It's great to be alive, I thought, one hundred miles into the SmartRide, the annual 165 mile bicycle ride from Miami to Key West to benefit the HIV/AIDS community of south Florida. Sun-drenched water on either side of me as I crossed the smooth stretches of concrete that connect the keys was exhilarating. Just a slight wind from the northwest, as I found my pace, a steady 17 miles per hour that kept me ahead of the thickest knots formed by almost 600 riders, and had me alone on the route for long thoughtful passages into the past and the future concurrently. The Smart Ride is about death and mourning and rage. The Smart Ride is about hope and heroes and battles won and lost in our communal life offered up not to God but to the fight against an overpowering, omnipresent and godless virus. It’s about an enemy that uses us but doesn't know us or hate us. There is an innocence to this virus we seek to destroy. It lives only if we do. It dies only when we do. It is not schooled in malice. It is aggressive by nature, as are we, every time we draw another breath or bear down upon the pedals of our bikes to raise the millions of dollars needed to help those living with HIV/AIDS. The virus doesn't fight back. It simply survives. It was born that way.
Recently, we lost a hero in the battle against HIV/AIDS. Betty Salwak, a quiet, polite, straight wife, mother of two, and religious Presbyterian “church lady” living in Indiana, died after her three-year struggle with breast cancer. In my rarified and urbane gay life, I have never had a friend like Betty. When she contacted me several years ago as someone who enjoyed my relentlessly gay-themed writing, I assumed she was a lesbian trying to come out. I was wrong about that. Betty grew up in Sarasota, Florida. When she made her annual visit home several years ago, she announced to me that she would drive down to Fort Lauderdale for a few days with me. I was worried. What would I do with what I assumed to be a closeted pious midwestern lady for three days? Over dinner, she told me her story and had me in tears. Betty’s brother David spent his life estranged from his family, afraid of their judgement about his sexuality. Alone and dying, David reached out to his family who came to his deathbed, learning for the first time that their brother was both gay and dying from AIDS. Betty learned that he had been particularly worried about her reaction to his disclosure. The loss of her brother had a profound effect on Betty who then devoted her life to changing hearts and minds about LGBT people, especially those isolated by HIV/AIDS. She was tireless in her efforts to make her church open, affirming and well educated about HIV/AIDS. Three days before her death, as we said goodbye to each other on a video call, she told me her biggest regret was the amount of work she would not be able to finish as a straight ally. She smiled when I told her that she had done her brother proud. The pain of her final days did not stop her from supporting my Smart Ride.
As I pedaled faster during the crossing of the dazzling expanse of the Seven-Mile Bridge, the thought that it's great to be alive became a mantra looping through my head. But would anything I might say, do or write equal the very good life of Betty Salwak? When, on the morning of the second day of the Smart Ride, word spread among the riders that one of our company had been struck and killed by a car the night before, that same question resounded. Mark Haines was not only a friend to many in the LGBT community of south Florida, he was a man who accomplished an awful lot of good for us. Unlike Betty, Mark’s death arrived suddenly, but like her, he left his ride to the finish line incomplete.
Post-Smart Ride, I send you these words from Island House Resort and Spa, surrounded by beautiful men both HIV+ and negative, who have all spent lives doing battle with a mindless virus and are now taking time to relax and rejuvenate after having done something good as riders or crew for Smart Ride. The theme of this year’s ride is that we are all heroes, but ask any of these men if they feel like heroes and they would wave you away. We raise a few bucks, we get on our bikes, we go home and we wonder if we will do it again next year. These bones grow old. The bumps in the road are felt more deeply on the spine. The stamina fades. It seems wrong to annoy friends with an annual appeal for financial support. Isn't it enough that I appreciate how great it is to be alive? Don't answer that, Betty. I can see your face. Girlfriend, rest. For you, I'll try to do it again next year.
For information about how you can help, visit www.thesmartride.org