Another great person has left us in 2016. My father, Thomas Woodrow Harden, unexpectedly passed away on his 46th Father’s Day, June 19th, after contracting an infection during a bicycling tour that his body couldn’t successfully overcome. Tom had heart-related problems that he’d been managing with medical care for several years.
My Dad was one of my best friends, someone who I was never afraid to talk to about almost any subject. If you knew him, you know he held an opinion about many things, and his were right. 🙂
Tom died doing two things he loved: bicycling and visiting with family. When he told me he planned to “Ride the Fault Line” and visit his relatives living in Sikeston, Missouri, he immediately invited me to ride it with him. In early June the previous two years, we had ridden a 3-day ride in New York State together, but a road trip to Sikeston for a week-long ride was more than my responsibilities would allow. I’ll regret not going on that trip for a long time.
My Dad loved long bike tours, with or without support. In recent years he went on supported and self-contained tours organized by Adventure Cycling, and made many new friends. This January he purchased a new sport bike for rides where he didn’t have to carry all his gear. He enjoyed building and customizing bikes, and through our time together he impressed his love of cycling on me. I’ll never forget when I was 13 and he bought me my first 12-speed road bike. Another highlight was when we rode the 5-day Bike Virginia tour in 2005 together. It was my first taste of a multi-day supported bike tour, and it took me some work to prepare for it. It was grueling for me, but at the end of those days I enjoyed relaxing and camping with my Dad. (I love camping because him, too.) We took an optional day in Lexington to rest our “parts”, exploring much of the town on foot, visiting the colleges there, and watching “Batman Begins” at the local theater. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I can’t recall a time when my Dad didn’t want to go see a movie I was interested in. At the end of that ride, a 72-mile trip back to Roanoke, I knew I would be doing this again. And I wanted to do it with my Dad.
I mentioned my Dad loved visiting with family. Thankfully, he and my Mom, Rhonda, along with my sister, Candace, and her kids had come to visit my family in Harrisburg for Memorial Day weekend two weeks prior to his last ride. We shared some great meals and outdoor activities together, and he got to spend time with his four grandchildren. That was one of the first things Candace told me as she broke the news of his passing over the phone to me and tried to console me.
My Dad grew up Baptist, but became an agnostic. I believe this was for two fundamental reasons. First, he witnessed the horrors of war as Army soldier in Vietnam in his early 20s; second, his religious upbringing excluded the theory of evolution, which he firmly believed. Even so,, he never discouraged our faith, allowing Candace and I to be raised Catholic. He would occasionally attend holiday masses with us, but many times would take issue with the priest’s homily. I regretted that my Dad didn’t share our faith, but we found common ground with respect to evolution and other scientific matters. Even though my Dad wasn’t religious, I believe his is the kind of soul that will live forever in heaven.
Another thing important to my Dad was cooking. He impressed this upon me in several ways: I cook Chicken Kiev each Christmas Eve after being inspired by his attempts (I still haven’t achieved 0% butter leakage); I love to grill with charcoal; and I always prefer to cook dinner for my family. In recent years, Tom sang the praises of Cook’s Illustrated (the magazine behind “America’s Test Kitchen”) because they were scientists in the kitchen like I believe he was. Recently he held a chili cook-off at his house where family and friends brought their creations and we got to enjoy all of them. I don’t recall him holding a vote at the end of dinner, because I think he wanted everyone to feel like they won. My Dad cooked with rich ingredients unabashedly, because he had every intent to work off those calories on the bike.
Tom also loved dogs. We never had a dog growing up, but he was always keen to greet and play with any that were around. In our rides together, he sometimes made pit stops to visit with the “free-ranging mongrels” he hoped to encounter on the road. In his last few months he had started to volunteer at a local dog shelter, and told me a few stories to tell about the dogs he was working with. I could tell it was a post-retirement hobby he was happy to take on.
In the early 80’s, my Dad took up a new pastime when he acquired a 22-foot MacGregor sailboat. We sailed as a family over the years in the Memphis, TN area and later in upstate New York. Our most frequent outings were on Canandaigua Lake, where our captain honed his first crew (us) and his knowledge of sailing grew. He customized his boat, and would sometimes trailer and sail it solo. Later he would join the crew of the 35-foot “Kemah” sailing out of the Rochester Yacht Club on Lake Ontario with our neighbors, Paul and Rita. This is another of Tom’s loves that grew on me: I tried my hand at sailing my own boat a few years ago, but after a number of outings (some with my Dad) I found that I make a much better first mate. He was still a fine captain.
Of all the things he loved, my Dad loved my Mom most of all. I know they had their arguments and rough patches, and he needed (and took) a lot of space by working jobs that required travel as well taking his own solo recreational trips (usually on bicycle). However, they were happily married for nearly 47 years, enjoying their last 20+ years as empty-nesters and the last few as retirees. They loved to travel and formed a lot of memories outside their homes. My Mom is going to need more support now that her Tom won’t be returning home, and I plan to help her as much as she needs.
I’ll miss conversations with my Dad, whether on the phone or on the bike, about work (we both worked in IT-related fields), life, parenting, cooking, cycling, or whatever he wanted to talk about. My Dad could be curmudgeonly and short-tempered (that rubbed off on me, too), but if you gave him time and listened to what he had to say, he’d listen to you, too. He relished good arguments, and occasionally changed his point of view. (Some would say “rarely”.)
To honor my Dad, I’m planning to ride one of his favorite tours, the 2017 Bon Ton Roulet, in his memory (and in his jersey) to raise money for the American Heart Association. I’m confident he’ll be riding every mile with me in spirit.