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What a Friend Had Said

By Elizabeth Ward
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

-Robert Frost

Maybe these aren’t the most helpful verses to have running through my head as I force myself to keep pedaling up the hill.

One.foot.in.front.of.the. other. I’m from Illinois, where the land is flat and monotonous. The monotony has changed over my twenty-seven years, from that of endless green and gold cornfields to that of two-tone subdivisions and strip malls bursting with the same fluorescent-lit chain stores and restaurants that litter every suburb in America. Still the land itself will never be anything but flat. I long for the familiar bend in the narrow, dusty road in Shorewood, Illinois. Rounding it at night, driving fast and free, I used to bask in the sudden explosion of stars above the lonely grain elevator that towers over the still fields. Nights when I felt restless and trapped, I used to drive miles of dark farm roads just to soak up that vision. If I could round it now, perhaps I’d be lifted with a burst of energy. Maybe my ride would be easier because the ground would be level, or possibly that sense of home, the spirits of my faraway Illinois friends, or some kind of longing, would propel me forward. I had always felt like I was chasing something when I lived in Illinois, after all. That chase drove me, and now I try to will my memories to push me forward, but my body knows my mind is trying to trick me.

Either way, the land I’m pedaling across now is not Midwestern. I am in North Carolina—hot, hilly, heavy. I didn’t know what I was getting into, signing up for the AIDS Ride out here. Fifty miles in hilly North Carolina has got to equal at least 100 miles in flat Illinois…doesn’t it? I can’t tell if the burning in my legs is more painful than the feeling of asphyxiation in my chest and throat or more disconcerting than the nausea forcing itself up from my stomach and spreading itself throughout my tingling body. But I’ve got promises to keep, and miles to go before I let myself weep. I push one pedal down, the.other.goes.up. I am learning something my body has been trying to teach me for years: patience when climbing hills. My whole life, when hiking or biking or waging any kind of uphill battle, my instinct is to rush in, to push through, to get it over with as quickly as possible. In my mind, a short, intense burst of pain is better than a long, slow, maddening, swelling ache. But last week on my first practice ride, I had expected a relatively flat trail and was met with one hill after another—lengthy, relentless inclines. I stood up on my pedals and pushed through like a train, blocking out my surroundings, the sun, other people on the trail, the pain. Push.push.push.push. I’ve got promises to keep. I rode up and up like death was chasing me until I reached the top of one particularly steep hill. Suddenly the trees were spinning and the sun was setting at 300 miles per hour and the gravelly pavement looked awfully appealing.

I managed to dismount my bike and stumble into the soft bed of brown pine needles just inside the thicket of trees that lined the path, dragging my poor, scraped up blue and silver Trek behind me, before collapsing. The pine needles gave off a fragrance of green in wintertime, a scent only pine can create. I wanted to rest on that bed of pine forever. How was it this hot in the middle of February? I wondered. Before I could even ponder that question I was hit with the urge to throw up, so I hurled myself over a big, dry, fallen log and grabbed my hair, pulling it back from my flushed face. Gray, tasteless saliva flooded into my mouth. I.still.couldn’t.catch.my.breath. Nothing came up. I leaned against the log and waited and waited, and eventually my breath came back and I felt good enough to get back on my bike. I had thought I’d do the whole path that day—I thought it would be a cinch. Instead, I had to turn around, and, disappointed, I sailed downhill, all the way back to the parking lot, slightly comforted by the realization that I had biked uphill for miles before my body gave out.

Today I am taking a different approach. I am in my lowest gear, pushing up the hills slowly and steadily, one foot in front of the other. It drives me crazy to ride at this snail’s pace, but I do it anyway. I’m learning not to look ahead to the top of the hill, but instead to keep my eyes on the road right in front of me, right below me. Be in the here and now, and suddenly the task is possible. Significant change is often so slow and steady and subtle that no one sees or feels it taking place. It’s Wayne going from 110 pounds and too sick to get out of bed to riding 500 miles in the AIDS ride and bursting through the finish line, brawny and sunkissed and strong enough to lift me up and spin me around. It’s a small seed growing into a mammoth sunflower thirteen feet tall and forty pounds heavy. Now Wayne has faded from my life like the sunflowers that attracted cars full of people to my front yard last year. The giant yellow flowers formed a magical, dancing Willy Wonka ballet troupe. Then they began to wilt, and finally they died, and digging their enormous stalks out of the ground was like cutting down trees; the heads alone weighed 15 pounds. Just before I cut the giant flowers down, I was struck by how they’d gone gray and droopy, how my front yard and transformed itself into a graveyard. I’ve got promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. Eventually I will breeze up and down these hills effortlessly.

