was the oncology appointment. We went in expecting that thanks to the early detection, she was going to escape with just surgery and some radiation treatment. For once, I was actually home and at the appointment. They found a second spot, a few millimeters from the first and even smaller.
It was a game changer, strike three; family history, genetic predisposition, and a second spot. That meant surgery and chemo as a minimum; how bad, we would have to find out.
I should mention this now: I am an awful husband. I love my wife, but I am gone more than I should be and indeed, I was scheduled to depart the very next month for 180 days on yet another military deployment. Given this development, however, I knew I simply could not go. After I drove my devastated wife home, I had to go to work to tell my commander that he needed someone else to fill my position. This needed to happen sooner rather than later.
On a warm Oklahoma summer afternoon, in contrast to every rule I have learned over 21 years of riding track, dirt and street in three separate countries, two continents and eleven states, I decided to ride in anger. I grabbed my helmet, jacket, and gloves before I threw a leg over my 2004 GSX-R 1000.
I felt like the ride would help me clear my head, but instead I almost dumped it pulling out of my driveway. I gave it way too much throttle and the rear tire stepped out. I pulled in the clutch and corrected. I did have to live in this neighborhood after all. The surface streets to the freeway were excruciating. I wanted more than anything to pin the throttle, to unleash all 162 horses, to run far and fast. My left forearm ached from being locked and from the internal struggle of what I wanted to do and what I should do.
Finally, I hit the freeway entrance ramp. I could outrun this; I could drown it with the noise with speed and with rage. Enough throttle and enough RPMs can solve anything. The front end went slightly airborne and I launched onto the freeway at felonious speed. I knew it was stupid, I knew it was dangerous. I had to argue with myself to slow down to double digits, and fight again even harder to ride at a more reasonable limit.
Still my arm ached. I gripped the handlebars with such force my fingers went numb inside my gloves. How did this happen? Why now? Why my wife? Why does cancer even exist? How could the same glands that were designed to nurture life now threaten hers? Why can’t I just take tools and fix this now? Why do they have to pump her full of poison to kill what is trying to kill her?
Then, these questions: Why am I not paying attention to what I am doing? What good are you if you get squished under a semi because you are riding like an idiot? Pull your head out of your ass and focus!
The internal dialogue didn’t work. Every pass was exaggerated, every shift violent. Everything was wrong.
I arrived at work. I pulled my helmet off and wiped away a handful of frustrated tears. My arms throbbed, my fingers were numb and my shoulders ached. I mumbled hello to the smokers in the parking lot and silently wondered why they didn’t have cancer and my wife did. Instantly I felt guilty about such a thought. I walked into the squadron, took a breath and knocked on my commander’s door.
His answer was simple, obvious, and illuminating.
“Of course, you’re off the deployment. Now, go home and take care of your wife.”
It was never about me. I was not going to fix this, I was not going to outrun this and I was not going to intimidate this with rage, horsepower or tools. I needed to quit being a punk and start being a man. More to the point, I needed harden up, go home, and be a husband.
Two weeks later was her first chemo treatment. That morning I woke up early, went into the bathroom, and shaved my head.
It was a futile bit of ego. I have always had thick hair. I love my hair to the point of comedy. My head has only been shaved on a few occasions: Air Force Basic Training, once when I arrived for a 6-month deployment to Africa, and for a fundraiser for children with cancer. During one Middle Eastern effort, the pre-landing checklist included the Mission Crew Commander asking me for a “Haircon” status. My retirement ceremony began with the ad-libbed line; “Today, we say goodbye to the best hair in this, or any, Air Force.”
I wanted to give her everything. I tired to buy her a new BMW convertible, which she rejected. I couldn’t understand until she gently explained she would always see it as ‘the cancer car.’ It underscored my helplessness. All I had were material things, and in the face of this; none of it mattered. I would have cheerfully doused all of it in gasoline and lit a match if there was even a chance it would help. I would have destroyed all I had if there was even a slight promise that I could keep her. Water; water everywhere and not a drop to drink. My hair seemed like the only thing I could give. Maybe, just maybe if I sacrificed mine, she could keep hers.
Absolutely, but I would cheerfully cut off my fingers if it would increase her chances by .001%. I had to communicate to this, I had to fight, I had to do something. To this day there are still not the words to show what I would have enthusiastically sacrificed to keep her even slightly more comfortable. I would have removed my own soul with a dirty spork if I could find where to dig it out.
Yet, with all of this and more that I would eagerly surrender to her, that day I almost took even more from her. I was so blinded by impotent rage I unthinkingly risked everything to gain absolutely nothing. If there is a God, I was not spared that day for my own benefit, but only to prevent her from suffering more. Maybe shaving my head for the 6 weeks of chemo wasn’t as futile as it seemed and maybe my closely cropped follicles served as a reminder of what matters.
She would survive, she kept her humor; joy and I got to keep my wife. She did all of this while being a model of personal strength. She did keep her beautiful locks, a testament to her strong Mexican roots, a dark, thick mane and no small amount of personal resolve.
Yes, you learn rules when you ride. Good rules, lifesaving rules. That day I learned I didn’t need horsepower, speed or noise.
All I really needed was a set of hair clippers.
Postscript: I attended Mental’s retirement ceremony and it was truly touching to see the devotion that he and his wife have to each other. It was also impressive to see the respect and admiration Mental’s enlisted personnel had for him. But it was depressing to see those fine young enlisted broads and realize that Mental was too busy being devoted to his wife to tap any of those obviously promiscuous little girls. The man has a lot of self control — JB