Collision, a Memoir

By Mary Beth Kelly

I love the man beside me. We love the open road.
—Joni Mitchell, ‘Night Ride Home’
t could have happened cycling up mountain passes in the Canadian Rockies, navigating traffic mayhem on the streets of Athens or biking curvy wet roads through Wales. There could have been a crash as we rode our children to PS 87 or wheeled after them touring Holland or Ireland, but no, all went well. Even on our first date in 1971—the two of us on the Mass Ave Bridge—something could have happened, but instead, thirty-five years later, we took our last ride together.

When Henry died, I lost my buddy and my love. Grief squeezed me like a relative who hugs too tight and too long. For months, I slept an hour, maybe two, then woke for good in early morning darkness already craving the end of the day. Medication? I used it. Meditation? I practiced it, wishing I’d started sooner. Anger? It surfaced in all the wrong places. An acquaintance once greeted me on the sidewalk and moaned about her empty nest. I could have hit her with my bag of groceries, feeling such envy for what she still had. Maybe, I consoled myself, her marriage was crumbling after the exit of children. But Henry and I were looking forward to that time. If the 12 years before our kids were any indication, our empty nest would also be an adventure.

I took a few months leave from my psychotherapy practice only to face the reams of paperwork that await a surviving spouse. In Marie Howe’s poetry, the novels of Michael Ondaatje or just the smell of a warm bagel, I searched for fragments of my old self. My body ran the roadway of Central Park the way we did on Sunday mornings. Heading in opposite directions, we’d manage to find each other. He would have been on his second loop as my playlist hit The Four Tops. Not finding him, I retreated—a sobbing drooling mess by the time I reached home.

Henry’s death left open wounds in the soft flesh of us all. Even our dog, Brooklyn, seemed to ache. If Henry’s name was mentioned, he’d pick up his head from his paws, looking around, hopeful for a moment, then lay it back down. I encouraged my daughter to follow her dreams, trying not to let my pain, or hers, hold her back, but when she left for work in India, our family shrank some more. I drove my son to his college visits and from the passenger seat he filled the air with his music. Purposely updating my taste, he kept us both from staring into the rear-view mirror. Trying to keep my eye on the bases that two parents once covered, I often missed the ball. I knew how deeply my children missed their father and often believed the better one of us had been lost.

There was no good time to return to my practice, but when I did, I walked the route I usually pedaled. Unexpected compassion from my clients greeted me, their desire to give back palpable, reminding me of the mice who helped the beached whale in the William Steig book Amos and Boris. And there was relief in my work; hours each day when someone else’s life mattered more to me than my own.

On a humid August morning, I stood at West 38th Street as Henry’s commuter bike—not the Bianchi he rode that night— was painted all white and installed as a Ghost Bike. It was a stark reality check to drivers and a remembrance for cyclists. I brought flowers for the bike’s baskets, which once carried his doctor’s bag, black with a gold clasp that I gave him when he graduated medical school. That bag accompanied him on home-visits to his elderly patients and those with AIDS . Flat-footed, I walked back home along the river, a mixture of sadness and anger. I felt a tailwind at my back like a firm hand at the base of my spine, supporting, but pushing me too.

The following morning, the NYPD returned my blue Trek road bike, which was impounded at the scene. I expected to bury it in a back room but instead inflated its sorry tires and carrying my vulnerability like a lead apron, I pedaled to West 26th Street. I decided to offer my time to an advocacy group whose 34-year-old mission was to reclaim the city’s streets from the domination of the automobile. Its goal was to make safe and viable alternative transportation. As an urban hiker and a cyclist, I had for decades made good use of their hard-won successes. I was an on- and-off member. Like the public radio listeners that Ira Glass ribs on-air for never stepping up, I too had never before volunteered.

A partnership of a different nature began to take root for me in this work. Ever since our first bike trip through Europe’s urban places, I’d imagined New York as a city where walkers and cyclists would be treated like their lives mattered. In the midst of my downward slide, I found a strawberry to pick, not unlike what I found in 1971.

t is a late September afternoon, and I am lingering in a basement antique shop near Harvard Square. A senior at BU, I glance at my watch. Late for class, I dashed up the steps to Mount Auburn Street and stick out my thumb. A VW bug stops short, and I lean in to talk to the driver. He’s about my age, with shoulder-length dark curls and a decidedly Brooklyn accent. By the end of the ride, Henry has my phone number and then uses it the next day. Would I go with him to see the choreography of Twyla Tharp? Just a month from saying a final sad goodbye to my boyfriend in California, I am not quite ready to date. I feel anxious, but picturing this boy’s graceful hands on the steering wheel, I think to myself, don’t let this slip away.…

“Yes,” I say. “Yes!”

