On a bicycle
In a small town in France
Or perhaps in Barcelona
I know that there are a lot of folks out there who want a piece of you. They want your face on a box, your churning quads on TV, they want your hearty endorsement on the hang tag for a pair of shorts.
And then you’ve got people who need you. Your wife and your kids, of course, but also the legion of cancer sufferers and survivors who hold and burnish with desire your story of beating testicular cancer, of slamming cells that spread to your lungs and your brain, and then trumping the killer with feats of proportional gravity — only better.
You are America’s favorite hope fiend. And you are, in a way, the highest-paid employee of the United States Postal Service, which spent an estimated $6 million this year to sponsor your professional cycling team.
Which brings me to the reason for this letter: The U.S. Postal Service needs you. And this time, it’s not about the bike. It’s about courage, faith, attitude and strength — all of which you happen to have loads of. And it’s about anthrax, which, fortunately, you do not have. (We hope.) Letter carriers, mail sorters — a total of 800,000 workers whose greatest public distinction may be the term “going postal” and the mindless mayhem that implies — are hurting. Two have died, no one knows how many have been exposed to anthrax spores and so far the most salient advice they’ve received from their employers has been the suggestion to wash their hands.
Clearly it is going to be a while before letter handlers see any of the ion beam sterilization devices that the Postal Service said it would buy to kill anthrax (or any other threatening organisms) that might dwell in sacks of mail. And so far, the lion’s share of protection, information and attention has been hard to divert from individuals at risk who occupy political office or have some proximity to Tom Brokaw. (This fact reveals the need for one more commodity: heartfelt apologies.)
Inevitably, a certain sense of desperation — some feel it as abandonment — has set in:
At the Brentwood sorting center in Washington, where anthrax killed two workers and probably infected at least two others, union chief Patricia Johnson, a 29-year veteran of the Postal Service, is trying. “I’m trying hard to believe we should be calm,” she told the New York Times. But clearly she needs backup. “So far I don’t see any baseball caps for postal workers like everyone’s wearing for the firemen and police lost in New York … No one’s starting a fund for the families of the two postal workers.”
I assume, Lance, that as an athlete sidelined at his peak by illness, and a cyclist who regularly pedals 50 miles uphill in the Pyrenees, you can appreciate this sort of distress. Patricia Johnson may sound a little crabby to some, but consider the circumstances: There are no special hats, no Rudy G., no benefit concerts, no portions of profits. Celebrities have not made appearances at sorting centers, a letter carrier has not sung at a baseball game or thrown out the first ball.
Our expectations of postal workers are high, just as they are of rescue workers and of athletes. But the saying is: “Not snow, no, nor rain, nor heat, nor night keeps them from accomplishing their appointed courses with all speed.” Herodotus didn’t say anything about anthrax.
And I am sure that prior to your fateful doctor’s appointment on Oct. 2, 1996, when you were 25, a world-class athlete with a big house, nice car and a lot of money in the bank and you found out you had a 40 percent chance of survival, your coaches hadn’t said anything about cancer.
But then you got all wiry and buff and levelheaded and happy and you said things like: “The truth is that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.” And (a personal favorite of mine): “The illness is an absolute bastard. You can never turn your back on it.” And when the subject of doping comes up and you get sort of relaxed and cool, you say: “I’ll have the peace of heart, the peace of mind, the peace of soul, of knowing I did it the hard way.”
These words are about other things — races, cancer, accusations. They always make my husband cry, especially when you say them with your son hitched on your hip or when they show the footage of you holding hands with your competitor in the middle of the last Tour de France.
But these words also are inspired by big ideas, big scary experiences, by a brush with death and intimate knowledge of fear. You really wouldn’t have to change them much for the postal workers, especially if you showed up, looked them in the eye, held some hands and reminded them that they had something to do with your amazing journey and that you will be there to support them through theirs.
Jennifer Foote Sweeney