Fear and gratitude on the Shimanami Kaido

One bicycle, two days, 76km of cycling and a realisation that sometimes, gratitude and longing go hand in hand.

Note: I wrote this in 2016 and couldn’t bring myself to post it then. Six years after Daniel’s passing, the world has changed (and so has my writing! this feels so young) but I guess this is who I once was and for that reason, it is worth remembering.

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The Shimanami Kaido, a cycling route that connects a series of islands near Hiroshima in Japan, regularly makes top ten lists of the most beautiful cycling routes in the world.

But my journey was as scenic as it was uncomfortable because two months before I came to Japan, I fell off my bike for the first time.

Skinned knees and bloody palms are a rite of passage — one that most people go through when they are learning to cycle as a kid. But I was late to the party and had only picked up cycling at 25, when Dean took me to East Coast park on our anniversary to teach me how to cycle. It felt churlish to protest after he had gone to all that trouble, so despite all my reservations, I gave it a try.

Dean taught me how to push off, how to pick up speed and find balance, and how to plant my feet before I braked so that theoretically, I would never have to fall. By the end of the hour I could cycle a couple of feet, and by the end of our next session he was running after me while I picked up speed.

We bought bicycles, discovered park connectors, and then we were hooked. But I never learnt that cycling, just like driving, requires a stopping distance between vehicles.

One day we were making our usual round-trip from the East Coast Park to Gardens by the Bay when a route diversion forced Dean to turn sharply. I slowed and braked, but as with most accidents the details were a blur and the next thing I recall was peeling my hands off the ground, my heart sinking as I saw bits of asphalt embedded into raw, exposed flesh. My knees, thankfully encased in leggings, bled too. (The leggings, however, did not tear so thank you Lululemon)

These were the scenes that came back to me as I sped across suspension bridges and mandarin plantations, and tried not to think about falling again, alone in a foreign land with no friendly buggy driver to ferry me back to the first aid point.

With two days to go and only myself for company and motivation, I forced myself to relax and enjoy the ride. And I did, after a while, when I realised it was easy to follow the continuous blue line that hugged the road and marked the course.

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During uphill climbs, no matter how steep, I forced myself to keep pedalling because my ego would not let me dismount and push. When the descents were gentle and straight enough I soared as fast as I dared, and in the corner of my eye I could make out shimmering blue water of coastal vistas, along with tiny homes that surrounded them.

*

Exactly one year before my trip I lost my late best friend Daniel

I thought about him a lot as I pedalled — how he would have turned 26 that month, how we had celebrated all his previous birthdays; about everything I didn’t get to tell him in the past year. I thought about his incredulity, way back, when I said I was considering paying $80/hour for adult cycling lessons.

“They said it’s guaranteed that I’ll learn how to cycle,” I protested meekly.

“Nonsense! I’ll teach you for half the price,” he said from his hospital bed.

Despite the fatigue in my legs, the memory made me smile. In that moment I felt a little closer to him.

One of the biggest things that shook me in the aftermath of Daniel’s passing was realising I would never again have a best friend – the one person I could go to for anything, who would give a shit about what I had to say, no matter how trivial.

On that ride I came back to a memory that had haunted me often. A few months after Daniel passed, I was at a dinner party, with a pair of best friends within the mix.

Theirs was the sort of friendship forged over youthful mishaps and years of inside jokes, and together they regaled the group with one of their shared memories. It was a benign, funny story; their retelling was comfortable, punctuated by easy laughter. In that moment I felt a twist of envy.

You guys are so lucky, I wanted to say. But I didn’t want to be a killjoy, so I held my tongue.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg tells us, in her book Option B, that jealousy is normal in the aftermath of grief. Sandberg lost her husband abruptly, after 11 years of marriage, when he collapsed from a heart attack while the couple were on vacation. Dave was just 47.

Afterwards, Sandberg was left alone to pick up the pieces — and to help her two young children cope with the loss of their father.

“I wanted them to know that they should respect their feelings and not try to suppress them… that it’s okay to be angry and jealous of their friends and cousins who still had fathers,” she writes.

I didn’t want to be envious of my friends and yet their happiness felt so flippant, so nonchalant, that it chafed. And yet, could I blame anyone for taking their friendships for granted when up to a year ago I’d done the same?

Problems with no resolutions will always ebb and flow. Later, my mind turned to more frivolous things — like why some of my Instagram posts got more Likes than others. (I know, ew.)

A few days ago, I’d posted a picture of my parents, laughing and hugging on the streets of Japan. It was the most popular photo of my trip thus far, outperforming snapshots of deer, bamboo groves, and even a tantalising bowl of chirashi don. People love love, and they loved seeing my parents on social media.

Then I realised — and why had I not realised this before? — that to be able to vacation with my parents was such a luxury. Before I embarked on the Shimanami Kaido we spent a week together in Japan, where I took them to shrines and temples, unagi restaurants and sake shops.

I groused a little because playing tour guide was tiring, and sometimes we got lost and even Google maps couldn’t help. But I knew that by the time we got home, all the small annoyances would have melted away, leaving memories that would only become more precious over time.

As we grow up, our parents are getting older. Amid weddings and babies and housewarming parties, there is also the inevitability of death, and cancer, and friends losing their parents prematurely, just as my mother did hers when she was in her twenties.

I was lucky, then, despite losing my best friend, despite knowing I would likely never have one again. My parents were healthy, financially comfortable enough to travel, and that in itself was a blessing — one I’d been oblivious to for some time.

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The sky was overcast for most of the day, but the rain held up until the end of my route. It drizzled during the last ten minutes of my ride while I crossed my last suspension bridge and soared down a long curving ramp that marked the end of the journey.

I survived, I thought, and I didn’t fall.

Then I texted my parents. I made it, I typed, I love you guys – hesitating over the last part because we are Asian after all, and reticent. But then I took a breath, and sent it anyway.

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