I first noticed him in the Spring. During one Saturday bike ride in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, I passed an elderly Asian man whose knees were bound in an orthopedic brace, presumably from a surgery on both of his legs. He used a walker and spent all his energy with every step, grimacing at each foot’s landing on the hot asphalt of the lap park.
He never stopped. He was passed by the usual weekend morning park crowd of fitness buffs and athletes in training. Young couples pushed jogging strollers containing strapped-in screaming toddlers clutching sippy cups. Impatient cyclists like me zipped by wishing he’d move to the pedestrian side of the road. But there he was, week after week, hobbling painfully, determined to complete the loop. First he used a walker, and then just a cane. At the end of the season he still carried a cane but refused to use it. He limped slightly but as always, carried on.
That nameless man became my hero the last time I saw him when I noticed that his legs were no longer wrapped. In place of the bandages were several tan lines in many shades, the only remnants of the different bandages he’s worn during a recovery that spanned several months. It would have been perfectly acceptable for a man of his age to spend the rest of his days in a battery-powered wheelchair, and I’m sure he was reminded daily of this fact by friends and family. Each painful step on those legs must have echoed the doubt he’s had to ignore, and it took pure stubbornness for him to defy all of the voices (including his own) that said he didn’t have to walk again. It would be understandable if he was just relegated to a walker, taking a few steps from his bed to his bathroom everyday, or pushed around on a chair by a dutiful wife or daughter. But in his face was an expression that he would have none of that. He would walk on his own even if it became the death of him. Why? Because he still could.
The ride at Prospect Park is my favorite. It’s where I rekindled my adolescent affection for bike rides and the calm repetitive pedaling through the same course over and over again. The hill approaching Grand Army Plaza is my prize, because in order to get to the top, one has to put herself in a zone that doesn’t care about all the other people sharing that road. Normally bikers get off their bikes and start pushing them uphill. Serious cyclists gear up and maintain a fast cadence as they out-pedal everyone else. Runners decrease their pace and increase the frequency of their labored breaths. It isn’t unusual to hear a groan, or a sigh of defeat and exasperation.
On that hill I begin my ascent summoning thoughts of my loved ones who would give anything for an extra five minutes to feel, breathe, do, and love. I think of everyone who has achieved more and overcome bigger obstacles than the few feet of challenge I can overcome by simply continuing to churn and not give up. My heroes are not decorated athletes or the famous faces that always break the tape. On the contrary, my inspiration is the last finisher of a race. They are my fallen friends who would love another chance at the fight without ever complaining (the way it’s almost an instinct for me to do).
My hero is that old man who limps and aches up the hill, the tan lines from his wraps slowly fading, making him almost indistinguishable from every person who has failed, gotten hurt, and gotten up despite every valid reason not to, just like every one of us who has tried to move on.