Summertime in the South is low and heavy and relentless. People confine themselves to air-conditioned houses and shady porches until they are barmy with the desire for movement and activity. Then they venture out, and within hours or minutes are sunstroked or burned or both. The heat and sun are like overbearing parents, pushing us down to the ground, into our shells, telling us No. Not now. You.can’t.do.it. One August day last summer after almost two months of being confined to unnaturally cool, dark places, I looked out into the bright sun and could not stay in the shade any longer. My friends had told me to visit the Plant Guys, two botanists who shared a home and created a universe of flora together in a nearby neighborhood. I was not prepared for what I saw at their house.

Their yard was more beautiful than any conservatory green mondo grass jumped out of the ground, corralled only by pink and white caladium. A stone path led to the enchanted backyard. Flaming red cannas, giant purple and green elephant ears, banana trees, leafy vines, and thousands of types of vegetation pervaded the entire space. It was so lovely and intoxicating that a little part of me fell in love with the Plant Guys after wandering their garden. They were middle-aged, one black, one white, both in straw hats, both with soft southern accents, the likes of which I hadn’t heard since knowing Wayne. Over cool glasses of sweet tea in the shade of their awning, I gushed about their botany art and asked them as many questions as I could and bought some purple elephant ears and was given a free flaming red canna before leaving despite my desire to put on a straw hat and become one of them.

It’s a soft accent, like the barely noticeable Southern summer breeze, like wind chimes clinking as the air pressure changes before a storm. Perhaps if I had been from the South, the similarity would not have struck me as uncanny, but as it was, to my Northern ears, after speaking with the Plant Guys, I was instantly reminded of Wayne. I missed him, and the longing began to pull at me. I had met him at Bonaventure House, a Chicago residence for people living with AIDS, in 1998. I arrived as a shy nineteen-year-old volunteer, self-conscious and unsure of where to begin. One night, I was sitting behind the reception desk, studiously reading the phone instruction manual over and over again in an effort to keep from looking at the clock. The oldest resident in the house, Joe, had AIDS dementia that was quickly intensifying, and earlier in the evening, his son had phoned for him. I had paged Joe, and in his confused state, he thought it was 6:00 am rather than 6:00 pm and came down to the lobby in his worn, dark green bathrobe, his glassy eyes wide and his white hair wild with unrest, and screamed at me for waking him up so early in the morning. I didn’t know what to do. I apologized and tried to guide him to the window to show him that it was actually evening, but he was still yelling as the supervisor and the resident nurse came and took him away.

I felt sad and painfully awkward. Not knowing what to say, I kept my head down and studied the phone manual. I was concentrating so hard on trying not to look as ill at ease as I felt that I did not notice someone had been sitting in the waiting area for several minutes. He coughed, I looked up and caught his mischievous, twinkling eye, and we both cracked up. For a moment, I was embarrassed that he had witnessed my ordeal with Joe, but it felt so good to laugh that kind of shoulder-shaking, belly-aching laugh that quickly spirals out of control. It was a laugh that said, “What the fuck are we doing in this place?” and instantly made everything better. Wayne and I talked the rest of the evening with the familiarity of old friends. It was one of the rare nights that I did not walk to the el stop at the end of my shift with a heavy heart.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.

My legs are sore in a satisfying way, and I hope riding two days in a row will help work out the kinks and build my strength. The sun has vanished behind dense, gray clouds, and the trees are leafless. I used to think winter was ugly, but in the last few years, I’ve learned to appreciate the beauty of the silhouettes of bare branches dancing against the darkening late afternoon winter sky. Whose woods these are I think I know. The tall, slender pines creak like old rocking chairs in the breeze, and, although I am chilled now, I know in a few minutes I’ll be hot from riding. I coast across a bridge and know what hills lie ahead. Slow and steady, I push one pedal down, and the other floats up. Even when I finally meet my goal of fifty miles, it will still be only one tenth of the distance Wayne and so many others rode in the 2000 Chicago AIDS ride. I try to remember how long he trained before his ride, but I can’t.

What I do remember clearly is my fear as I stood in Grant Park in the sweltering July sun, waiting for the riders to cross the finish line. I knew Wayne had trained, and I knew that the virus had diminished to undetectable levels in his body. Nevertheless, I was still afraid that the distance and the heat had been too much, and I was nervous to see him. It would be easy to spot the positive riders in the incoming crowd of 2000 bikers because they had bright orange flags flying from the backs of their bikes. To distract myself, I looked out toward the lake and watched the white sailboats bounce up and down on the sharp, blue water until a cheer erupted across Grant Park—I turned and glimpsed the first riders trickling toward the finish line. After a few minutes, orange flags began to appear, and I scanned the faces.

