Read the first two chapters below for free before buying your copy of a Pathway to Peace, a heartfelt, captivatingly detailed memoir – and an unforgettable journey of self- and spiritual discovery – from the perspective of a cancer co-survivor.
I pulled into the parking lot of Green Guys Landscaping on an unseasonably warm, muggy spring day, then sat in the car for a moment and waited. The air conditioner in my old Mustang did not work. Sweat slowly dripped from my pores as I pulled nine hundred dollars in cash from my pocket. They were all twenty-dollar bills, all forty-five of them. I counted twice to make sure.
I unbuckled my seat belt and paused before getting out of the car.
Emotion overcame me as I recalled the last six years of my life. Listening to Christian rock on the radio, I thought about how much pain and difficulty we had endured yet how blessed we had been. Things were different now. Heck, I was listening to Christian music, which I had loathed until several years earlier when my wife became hooked on it. Somehow, Bridget had convinced me that it was cool—at least, I occasionally listened to it because I liked the message and spirit and lyrics, a constant reminder of God’s grace in our lives. There seemed to be more positive energy in my life now, and I was more open to and aware of His presence, which was everywhere.
Tears welled in my eyes as I listened to a song by Tenth Avenue North:
This is where the healing begins, oh
This is where the healing starts
When you come to where you’re broken within
The light meets the dark
The light meets the dark…
When the song ended, I took a deep breath, wiped my eyes, and opened the door. The entrance was nearby, but it seemed the distance of a football field.
Nobody was around when I entered. The office was cool and spacious and had a backyard waterfall display in the lobby, a steady stream of water gently trickling down the rocky incline and spilling several feet below into a small pool. The serene sound of the water did little to ease my nerves.
After a couple of minutes, a woman entered. “Can I help you?”
“I’m dropping off some money for Dan.”
“I’m sorry, he’s not here.”
I pulled out the wad of cash. “Can you give this to him?”
“What is this for?” She spoke cautiously.
“I’m paying for lawn service for a couple of families.”
There was silence. Whoever paid for lawn service upfront, in cash no less? I wondered. Maybe she thought I had lost a bet. In any case, I felt the need to tell her what the money was for, though I did not want to make a big deal of it.
“The two families are dealing with cancer,” I said. “My wife and I just started a charity, and we’re trying to help them out.”
Her demeanor changed instantly. “Really?” she replied, smiling now with wide radiant eyes. After pausing, she continued, “Yes…let me get you a receipt.”
The woman carefully counted all of the money, occasionally shaking her head in disbelief, then gave me a receipt.
“I’ll make sure Dan gets this,” she said, holding the money and still smiling.
I seemed to float across the parking lot back to my car. At long last, all of the pain and heartache seemed to have been worth it. Everything had finally come full circle. We were paying it forward now. The first families would benefit from our new charity, Bridget’s Brigade, and feel some relief amid the stress, agony, and difficulty of cancer.
After Bridget’s diagnosis, a few of my classmates from high school had arranged for a lawn service to help ease our burden. When they went to pay the company, the owner, who was a family friend, insisted on providing his service free of charge. Bridget and I always remembered Dan’s kindness. He was just one of many family and friends who did more for us than we could have expected or imagined, and when we were able to help others through Bridget’s Brigade, we called Dan. He was thrilled to help but would only allow us to pay him enough to cover his costs. Our discount, he said, could be used to help more families.
The healing had begun long ago, but this was the real healing, and it felt good. Like the song said, the light had, indeed, met the dark, and it shone brilliantly.
Driving home, I reflected on the book I was finishing. During and after Bridget’s cancer treatment, I had written in a journal, and over time it developed into something more than a project intended simply to archive our past. Chapters and real-life characters developed, and my goal expanded to writing a book. It was difficult to find the time to write, however, and often it was all too easy to forget about our past. The intensity and emotion of our experience was too much. I would not write for ten months or more at a time. It was easier that way. After Bridget celebrated her five-year anniversary as a survivor, she asked when I planned to complete my book.
“I don’t know,” I said. “There’s never any time to work on it.”
“But you promised me you would finish it,” she responded. “Do it for me. Do it for others who may benefit from it.”
Now there were no more excuses, and no more motivation needed. Bridget had beaten cancer and only asked for one thing.
I always knew that I would be unable to fully capture our experience—punctuated by pain and suffering, and above all, the love and spirit of God and others—through mere words, but I would try. I would attempt to tell what happened from my own perspective, that of a young father fearful of an uncertain future yet moved to be fearless, to be a better person, to be more grateful, and most importantly, to believe. I would give it my best shot.
So here it goes. This is my story, if for nothing else, for Bridget.
My heart pounded and my legs burned as I climbed the hill near the front of the pack. Sweat stung my eyes as I gasped for breath in the thick July air. I could smell the sweat in the main pack and feel the pain setting in the cyclists. Riders began to grimace, jostling for position and shouting at one another. “Watch it,” one yelled, and another, “Keep your line!” Only three laps remained.
Bridget and Jack cheered from the crowd, and I waved back nonchalantly, hoping to intimidate the other riders. “What a day for a ride,” I said out loud. Nobody responded. They were intensely focused. I was never big on mind games, but I was having fun.