Stepping inside the vestibule of my dorm on Bay State Road wearing low-top black Converse, he’s got one leg of his corduroy pants rolled up. He smiles, points outside to the crossbar on his bike, and offers me a ride. Jason Robards, I think, in A Thousand Clowns, and he is making me laugh, but god blesses the girl who’s got her own. I point to my black Raleigh, unlock it from the wrought iron gate, hike up my mini skirt, swing a leg over my crossbar and ask, “Should I lead?”

Pedaling in parallel, along the Charles River, dry leaves crunch under wheels, and talk comes comfortably. I am fascinated when he describes working on a kibbutz, and then he wants to know about my California life. Despite upbringing, we are similar non-believers, and by the time we reach Cambridge, tackling Gloria Steinem, the anti-war movement and Buckminster Fuller, it’s obvious we’re enjoying our flirtation.

“And biking?” he asks? “Where would you go on two wheels?”

“Depends on the guy,” I say with a smile. “Sky’s the limit.”

By December, we are sharing a small garret room with a single dormer window overlooking Hastings Square. When I am not dancing to Marvin Gaye or the Rolling Stones with the boy from New York City, we take turns at a simple oak desk. I write papers, Henry applies to medical school, and our conversation and desire continues in and out of the single bed.

Henry’s acceptances arrive. “Come September, will you join me,” he asks, “in Philadelphia?”

My long-confirmed internship at a mental health clinic in Anchorage is no longer the adventure I crave. I want to be with him, but I am angry too.

“Why is the woman always the one with more flexibility?” I demand.

And I stew for a few days, but then suggest a quid pro quo: I’ll transfer my training to Philly in September if this summer we bicycle from Boston to Nova Scotia. I wait. He smiles, doesn’t hesitate. Yes.

On a muggy July morning, our saddlebags bulge with books, rain gear and a cook stove. Bungee cords hold a leaky tent and lumpy sleeping bags to our straining rear racks. Two novices with chutzpah and a budget of four dollars a day begin to wind through Boston’s streets, heading north.

Road construction, black flies and flat tires give way to quiet towns with soda fountains and bookshops. We discover an ice-cold quarry in northern New Hampshire and spend the afternoon diving naked from 20 feet above. On Acadia’s pine-scented cliffs, sleeping bags zipped together, the Atlantic crashes beneath us, and we drop into sleep as deep as that quarry. One morning, we blow our four dollars by 9 AM as ice cream melts over warm blueberry pie, and we pray for no flats. Our bellies full, we sail along a winding ribbon of road lit through the leaves by a mid-August sun.

The stingiest and most generous parts of our selves show up during four weeks of cycling, parts that hadn’t in four months of sharing a room. And yet, reaching Halifax, sun-kissed, rocks for thighs, mechanically smarter, we want more—more of us. September arrives. The bikes are on the VW heading south down the Jersey Turnpike. Fielding the anxious concerns of family members (you are too young; she is not Jewish), we switch gears in a new city, find a judge and keep pedaling.
Mary Beth Kelly and Henry Nacht in Hastings Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971.

n the first evening of summer, 2006, Henry finished making rounds at Roosevelt Hospital and called my office with an offer to ride the city’s newest bike path along the Hudson River to an outdoor café. Oh yes, I’m in. Locking up after my last couples session, I pedaled home to 103rd Street as a great ball of sun dropped over the water. The breeze was warm.

Sitting at the computer, Henry beckoned me over, and as I leaned in behind him, I felt his black curls, now starting to gray, soft against my cheek. An email from our daughter, a college grad of just three weeks, filled the screen. Part of a crew for a documentary about AIDS prevention in Ethiopia, she described the work and the energy of Addis Ababa. Her parents are smiling. She is excited.

At the kitchen counter I wrote a note for our son. I noticed his dinner, the one Henry prepared for him, remained uneaten. After a week of finals, our 17-year-old was already asleep. Let him be. I changed into shorts, and we wheeled our bikes to the elevator.

The fragrance of linden blossoms absorbed us into Riverside Park and teased us along the paths to the Greenway. Our conversation was only interrupted at 79th Street where a Black-crowned Night Heron stood in the growing darkness on the boat basin pier. We stopped to get a better look. Henry cheered my sighting. I bowed in acceptance of kudos, and we continued to Chelsea, hungry for The Empire Diner.

