One Last Visit With Her Mom
The emotions and memories were swirling around faster than the pedals on her bike as Michelle Harcha rode in Pelotonia 10. She thought about riding with Jim Tressel during Pelotonia the year before, and sharing heartfelt stories of all four of their parent’s cancer battles; about the courage and will to live of her own mother and how much she wanted to be with her at this very moment; and about her own battle with breast cancer five years earlier.
That morning, at 4:30, Michelle answered a call from her father, Howard, a prostate cancer survivor. He was calling from her childhood home in Portsmouth – and the news was bad: Michelle’s mom, Mary Lee, who had been battling lung cancer for two-plus years, was fading. Fast.
“He said she will pass in the next several hours,” said Michelle, a trained veterinarian and currently director of Alumni Services and Professional Development Education for Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Michelle had a difficult decision: Rush home to be with her mother, or ride Pelotonia and then hurry down to Portsmouth.
“The things that came to my mind were that my mother was so proud of me for riding in Pelotonia,” Michelle said. “And I was riding for my mom, and she’d be so disappointed if I didn’t ride. And I remembered what Chris Spielman said about his wife, Stephanie.”
Stefanie Spielman lost her long battle with breast cancer in 2009, but not before inspiring thousands, including Michelle. Chris is an Ohio State football legend and former NFL star, who has carried on Stefanie’s battle to beat cancer.
“He talked about how Stefanie always said, don’t let my death be an excuse not to do something,” Michelle said.
And so Michelle rode, for her mom – and to stand up to cancer.
Emotional rides were nothing new to Michelle, who also rode the rollercoaster during Pelotonia 09.
Mary Lee was battling lung cancer, and her daughter was riding in her honor, still optimistic her mom could beat this thing.
“I was riding with some of my mom’s nurses from The James,” Michelle said. “They went faster than me and I was by myself and here comes (Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel), riding on my left.”
The two rode together to the first rest stop, where several members of a lung cancer support group Michelle is a member of were working as volunteers. Included in the group was Lynn Kirkby, whose wife, Mary Ann, had lung cancer and was in hospice care.
Michelle stopped to talk to her friends, and the Ohio State football coach spent some time talking with Lynn, whom Michelle said has been a great resource for her family and role model for how to deal with what they were all going through.
Michelle and Jim then rode on to Groveport.
“He had on sunglasses and some people recognized him and some didn’t,” Michelle said. “We talked about everything but football, mostly about our parents. His mom passed from pancreatic cancer and his dad from lung cancer, so he knew what I was going through.”
When they arrived in Groveport, Jim spent a long time talking to other riders – and posing for pictures. Then he and Michelle shared a ride back to Columbus.
“He had to get back to practice, so they had a van for him,” Michelle said. “He called his wife to tell her he was OK and I called my mom. I asked him if he’d say a few words to her and he said he’d be delighted to.”
Mary Lee was a huge Ohio State football fan. Howard proposed to her in the south stands in the middle of a game and they’ve had season tickets ever since.
“They talked for 15 minutes and it was such a beautiful moment,” Michelle said. “What a gift to give my mom.”
Mary Lee wasn’t about to give up. Ever. No matter how bad things got – and lung cancer can get really bad.
“She had such a will to live,” Michelle said, adding her mother had to overcome health issues long before her bout with lung cancer. Mary Lee was an acrobatic dancer when she was young, and hurt her back quite severely when she did a trick in which she did a back bend off a table and picked up a handkerchief on the floor with her teeth.
“She had to deal with chronic pain after that and handled it quite well,” Michelle said. “She always had such a positive outlook and focused on the future and what she wanted to do and that’s how she got through it.”
Mary Lee had a wonderful sense of humor and collected antiques, specializing in angels.
“Antiques and Ohio State football were her passions,” Michelle said. “In the two-and-a-half years of cancer, she only missed one game.”
Michelle peddled faster than she had ever peddled before as she rode in Pelotonia 10.
“I was peddling my heart out. And it was all an acknowledgement of my mom and I was reliving my childhood and thinking about all the memories of my mother,” Michelle said.
She thought about the horse her parents gave her for her 13th birthday, about her childhood dog, Bimbo, who died of cancer that same year. His death led to Michelle becoming a veterinarian. “And I thought about this gift that cancer can give you, that I had two-and-a-half years to say goodbye to my mom, and I thought about all the birthdays and holidays together and the last cruise we were able to take together as a family.”
Michelle arrived in Groveport at the end of her ride, and quickly headed for the ride back to Columbus, so she could go home, and than get to Portsmouth.
“I prayed to sit next to someone kind,” Michelle said.
Her prayers were answered by Michael Stevenson, who sat down next to her.
“I asked who he was riding for,” Michelle said. “He said he was riding for his mom, and that she had passed away from pancreatic cancer in January … When Michael asked who I was riding for, I started to cry and I said my mom, and that she was home and would probably die that day. We talked about our moms on the way back and I shared with him about my previous year’s ride with Coach Tressel and how that had impacted my Mom and our family.”
Michelle made it home to Portsmouth in time to say a final farewell. Mary Lynn was not really conscious at this point, but Michelle is confident she knew her family was gathered around her and the room was filled with love.
“I was the final family member to get there,” she said. “I had always liked to play music for my mom, so I kept putting on different CDs and there was this moment where I thought she passed right then, but she hadn’t. And we all kept playing music and talking and she passed that evening. It was a beautiful ending to my mother’s life and I couldn’t have scripted it to be any more meaningful, powerful or loving.”
Like so many others who have been through this, Michelle learned several important lessons.
“My mother showed me how to face cancer without fear and to allow the love and support of family members and friends,” she said. “And I learned a lot about The James and the kindness and compassion and commitment of the nurses and doctors and their passion to find a cure.”
Michelle will be riding again this year, and knows going in that Pelotonia 11 will be an emotional and uplifting experience.
“And I know my mother would be very proud of me for doing these events and for riding in Pelotonia for her,” she said, adding another thing she learned from her mother and father, from Jim Tressel, Lynn Kirkby, Michael Stevenson and all her fellow riders is “we’re all in this together.”