I think I know why we love books about bicycle racing. In fact I think I know why we love heros in fiction and in so called documentaries. They are simple. We often look at our heros and talk in reviews about their complex character development, or in the context of plot, about the author's deep delving in to the motivations of the main character, but underneath it all we satisfy ourselves with a look at the shallowest of all possible views of life, the actions of another.
Ok we look into the strategies of the competition in cycling books such as The Tour, (also by Dave Shields) and we sense the inner conflicts about doping and the broader motivations of the need to win, but in reality we are still looking at a narrow slice of the reality of living as a competitor. In many ways the life of the competitive cyclist is simpler than most. Virtually all of their needs are met before they realize them. Food, lodging, and medical care are in place before they are called for. If, god forbid, an athlete does manage to stray into gray areas of behavior the team soigneur does his best to bail them out, and allow them to concentrate upon a very narrow focus, training to win - and winning - so that they can continue to train.
We read about bicycle athletes' exploits on the track, their team strategies, their romances, and the romance of what they do. But, what about their mortgage payments, their families at home, their skeletons in the closet? We enjoy reading about them because they are, in terms of real reality, distilled down to being bigger than life. They are simple and simply exciting. We wish we were them.
What if it all went terribly wrong? What if we were suddenly thrust into a world where even the simplest of needs, drawing a simple breath, feeding oneself, or even going to the bathroom were suddenly the most crucial contests in which we were involved? What if we saw fear on everyone's face and what if the unspoken dread of the worst outcome possible lay barely hidden in their saddened, anguished eyes? What if we were faced with, and had to read about, the very real possibility of spending our remaining days in a vegetative state?
On April 4th, 2006, Saul Raisin hit some pebbles, "a couple of rocks the size of gum-balls or smaller... probably to blame for six months of pure hell," and his world came unhinged. Tour de Life is not an easy book to read. It is not about bicycling strategies, or drafting, or even about competition in the sense that we have come to enjoy. It is about competing with death, paralysis, despair, pain and suffering. It is not about comparing scars from road rash and enjoying the dangers of the sport. It is about how horribly wrong things can go when just the right amount of things do go wrong. It is about the pain, which we cyclists relish, not being felt at all, it becomes instead the umbrella under which a new way of life is held in scrutiny. It is also about the incredible courage of a family, the support of a world of friends, and the indomitably competitive spirit of a young man who simply refuses to accept anything less than victory, no matter how insurmountable the challenge. It is about Saul Rasin's return to life and his refusal to give up the things he loves the most, his family, blue skies and competitive bicycle racing.
Brain damaged to the point of impending death in a race crash, Saul, his family, fans, and loved ones embark on a journey that is still far from finished. And had I been the editor of the book I would have blue penciled out the "The End" and finished the text of this book with ellipses, the story is that unfinished.
The Tour de Life begins as Yvonne Raisin expresses her concern to Saul's dad about a text message that has not arrived, the customary "I'm OK" sent by Saul after every race. It is a particular one that will never come. From the accident on the reader joins in the struggles to keep Saul alive and return him to some level of sustainability. As Saul's doctors deliver prognosis after prognosis limiting his degree of recovery, he manages to dispel every negative prognosis beginning with his simple survival. Virtually every doctor who looks at the films of Saul's brain, at the worst point of his injuries, calls the brain damage un-survivable and here he begins the process of proving them wrong. This is no fairy tale or feel good story about miraculous recoveries in a sanitized hollywood script, it is rather a book penned to deliver a story of hope and comfort to the families of brain injured loved ones as well as to the brain injured themselves. It is none the less tough, unpleasant, gritty, messy, and it is totally, completely, real,
At times during the read, it is possible to develop a sense of repetitive situations and language. The reader may become aware that for the umpteenth time much uttered phrases such as, "it does not look promising." or "thank you God," or "pray for him" reverberate time and again throughout the narrative. This is however the expression of the reality of a situation in which progress is measured in the tiniest of increments, a finger twitch, or a half perceived smile, was it real or imagined? "Oh thank God!" Is that tear a sign of cognition, pain, or a bit of dust in the eye? "Pray for him." Then we realize that these phrases are the realities of a family's expression of hope against hope for the return of a loved one. The return, perhaps, with some semblance of the personality they once had, "With the help of God."
The book is drawn from the recollections and records of events that were experienced by people who had no desire, or intent, to recall, or ever relive the experiences. So the narrative is a patchwork of incidents. But, in his retelling Dave Shields tries to recapture the confusion spurred along by the barriers of language and culture that made understanding unusual and frustration commonplace. He also captures the miracle and dedication, hard work, and care that went into Saul's physical recovery.
The text of this book is penned to reflect, and in a small manner to deliver, a sense of the nature of the recovery process associated with brain injuries. Tiny steps forward are often set with regressions. Things accomplished yesterday are forgotten and require relearning. Things previously understood are confused and misinterpreted today, only to be taken for granted tomorrow. Confusion is as commonplace, as lucidity can be rare. Dave Shields successfully delivers this sense through his crafting of part two, entitled "Believe It Or Not It Is Me, Saul."
In Part Two we join Saul in his journey back through his physical, and mental rehabilitation. Related by Saul to Dave Shields, the story also strives to reflect Saul's often expressed confusion and fatigue, yet it also underlines his effort to recover with his competitive drive and accept nothing less than full recovery. Not merely recovery to the level of a "normal" human, but rather recovery to the level of an elite world competitive cyclist.
Although as I mentioned earlier, this is a story which is still unfolding, the earlier portions Saul's rehabilitation are well documented. We join Saul, his parents, friends and his care givers as they work their way through a process they thought they had already completed, the process of growing from a virtual infant - parent relationship through gangly teen to adult. More than a metamorphosis from primitive to advanced, the growth from brain injured to functionality, is literally a renaissance, a rebirth into growth toward adulthood and grace. Although Saul accomplished this growth in a timeframe no one could believe much less dare to predict, the accomplishment was achieved through incalculable efforts and labor on Saul's part and those around him. The support he received and the support he is hoping to return to his injured brothers and sisters is part and parcel of what makes this book.
The subtext of the book does go to cycling and the ardor and dedication with which Saul trained for competition. This coupled with the condition of his body and spirit as a result of this training are quite possibly at least partially responsible for his initial survival, and certainly contributory to his ability to focus (some might even say obsess) upon the efforts and work required to recover.
Bottom line, read the book. Then go out and buy a green and white bracelet. Next, take a moment and be thankful for your health. Follow that up by volunteering at your local rehabilitation facility.