There was Wayne, tan and glistening and beaming! I was shocked. He looked strong and determined, and as he crossed the finish line, he pumped his fist into the air and let out a roar. He threw his helmet off and shook the sweat from his brown, spiked hair. I ran over, and he hopped off the bike, swooped me off the ground, and twirled me around. I felt honored to be first person to hug him at the finish line and told him so. “Just promise me that you’ll be crossing this finish line one day and we’re good,” he replied with that familiar twinkle in his eye. As I spun, I saw supporters around us looking at Wayne with awe. Not only had he ridden 500 miles in five days and raised over $2,500 for AIDS research, but he had also redefined the face of AIDS for all of us standing there.

Now as my legs begin to feel Jello-like, I am thinking, “Ok, fifty miles this year, one hundred miles the next year, and if I keep doubling every year, I’ll match him eventually, in distance if not in fortitude.”

I have ridden well past the point at which I turned back yesterday and am feeling a little shaky. I crawl.up.one. more.long.incline. At the top, I pull off the trail and spread out on a soft bed of pine. Today I was smart and packed my camelback full of water and a peanut butter-chocolate Cliff bar, and everything tastes so good. The wind stirs up a flurry of dry, brown leaves, tree branches above me clatter, and I am at peace. I will not let myself get frustrated. I will enjoy this path and the February forest, and I will remember why I am doing this: to be good to my body. To feel the rush of passion that comes from standing up for something I believe in. To honor the men and women living with AIDS who befriended and even mentored me throughout my college years. I wonder who, if anyone, is still around. The first HIV positive person I really got to know was Chris, whom I met in New Orleans on my 19th birthday. He was a musician, and I remember him playing Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” for me, altering the lyrics to say, “I was thinking about what a friend had said. I was hoping he was alive.” It was almost exactly nine years ago he played for me, in the late afternoon sun on a crumbing New Orleans back porch, and it still haunts me. When I went back to New Orleans six years later, on my 25th birthday, I tried to visit Chris at his old house but found no trace of him.

It was a warm, breezy, sunny day late last summer. The stifling heat had vanished, even if only for a day, and I was able to plant the new elephant ears I had bought from the Plant Guys. The rubber-silk, fine, flat leaves were a foggy purple. As I patted the dirt around them, I kept thinking of Wayne. He was from rural Illinois and still had a soft country accent just like the Plant Guys, despite years of living in San Francisco and then Chicago. I smiled to myself, remembering the night Wayne showed me pictures from his days as a young San Francisco leather model in the early eighties—he was hot! I was twenty-one and he was forty-four at the time, and I couldn’t believe he was showing me such racy pictures of himself. That night he told me that almost every single one of his friends from that era of his life had contracted AIDS and died soon after; he had outlived them all by almost twenty years. He had neared death several times, the last of which was when he moved into Bonaventure House, only months before I began volunteering there. At that time had been severely underweight and weak and could no longer tell if his illness was a result of his AIDS or his AIDS medication.

Then in the mid-nineties came the advent of the AIDS cocktail, and everything changed. People certain of their impending death came back to life Wayne included. He explained to me that every cocktail worked for only so long before the virus built up a resistance to it. Because he had been positive since the advent of AIDS, he had taken almost every medication in existence. As long as the pharmaceutical industry kept developing new AIDS drugs quickly enough to accommodate his need for variety, he’d go on living. But if the virus ever caught up with or surpassed the speed of science, his life would be over.

Despite the fact that summer's end was nearing, a few dry, brown leaves still crunched under my feet: remnants from last autumn that my rake had failed to gather. It was hard to believe the leaves would soon fall again. The world seems to spin faster as we get older. Life is so short; why do we let people we love drift away? I leaned my spade against the porch and went inside to embark on my search for Wayne. I hadn’t spoken with him in almost six years, but if I remember him so fondly, he’s got to remember me just as well, I reasoned. I Googled his first and last name and did not find Wayne but instead found twenty-three links to a conservative-sounding pastor in Central Illinois. Could that be his father? I remember Wayne telling me that, several years ago, being ill and alone, he had finally left San Francisco and returned to Central Illinois, where his family remained. One Sunday morning, soon after his homecoming, he was feeling well enough to accompany his family to church. When it came time to pray, Wayne’s family offered up a prayer for Wayne’s health. The minister stopped the service cold. “The sins you committed that led you to this condition render you unworthy of our prayers. At this time, I would ask you to please leave our church. You do not belong here.”