We caught a momentary break on a slight descent. Dozens of bikes hummed in awesome unison, blazing violently downward and turning gently before beginning the ascent that would gradually plateau and bring us in agonizing formation, again, to the start/finish line.
The circuit was a one-mile loop through Carondelet Park, a historic landmark in the City of St. Louis dotted with picturesque lakes, hulking oaks, and rolling hills. Every Tuesday night during the summer, the course was blocked from traffic, allowing swarms of cyclists to let loose in a series of races sponsored by a local bike shop. I had raced the circuit several times, placing as high as second, third, and fourth, though victory still eluded me. In past races, I had never felt better or more in control than I now did. My cousin, an accomplished cyclist, had told me that when I was in top form I would feel as if I was riding on a motorcycle, and my body would respond like an engine. Jonny’s prediction was now playing out. My legs, lungs, and heart tolerated and even thrived on the sudden accelerations, the attacks up the hill, and the constant intensity of the race. At times, it was as if I were playing a video game, focused on maintaining a top-ten position with minimal effort.
With two laps left, a teammate approached from behind. Chris was an older rider, short with muscular legs.
“Go ahead, Ben,” he said.
It was his way of saying, “Let’s work together to improve our odds of winning.” But I took it as, “This is your chance, Ben. Make your break now.”
Strategically, I had committed myself to conserving my energy until the last lap. This had been the linchpin to Jonny’s success as a cyclist. I knew I would win if I had the discipline to sprint at the end, but no sooner. However, my confidence, adrenaline, and instinct, coupled with a voracious will to win, took over.
I glanced back at Chris, then at the rest of the pack. Nobody was making a break, and I grew restless. We were nearing the descent. It seemed like an ideal spot to make a break. I was fearless on descents and usually took more risks than others.
“Thanks,” I said to Chris quietly, so as not to catch the attention of the other racers. I casually put my hands in the drops and switched into a higher gear, hoping the others would not notice me preparing for an attack. Then I took one last deep breath.
Without warning, I jumped out of my seat and exploded, stomping on my pedals, quickly passing the few cyclists ahead of me. The wind belted my body as I emerged from the draft of the pack, and in seconds I gained considerable speed and ground, screaming down the hill and leaning around the bend, my pedal nearly scraping the pavement at forty miles per hour. My momentum helped to carry me up the ascent. As I reached level ground near the start/finish line, the bell clanged for the final lap. The crowd was cheering.
“Go, Ben!” Bridget shouted. “You’ve got it!”
“Go Daddy, go!” yelled Jack.
I looked back for the first time and noticed I had made a successful breakaway. The pack was about fifty meters behind, though it seemed to be at my heels and losing patience. The bikes of more than sixty cyclists were grinding and gnashing loudly as the racers changed their gears.
On the final descent, I gave my legs a short rest, but I felt myself slipping. My heart had redlined, and I was gasping uncontrollably for breath. Lactic acid had accumulated in my legs like quick-drying cement, reducing them to heavy, burning mush stiffening by the second. With just a couple hundred meters left, I had hit the wall. No matter how hard I pedaled and tried to push through the pain, I could not. The pack was reeling me in at a relentless pace.
Within seconds, sixty hungry competitors had caught and pounced on their prey. The first few riders whizzed past and then, without warning, I was thrown from my bike. I had only fallen off my bike once since I began racing, when I took a downhill turn too fast and hit a pebble and slid on my side for twenty yards. Never had I been separated from my bike in a race. Everything seemed to occur in slow motion as I somersaulted forward, landing on my head and shoulder. Dazed and lying on the concrete, I quickly regained my senses and attempted to dodge passing riders. Another cyclist had fallen in front of me. He had clipped my handlebars and sent me sailing. After the pack passed, he helped me up.
“Sorry, man, I must’ve accidentally—”
I interrupted him. “It’s part of racing.”
He must have expected me to come up swinging, but I was more upset with myself. I had strayed from my strategy of conserving my energy until the final lap. I had been too headstrong and lacked discipline. It was my race to lose, and I had lost. I wanted to hit myself, but I could not move my right shoulder. Gently pressing my hand against my collarbone, I felt a lump.
With the aid of the cyclist, who was clad in a blindingly yellow jersey, I picked up my bike and limped off the pavement. He continued to apologize as a crowd quickly developed and surrounded us. Dizzy, I lay on the grass. My helmet was cracked, my arms and legs were bloodied, my uniform torn, and my right collarbone protruded like a golf ball underneath my jersey. Thankfully, the bone had not penetrated the skin.
A spectator created a makeshift sling for my shoulder by tying two rags together. Another asked if I needed an ambulance.
“I’m fine,” I said. When I stood, I became somewhat faint. “Out of the way, I have to finish,” I burst out, lunging for my bike.
“No!” everybody blurted in unison.
I paused, then smiled and chuckled. “Just kidding.”
It was my way of trying to be Ernest Hemingway’s archetypal hero exuding grace under pressure, but it came off as a failed attempt at comedy. I would never be a comedian—nor a professional cyclist.