Last week saw the culmination of my fundraising efforts earlier in the year as I presented three lots of bikes to disadvantaged primary school children across Auckland. Never had I imagined that I would end up having so many bikes to donate that I would have to split them across schools and that it would take me one and a half days. I also never imagined I would end up meeting celebrities and being interviewed for Maori TV.
I can still remember clearly the moment I acquiesced to Tonya’s bribery, some might say demands, to sign up for the Sri Lanka cycle trek. It was a Saturday afternoon and we were in a cafe just along the road from her house as she was finally able to get out and about a little following her surgery. Three days prior I had escorted her to an oncology appointment where she was told she was dying. At some point I will write more about that day and the whirlwind of emotions that whipped up into a frenzy the moment Those Words fell from the doctor’s lips and which, to a large degree, still surround me. Needless to say, the impact of Those Words will be with me forever.
On the day in the cafe, the look on Tonya’s face when she asked me to do the cycle trek was the familiar one she adopted for serious requests – head on the side, a wry smile on her lips and a subtle wink which I now remember usually resulted in her closing both eyes. But behind those eyes, there was a much more compelling appeal which silently said “you must do this because I need you to do it”. I think I said “oh go on then” as I reached for my phone and pressed the link to sign up right there and then while Tonya ordered a gin fizz. She had not had an alcoholic drink in two months and I was momentarily more scared about carrying her home than cycling 460 kms in the Sri Lankan heat with a bunch of strangers and a celebrity. When I got home I was filled with instant regret and dread in equal measure. But, hey, compared to chemotherapy, it would be easy, right?
It wasn’t easy. Initially I couldn’t even wheel my rusty and dusty bike out of the garage as years of neglect meant the tyres were like pancakes. Even once my kindly neighbour had assisted by inflating them, I couldn’t remember how to get the wheel off to get it in the car to take it for servicing. The lovely Spanish man in the bike shop told me the only thing wrong with it was years of neglect, as he stared at the gizmo on the handlebars which told him I’d only ever ridden it for 29 kms. Later I would struggle to get the wheel on and off, fail to understand the gears and when to change them, worry about downhill cycling and braking and how to cycle in the rain. My paranoia kicked in and I fretted about my Sri Lankan cycling buddies. I persuaded myself I would be the oldest, youngest, fattest, slowest, least fit, most inexperienced, the only one to ride in the support vehicle and literally everything else in between. Yet, I really and truly enjoyed it, almost like nothing I’ve ever enjoyed before. Most people who know me will also know that I have struggled all my life to find a sport I enjoy. I quite like badminton but you need a partner. I love skiing but you can’t do that often. I loved kayaking for a while at University but the thought of doing an eskimo roll and the fear of drowning got the better of me. I really enjoyed training for the walk I did for ChildFund in Vietnam a few years ago but plantar fasciitis and hills got the better of me. But cycling was something else, a whole new level of sporting enjoyment which was so unexpected it literally punched me between the yes. The feeling of excitement as I learned to master the teeny tiny hill; the wonder of the first time I went along the Auckland waterfront with the beautiful blue waters hugging my side; even the thrill of my phone ringing while I was on call one Sunday afternoon and saying to the junior doctor “I’m just out on my bike” as though this sort of caper was now normal for me.
And Tonya loved it. She truly, completely and utterly loved it. Every day there would be texts enquiring about my progress, demands for photos of the bike, on the bike and with the bike and she would excitedly tell anyone who would listen of how she had so masterfully talked me into heading saddleward. There were detractors – lots of them in fact. Your bottom will never be the same again, they said. They told me that 460 kms was a long way, as though I had not figured this out for myself. Ditto for how hard it would be, so hard in fact that I probably wouldn’t finish. Possibly my favourite of all was the doom-mongerer who announced that if the distance, exhaustion, heat and humidity didn’t get me that I would likely succumb to diarrhoea. But in Tonya’s mind, failure was never a possibility. It wasn’t even slightly on the cards. If I expressed any doubt that I would manage it or even the merest disappointment with my progress, I was met with her infamous put-down of “idiot”. She was right of course. There was no way I would not do my utmost to finish it for her. I knew that she knew this and she knew that I knew that she knew.
I’d like to think that my capers on the bike during the last few months of Tonya’s life brought her some distraction from the awfulness of cancer and everything that entailed. When I was asked if I would fundraise as part of the venture, it was almost too much to think about along with training, working, studying, Christmas, helping Tonya in whatever way I could and all the other things going on in my life. But she was insistent. If I could raise $1000, that would be enough for 5 bikes for Variety’s Bike for Kids programme and she would be able to come with me to present them at a local school. She kicked me off with enough for a whole bike and then worked hard to promote me, telling all her friends about me, advertising my fundraising page on social media at every opportunity and even asking people to contribute in a memo to work colleagues with an update on her progress. Money started rolling in. People I didn’t even know contributed, and many of the messages that came via the donations page were intended for her rather than me. I knew that she’d be so excited while I was in Sri Lanka, eager for updates, regaling her fan club with tales of my inevitable mishaps. She started to order things to make pamper packs, just as she had for Vietnam and I secretly started to dread what little surprises she might have up her sleeve. I would go around to visit and she’d shoo me away after a few hours with a perfunctory “you’d best go out on the bike”. She bought me a cycling top for Christmas, replaced my favourite sunglasses when they got broken on a ride and put me in touch with a friend of hers who could help me understand the gears. I’m incredibly grateful for the latter as I read and re-read the advice and eventually the penny dropped and things clicked in to place.
