Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tears All Round in Raisin's "Tour de Life"

It should come as no surprise that Saul Raisin's "Tour de Life," a detailed account of his miraculous recovery from a horrific crash that battered his body and left him in a coma with a severe brain injury, is punctuated by tears on nearly every page.  The initial tears are of those devastated by the tragedy that had Raisin's parents debating what to do with his organs if he didn't survive. Later, the tears become expressions of triumph and joy, as he regains his faculties step-by-step. 

The crash occurred in April of 2006 at the Circuit de la Sarthe in France.  Raisin was a 23-year old  American riding for the French Credit Agricole team on the verge of competing in his first Grand Tour, the Giro d'Italia, in May.  He was riding strongly and had dreams of maturing into a Tour de France contender.  He'd won the King of the Mountains Competition the year before at the Tour de l'Avenir and had a fine showing in the Tour of California earlier in the year. He was progressing nicely from having won the Young Rider Competition in the inaugural Tour de Georgia as a twenty-year old in 2003.

He was blessed with the all-important physiological ingredients--an extraordinary lung capacity with a VO2 max in the high 80s (better than Lance Armstrong) and a heart twice the size of normal.  He also had the will to push himself to his limits, a quality essential as well to his recovery, getting back on his bike a little over four months after his crash, defying his doctors fears that he'd spend the rest of his life as a vegetable.

Raisin wrote the book with Dave Shields, author of two previous books on cycling, the novels "The Race" and "The Tour."  Shields knows the sport well, though this book is not without a couple of cycling miscues endemic to books on cycling published in the United States.  One of his mentions of the Tour de l'Avenir forgets the "de".  He also incorrectly refers to the newspaper "L'Equipe," as "L'Equipe Magazine, the magazine sports daily in France."

Also endemic to American books on cycling are explanations of cycling's basics, though these are fairly benign--shaving legs, the peloton, attack, The Monuments, soigneurs, Eddie Merckx.  Although there isn't much about actual racing, with the bulk of the book devoted to his recovery, devotees of the sport will appreciate anecdotes regarding Bradley Wiggins and Thor Hushovd (teammates of Raisin's), a training ride with Armstrong and watching the Floyd Landis Tour de France during his rehab.

The first half of the book is written from the perspective of his parents, Jim and Yvonne, with lengthy stretches of re-created dialogue.  They fly from their home in Georgia  and spend three weeks in France at his bedside before he is well enough to fly back to Atlanta in a medical Lear jet at a cost of $60.000.  They speak no French and are greatly assisted by Raisin's German girl friend. They come to love and appreciate her so much, that when she has to leave to return to school, it is cause for one of Raisin's mother's many crying episodes. 

Shields is continually underlining the gravity of the experience with mentions of tears, as many by his father as his mother.  His doctors also are emotionally involved enough to be wet-eyed on occasion.  Raisin's Aunt Teresa arrives in France shortly after he emerges from his coma.  Shields writes, "Teresa burst into tears.  She'd long had a reputation as waterworks city, but now she was a mess.  Soon Jim and Phil couldn't resist crying and that caused Yvonne to start sobbing too, but this was a happy cry." This is just one of many cluster cries.

Shields does his best to vary his descriptions of the crying--they trickle, they flow, they stream, they are mopped up, they are wiped away, they are fought back, they are blinked back, they can't be held back, they glisten on cheeks, they run down cheeks,  they streak faces, eyes well with tears, eyes fill with tears, a tear appears in the corner of an eye.  People tear up, are brought to tears, cry like a baby, bawl, sniffle, have good cries.  There is no end to them.  Lips quiver, tear ducts open.  There are tears of joy.  There are tears of shared misery.

The book is a gold mine for any researcher seeking samples of tears.  A baby wails on his parent's flight to France.  A bully from his school days runs away crying after Saul pops him one.  When the Tour de Georgia passes through his home town of Dalton while he's still hospitalized in France, there isn't a dry eye in the place.  Saul sobs when his girl friend calls to break up.  There is a tear orgy when Saul manages to walk four steps to his mother on Mother's Day, over a month after his crash.  He cries.  His father cries.  His two therapists cry and his mother cries harder than Saul has ever seen her cry.

Its a while before Saul is well enough to be able to cry.  His first cry doesn't come until he sees himself in the mirror for the first time over a month into his rehabilitation.  He is shattered by what he sees and can't stop crying.  He remembers back that he hadn't been able to cry previously during his ordeal no matter how sad he felt inside.  Then he cries a lot and doesn't mind at all.  He cries when his teammate Hushovd wins the final stage of The Tour de France on the Champs Elysees and then his tears are recharged when Hushovd calls him from Paris shortly afterwards.

When he starts riding his bike on rollers and feels a familiar trickle down his face he's happy for once that it isn't tears, but the first sweat he has felt since his crash.  There are mass cries with relatives and when he addresses the crowd at the US Pro Cycling Championships in Greensville, South Carolina.  He feels bad to learn that nearly everyone who visited him during the early dark days of his recovery left in tears.

Half way through the book, after Raisin begins his rehabilitation at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, the narrative switches from his parents to his own.  He had a slight paralysis of his left side. His left foot and leg and hand are barely functional.  He can't walk on his own. He also had to regain his ability to think and reason. He has the mental capacity of a third-grader.  He brings his mother to tears when he can't correctly add two and three.

He also has to learn not to speak so frankly, as he has the propensity to aggressively flirt with the nurses telling them exactly his desires.  He has to restrain from acting on impulse, gobbling down whatever food he can get his hands on, even breaking into a food closet and devouring chocolate cupcakes. But the determination that made him a world-class cyclist also speeds up his recovery.  It was predicted that he would need to remain at the center for three months.  He was out in a little over three weeks.

One of his inspirations was Armstrong.  As a teen-ager he had a large painting of Armstrong in yellow on the Champs Elysee over his bed.  Armstrong called his mother while he was in his coma to offer best wishes and whatever help he could provide.  Raisin wrote, "He'll never comprehend how much that call meant to us as a family."  They'd only met once before, when he had joined Lance on a five-hour training ride in the mountains outside of Nice.  That was a huge thrill too for the young pro--"You can't imagine how cool it felt to go as hard as I could against him with our audience, Axel Merckx and Sheryl Crow, following in the car behind."  Raisin was brash enough to attack him on the final climb to the Col de Braus, but couldn't hold him off.

The book ends with his participation in a Credit Agricole training camp the January after his crash.  He is the first to the top of a day's final steep climb.  He had fully regained the physical skills that he hoped one day would earn him a Tour de France title.  He had yet though to regain the mental capacity to think quickly on the bike.  The book was published in 2007 with his future hopeful but undefined.  He never did return to the bicycle racing world.  Instead, he now devotes his life to helping others who have suffered brain injuries through his Raisin Hope Foundation.  This book too is a worthwhile contribution to the field.


Andrew said...

George it sounds like you have found the motherload of tears here. It must have almost brought you to tears reading of so many tears.

george christensen said...

Yes indeed. It will be hard to top this one.