My hand accepts a paper cup anonymously extending outward from behind an orange water cooler. The cup feels cool to my fingertips.
“Thank you,” I said.
Turning back towards my bike, my legs feeling heavier than when I began the 84-mile trek, I hear an unexpected reply.
“No, thank you. Thank you for riding for my wife.”
Pausing, the words settle in. I turn and walk back to the voice.
“Excuse me,” I said. “What did you mean by thanking me for riding for your wife?”
Thousands of people are riding on this day. Literally speaking, 13,000 people will be cycling from Houston to La Grange during the first leg of a two-day bike ride. In 2015 the BP MS150 raised over $20 million towards funding research into finding a cure to multiple sclerosis (MS) – a chronic and unpredictable disease of the central nervous system.
The voice is kind, with kind eyes and a bushy beard.
“My wife. She has MS. Had it since 2002.”
Tending to the orange coolers ahead of him he shares of how his wife keeps MS in the background of her life, continuing to teach elementary school and not telling everyone about her journey.
“She refuses to let MS define her.”
Discreetly he points to the other end of the tables of volunteers.
“That’s her down there,” he said. Pride fills his voice.
Suddenly I see who I’m riding for – a face beyond the five black digits printed on the orange wristband circling my wrist. She’s smiling, inviting riders to grab a drink or a snack from the tables in front of her. But now I know she carries a secret, one shared only those of her choosing. And I’m riding for her.
But over the next couple hours I learn I’m riding for others as well.
In a town with population stretching on its toes to be north of two hundred, people lined the roads for the parade of cyclists. A single stoplight offered suggestions, but the sheriff’s car directs riders to pass through without pause.
To my right I spotted another sign.
“Thank you for riding for me – I can’t. I have MS.”
And again, I discover another face.
I stop and say hello. Sitting in a folding chair, she told me about how she’d wrestled with MS for decades – going through a myriad of test and treatments.
“I used to be active,” she said. “But when MS hits me, I’d lose all sense of my legs. They can treat it, but no matter how good it gets – even on my best days – I’m never up to the level of energy or ability as before.”
She smiles and we shake hands as I clip back into my bike.
As the miles accumulate, I recognize I am now part of something much larger than when I began the day. For me, I now know hidden between the thousands of faces are those who are counting on me to do what they can’t.