I wish I could remember everything Henry said that night. Mostly I remember how particularly happy he was. Our waiter approached our sidewalk table, tattoos sprouting from under his shorts like trumpet vines winding down his long legs and into his yellow socks. We were playful, the three of us, but returning for our order, he was somber, as if the night had taken a serious turn.

I remember Henry enjoying salmon and urging me to get a hot fudge sundae for dessert, but I was full and told him, “Next time, Henry!” He paid the check while I walked to our bikes and switched on our lights. Peaceful 21st Street took us back to the Greenway, and we slid into our usual side-by-side. In less than a mile, we slowed, approaching the intersection at 38th Street where tow trucks cross the bike path and a traffic signal specifically for cyclists showed a green bike for us to go.

Suddenly, headlights blind me. I can’t make sense of what I see, but instinctively brake with all my strength, my body bracing to fly over the handlebars. Coming fast off the West Side Highway, a tow truck is not stopping—not even slowing—and takes the turn as if it is on fire; as if we are not there. A mere inch before my front wheel, “NYPD” blazoned on its door, a red car humping its rear, the truck flies by me and I am spared. So close, so close, I heave, sickened, and turn to Henry on my left. I freeze. I watch him trying to steer out of the truck’s trajectory. There is a sickening sound and then quiet.

“Call 911!!” I scream to the driver, throwing my bike down and running to Henry who is on the ground.

“Take it easy, lady,” the man yells at me from his open window, before climbing down from the cab and walking away—never coming near the man he’s left bleeding on the ground.

I huddle over Henry. He is flat on the concrete, on his back but rolling from side to side, trying with his hands to push himself up. His eyes remain closed. I tell him that I am there, that I will take care of him, that help is coming. For a few minutes I think it might be true.

Other cyclists stop short, pull out cell phones, call for help, shake their heads. I stroke Henry’s face, squeeze his warm hands and try to stop his bleeding with a donated shirt. I hear the sirens forever in the distance, caught in the mess of New York City traffic. It seems like an eternity until finally they arrive to take over the night.

I was asked once why I thought my husband didn’t brake like I did. I asked myself as well. We made our own instinctive judgments for survival. As an internist, Henry’s diagnostic ability was crucial in the lives of others. He was sought out as a doctor’s doctor. Maybe he saw the truck a split second later than I did, or maybe, like me, he expected to fly over the bars if he braked too fast. Perhaps it seemed impossible to him that the truck would not stop. It broke my heart to think that on his last call, the one where his own life hung in the balance, Henry missed.

For the three days that followed, my son kept a vigil with me at his father’s bedside in Roosevelt Hospital’s ICU. We were joined by my daughter, who flew home from Ethiopia, fearful with every layover that she would not see her father alive. Hundreds of friends and colleagues passed through to say goodbye to Doctor Carl Henry Nacht. On the afternoon of day three, I gave permission for my husband, the dearest human being I will ever know, to be removed from life support.

As a psychotherapist, I could not heal myself. There was a Buddhist therapist whose sense of humor often saved me and at times, external change seemed to hold some promise. I could sell the co-op in the city or our place upstate—both spilled memories from every drawer and every picture frame. My children were wiser and resisted. They’d already lost enough. The following April, instead of selling the farmhouse, I brought in a bulldozer. It pawed at the earth across half an acre. Over the summer, cold spring water slowly filled the deep hole. Alone and naked, I started to swim like my life depended on it. Family and friends, on whom my life really did depend, began to join me. We cooked and hiked and swam together, and gradually, I started to host dinners again in our West Side apartment, sometimes with my new friends from 26th Street, advocates for livable streets.

That part of my life expanded. I became a public speaker and started to write. My practice of psychotherapy grew again, and one afternoon between seeing patients, I noticed a dismal little ailanthus seedling pushing its way through a crack in the cement behind my office. “Relentless!” I thought, and remembered it was a name Henry sometimes called me—his head in his hands, speaking only half in jest. I knew that I was the lucky one—I survived, but survival is not enough. We need purpose, and we need each other.

Ours was not a perfect marriage. They don’t exist, but for 35 years our partnership, like seeing the world from the seat of a bicycle, was both hard and exhilarating. What were the chances, I sometimes wonder, that a run-in on Mount Auburn was the beginning of all those years of us, or that colliding with a truck driver’s recklessness would be the end of it?

Even now—almost seven years since—I can still stumble into heartache when I wake, or at the end of a ride as I wheel my bike into an empty apartment. But much of my life still reminds me of a sunny day in the fall of 1971, when our hair was long and full, and I took a chance. I hitched a ride that lasted decades. Thank you for the ride, you dear man. Thanks for us!


Image Courtesy Andrew Hinderaker