I first became interested in road cycling about four years ago. I always had an affinity for the bike and the freedom that comes with it, but I never felt inclined to ride a bike for anything other than a mode of transport from one place to the next--as I made my way to the mall, the movies, classes on my college campus, friends' houses.
When I first bought my road bike, I hadn't accounted for riding on anything more than a series of flat surfaces or small inclines, and I never imagined riding much beyond Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Admittedly, I was pretty freaked out by the small hill in my mostly "flat" neighborhood, and I wasn't convinced my brakes would save me from an impending fall. Given all the fears that arose for me, I never imagined that just nine months after buying my first road bike, I'd be signing up for AIDS/LifeCycle--and preparing to ride 545 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Enter Mary Vencill.
For those who have been part of "the ride" for a long time, Mary is legendary--compassionate, strong, steady, a champion for those who are living with HIV/AIDS, and an endless supporter of those who want to be part of the community of cyclists and "roadies" involved in this incredible cause. Mary is a Training Ride Leader (TRL) for the East Bay Wildcats, a group of dedicated riders who meet every Saturday to train for the ride in June. Anyone who knows the Wildcats knows how respected they are: they conquer steep climbs and long descents; they ride ridiculous mileage so that the ride feels easy in comparison; they engage in an ethic of love and compassion that makes every rider--whether first-timers or long-time veterans--feel a part of their crew. And they laugh like crazy each Saturday morning during warm-up, culminating in a circle of song and dance right before listening intently to the obligatory and necessary safety speech recited each week by one of the TRLs.
Mary resides between the laughter of the group and the seriousness of the cause, and she brings each of us back to earth when she reviews our route sheet for the week. She talks nonchalantly about 12% grades in a miles-long climb up McEwen Road, and she is firmly encouraging of anyone who doubts they can reach the top of Mt. Diablo. She reminds us of how good it will feel to complete our first century ride, and she meticulously reviews the nooks and crannies of each steep descent--ensuring we take the downhills slowly and methodically. "It's a ride, not a race," she chides. And with gravity of her words, we know we are in the good hands of a nurturer, guide, mentor.
Most memorable, though, is the weekly mantra Mary repeats before we begin our ride: "Take care of each other."
With Mary at the helm, we are a tightly knit family who all look out for one another. The ride certainly is about personal accomplishment, but more so, it is about the power of a community--those who come together for a common cause, who help one another fix flat tires, clap and cheer as each person makes it to the top of a mountainous ascent, call out road hazards, wait for each other at the end of a long day, offer up bikes for those who don't have one, share jokes and silliness and tears and hugs.
And Mary always returns the favor in kind: roasting her legendary potatoes for our rest stops, being present at key moments on a route, waiting at the end of each training ride until the final cyclist signs in (sometimes waiting until the early hours of the evening), hosting an end-of-season celebration at her house: to be generous to us so that we may give to others.
Sadly, life can be cruel. Nature and biology don't discriminate, and whether one believes in a higher power or the presence of the observable world, life can feel like a punch in the gut at times. This spring, Mary was diagnosed with Leptomeningeal Disease, a rare form of cancer that ravages the cerebrospinal fluid pathways. Any way you slice it, it's a nasty beast. And now Mary is on the losing end of fighting it.
On my bike these days, I find myself riding exclusively for Mary, hearing her words, "Take care of each other," in my head as I climb and descend hills; as I feel worn down by those final miles; as I think about my able body and all I can be grateful for. I fight for Mary on those rides, and I take care of others just as she has taken care of me and so many who have had the honor of knowing her. She is the person I want to be in this life--a fierce and dedicated advocate for love, compassion, and a kinder world for all.
I think of Mary a lot in my work as well. So much of my job is care-taking, tending to the needs of teachers so they can best support their students. And whether my care-taking comes in the form of a hard conversation or a classroom observation or a note of encouragement, I often have Mary's words in my mind: "Take care of each other."
The speediness of time will force us to stop at points to take stock of what we have accomplished. I want to live like Mary does so that I can look back and see how many lives I may have the privilege to touch and how basic human goodness can elevate a community. I want her to know that the doubts I face are lessened and softened because I know if she were here, she'd remind me I'm doing a good job and that if I take it slowly, if I'm careful and caring, I will be able to accomplish what's in front of me.
When I look back four years ago to that timid cyclist I was, and when I think to how much I've changed in my confidence on and off the bike, Mary Vencill comes to mind. I can't imagine the world without her in it, but I also see her influence in the people I know and the way I choose to be.
I'll miss you, Mary. And at the same time, I take comfort in knowing there is a larger community of us who will spread your love exponentially to a world sorely in need of more people like you.