When Tonya died much sooner than she or any of us had anticipated, it goes without saying that I was devastated. I was gutted that such a vibrant and fruitful life had been cut short at such a young age. I was sad that she had so much more to achieve in her career and that she never got to do the research that she was planning. I was sad for her family, especially her sister Leila who lives so far away and had to travel here in a hurry and then home again with Tonya’s ashes. The days and weeks afterwards were a confusing riot of things to be organised and tasks to be done. In some ways I am grateful as it kept my mind from the inevitable adjustment to loss.
But not only had I lost my friend, I had this cycling trek still to do. It become bigger than Ben Hur. I wanted to do it and I needed to do it – for me and for Tonya. But I felt prostrate. I just didn’t know where the physical and mental energy would appear from nor how I could do it without her willing me on. But our lives are not one dimensional and people are incredible. I have many other friends and a wonderful family to nurture me. I asked for help and it miraculously appeared by the bucket load. My family and other friends rallied round. Tonya’s family and friends did the same. I felt engulfed by a massive fluffy comfort blanket of support. And I felt stronger. I would go to Sri Lanka with a renewed mental toughness and determination that I could and would finish the trek.
In the end, it was both harder and easier than I imagined. There were times when the hills were killers. I cried on the second day when I didn’t think I would make it to the end but I kept on keeping on for Tonya. Then when it all got too much and I felt almost physically exhausted by the heat, humidity and exertion, I suddenly heard her little voice allowing me to say yes to the offer of that tuk-tuk for the final 3 kms. “You’ve done enough for today and you’ll get to the pool and the drinks more quickly.” For the most part I was willed on by knowing how thrilled she would have been to see me progressing and finishing day after day with more cycling skills than I’d owned at the outset. I knew she’d have been both amused and bemused and so was I.
So, excuse me for feeling emotional and bringing you on this self-indulgent trip down memory lane with me. Seeing the 69 children’s faces last week when they received their bikes was just heart warming. I work with children, as did Tonya and to do something so positive that promotes children’s health and wellbeing outside of work has been so rewarding. Both of us have witnessed the effects of social disadvantage, poverty and inequality in our work and anything we can do to lessen the impact of those to children in our area is well worth the effort.
I was going to take some of Tonya’s friends with me to the presentations. In the end, it wasn’t possible but it felt right that I was there completely surrounded by the children, their parents and teachers, the staff from Variety and the MCs at the events but feeling Tonya’s presence very much at centre stage. The interviewer from Maori TV asked me if she would have been proud. Yes, she would have been. She most definitely would have been. And so am I. When I think of all the things I have done in my life, especially in my career, I am more proud of the cycling than anything else. It still seems incredible to me that I was able to do it at a time in my life when I could just have caved in to sadness. To have been able to rise above that and put Tonya’s death in a more positive light makes me enormously proud.
I want to say two things. Firstly, thank you. To everyone who supported me by telling me I could do it when I really needed to hear it, thank you. To those who sponsored me, thank you. To those who provided practical support, thank you. To Anne for making sure that my bottom has in fact been saved the indignity of “never being the same again”, thank you. To Jean for outdoing Tonya on the pamper packs, thank you. To Jon for taking me to the airport when I was literally pooping myself inside, thank you. To Variety for giving me this opportunity, thank you. To Maori TV for showcasing me last week, thank you. To Sutton Park School, St Pius X School and Park Estate School for having me and hosting the presentations, thank you. To Simon Dallow and Antonia Prebble for MCing the events, thank you. To the children who received bikes, for being so adorable, ectastic and enthusiastic in your gratitude, thank you. To the Sri Lanka Seven, I never could have done it without you all. We have become friends for life. Every day in Sri Lanka was a total blast and I finished each day with more cycling skills and confidence than I could ever have imagined, all thanks to your advice, love and patience. Thank you all. And, of course, to Tonya, for making me do something I didn’t want to do, thank you. I signed up to it to help you but we could never have known then that it would help me so much too. I can’t get on my bike without thinking of you and your memory lives on in every two-wheeled journey I take. That is a fabulous thing. I mourn your passing and shed tears but I also smile and celebrate what you gave me. It is about more than the cycling of course. It is about remembering old friends, welcoming the new and it is about renewed energy in tackling the rest of life’s stuff without you.
Lastly, this is not the end of my cycling venture. It is winter but I have carried on cycling. The Sri Lanka Seven rose again a few weeks ago with a fabulous day cycling around Auckland, out to Villa Maria for lunch and back again. This was topped out with a riotous party with Sri Lankan food, wine aplenty and presents. I now have my shiny e-bike sat charging in the garage and not far away is my recently acquired road bike which my mate Chris helped me buy. It is sat on a wind trainer so I can do some virtual cycling on Zwift when it is too wet or late to go out. When I finished the Sri Lanka trek, I felt a bit empty, as I did last week after presenting the bikes. My 50 Before 50 challenge was conceived to give me renewed focus. I have been entertaining myself consuming cheese and wine, visiting Monopoly streets, eyeing up my trees wondering how I will ever attach the knitted jackets my friends have been helping me create and, on a less self-indulgent note I have been enjoying handing out random acts of kindness. But, last week I realised I haven’t done my dash with cycling nor with fundraising. I think the Variety Bikes for Kids programme is a fantastic venture as it gives children who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity, the luxury of a bike to become more physically active and independent. Cycling wasn’t really recognised on my list of challenges and so I have swapped a few things round.
I plan to cycle the equivalent of 50 rides of 50 kms each, a total of 2500 kms. In doing this, I really hope to raise $10,000 to fund another 50 bikes. This has the added bonus of helping me achieve one of my other goals of getting to 50-something kgs which in turn enables me to walk down the street wearing only body paint.
All ideas for fundraising are welcome. Offers to cycle with me will be gratefully accepted. I hope that those of you who have been with me on this venture so far will stay close by my side. I know that Tonya will be there too.
With love and thanks to you all again.