I Am Grateful!

Volunteering for ACT 5 herself, Barbara McKinney discovers the commitment and courage that her late son Mike always described as “a life changing experience”

We were the riders and crew of ACT 5, the Wisconsin AIDS Ride. We assembled together on Day Zero, the day before the ride. Registration, sign-in, pick-up final information, turn in final monies, view the safety video. New faces, some familiar faces…I was so anxious. It was finally down to the wire. This was what everyone had planned for, trained and prepared for. As I made my way through the various stations, I remembered wishing, “if only Mike were here to usher me through this sea of faces.” I could also imagine hearing his booming voice, seeing his smile that could light up an entire room. “Life was so much easier when he was around,” I lamented. I pressed on.

At a dinner, one of the organizers, Dana, asked, “Would you like to participate in the opening ceremonies?” What! Me? How humbling was that! When I got home I began to journal some of my thoughts. I couldn’t sleep the night before and was up all night. Before I knew it, it was 5:30 a.m. and there I was at the opening ceremony of ACT 5. I was witnessing for the first time the exuberance of an ACT ride opening ceremony. I was virtually overwhelmed by emotion as I looked out at bikes, riders, crew, friends and family embracing, holding hands and shedding tears. Tears easily flowed that morning, but there was something different that I had never felt before. I felt a collective, compassionate, caring and determined community shaping before my eyes. Anticipation like electricity surged through the air. There’s Dana…there’s Bob Bowers…there’s Tracey. Hey, what am I supposed to do? “Just follow me,” was Tracey’s response, “You will be one of three people to escort ‘rider zero’ into the ceremony.” When the bagpipes began, we were to somberly escort “rider zero,” the riderless bike meant to represent the ones we’ve lost, through a parting sea of respect. I had seen this ceremony before but this time it was different. On previous rides, I remembered Mike saying, “The ride is not about me, but about the riders.” ACT 5 was really about a community of 125 riders and 100 plus crew and volunteers coming together for four days to say to this community that the fight against HIV/AIDS was not over, that the fight would never be over until no more lives were lost because of this virus. For four days, I was in a community with people who had the audacity to believe they could make a difference. For four days we were one body and one community of caring people. The message I received was that we all mattered. Whether LGBT, straight, black, white, brown or purple, we allowed no label to separate us.  I witnessed daily execution of such powerful themes as “nothing is unachievable, nothing is impossible.” Each day someone demonstrated that no one has power over you unless you yielded that power and authority. I witnessed daily random acts of kindness, love, compassion and even the beginning of healing. Encouragement, support, appreciation and gratitude flowed as freely as the massive amounts of coffee, food and water consumed each day. “Drink and pee” was the mantra. For four days people embraced me because I mattered to them, many not even knowing that I was Mike’s mom until the final evening of the ride.

In my head I knew all about the ACT Rides. My son had been involved in the Heartland Ride as well as the Wisconsin AIDS Rides. Mike had talked about his life changing experiences as a rider and as crew. I was at three closing ceremonies. I knew all about the importance and the purpose. I knew the statistics, that the funds raised supported the AIDS Network in HIV/AIDS prevention and care. I knew the devastating facts about the effects of HIV/AIDS, about its impact on communities of color. I knew about the desolation of this disease on family and friends. I knew that in 2007, HIV/AIDS was still taboo in many circles and that many people living with it were still pushed to the edges of society. Although many individuals have had the courage to step up and come out about their status, there are so many others still afraid to be tested or to divulge their status for fear of public censure.

Something happened within me during the ACT 5 ride, from opening ceremony straight through to the closing: I knew that my life had been touched. My heart embraced the entire meaning and commitment to ACT 5. This was real for me. The entire experience of the ride moved from my head to the core of my being. Mike would say to me, “Mom, you just gotta experience the ride for yourself. It is an amazing experience that will change your life forever.”  I often listen to Mike’s taped interviews, especially during those times when I knew that in his heart he felt he was fighting a battle that he would possibly not win. But he continued to speak hope, determination and faith to fight on and not give up. Albert Schweitzer wrote, “Until he extends his circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” While I participated in ACT 5 to honor Mike, I experienced much more. Throughout my journey I felt Mike’s energy. He would always say, “but it’s not about me.” He knew from his own early life struggles that God had blessed him immeasurably. He knew “to whom much was given, much more was required.” He was thankful that in his 41 years, he had been the recipient of a very just and generous God. Because of such grace, he was committed to giving back. His spirit challenged me to “get off my butt and to get involved!” I am so much richer for the experience. Thank you to all those who made ACT 5 happen. To riders, crew and volunteers, thank you for your contributions to the space we occupied together for those four days. You certainly made life a better place for me. This was written to inspire you to join me next year on the ride. May I close with one of Mike’s favorite sayings: “Until we meet again, take care of your self.”