Wayne stood up to leave and waited for his family members to gather their coats and belongings. They made no move to leave. They avoided his eyes, making it clear that they planned on staying put. Stunned, Wayne walked out of the church alone, left his hometown alone, and never went back.

These are outsiders, always.

A week or so after my first attempt, I decided to resume my search for Wayne. I had remembered over the last week that just as I was getting ready to graduate from college and he was getting ready to move out of Bonaventure House, he had started dating someone seriously. They were going to rent an apartment together. Wayne was clearly head over heels. He had even decided that he would no longer go by “Wayne.” He told me his middle name was Rory, and his new boyfriend loved that name, so he announced that, from then on, he would like to be called Rory. So this time I Googled “Rory Wayne Geiling.” Zero results returned. “Rory Geiling.” Nope. One more time: “Roy Geiling.” It was a typo, a mistake on my part. But it returned one result, and my breath caught in my throat: it was an obituary for “Roy Wayne Geiling, age 50. Born in Central Illinois, died in a hospital in Texas.” Not much more information provided. It was him—I knew it.

We are too late. We are always too late.

It has taken me the better part of the afternoon, and my legs are awfully wobbly, but I have finished the long, hilly trail. I coast into the newly paved parking lot, fasten my bike to the bike rack, and re-tie my shoes before setting off on my post-ride hike. I breathe in the fragrance of the winter woods and listen as the rustling leaves whisper pieces of poems I’ve memorized. They gently interweave with my thoughts as I watch the bare trees sway in the late-afternoon winter wind. It feels good to hike down the peaceful pine paths toward the river. I’m briefly encouraged by the sense that my legs are quickly regaining their strength before I consider that this trail that took me an afternoon to complete is only one-third the length of the AIDS Ride route. In this moment, I recognize that I’m going to have to withdraw my name from the registration—there’s no way I’ll be able to adequately prepare in the little time I have left before the Ride. But as I’m dangling my legs over the still river a few minutes later, I consider that my ride is only a fraction of Wayne’s ride, and I remember that I am not fighting a losing battle with a life-taking virus like he was. And I recall my promise to Wayne that I would do this, and I know there is no choice but to follow through.

The middle of May in Illinois is the first buds of spring; it is people wearing shorts in fifty-five degree weather; it is the first promise of freedom from the oppressive six-month winter. The middle of May in North Carolina is sun that soaks into one’s skin; it is perfect beach weather; it is vague dread of the oppressive summer to come. It is eighty-five degrees with the sun beating down as I saunter down the bright white sidewalk toward the Plant Guys’ house. They have painted their house a creamy yellow, and flowering, deep green vines frame their roomy porch. They are in straw hats, selling plants and serving sweet tea from their driveway, as usual. I nervously wonder if I should attempt to speak with them in person or if it would be better to just drop off my letter and let them get on with the day’s business. I successfully completed the AIDS Ride last weekend and made a great group of new friends along the way. Despite my worry about being unprepared, everything went well—the weather was beautiful, the other riders were fun, the route was relatively flat, I was overwhelmed by all well-wishers cheering us on, and by the end of the route, my body felt exhausted but great. Most importantly, I finally paid my respects to Wayne.

When I had come across his obituary last summer, I was distraught, not just by his death or by the fact that I had lost my chance to reconnect with him, but also by the realization that he probably had no idea how I felt about him. He had been my older, wiser friend during years of tremendous change and growth for both of us. Wayne and the other residents of the House had reached a level of existence that was so human and free of pretenses, and that is what kept me there for three years. Most people are not forced to live with the degree of honesty that those fighting a terminal illness have to. We let significant things go unsaid and leave important things undone and feel nagging regret only in the quiet moments when we have run out of ways to distract ourselves. It is only in the quiet moments that we attempt to trace our actions, our thoughts, our relationships and our lives as we know them. It is in the quiet moments that we think about writing letters, and occasionally actually write the letters. It might not matter or make sense to the Plant Guys that they inspired me to search for Wayne and so inspired me to do the AIDS Ride, but I wrote them a letter to tell them anyway. It’s my small way of fighting the stinging regret that stems from neglect, the heartache that arises from knowing we are always too late.

These are outsiders, always. These stars—
these iron inklings of an Irish January,
whose light happened
thousands of years before
our pain did; they are, they have always been
outside history.
They keep their distance. Under them remains
a place where you found
you were human, and
a landscape in which you know you are mortal.
And a time to choose between them.
I have chosen:
out of myth in history I move to be
part of that ordeal
who darkness is
only now reaching me from those fields,
those rivers, those roads clotted as
firmaments with the dead.
How slowly they die
as we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear.
And we are too late. We are always too late.

-Eavan Boland
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