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Each year on the first day of AIDS/LifeCycle, Stephanie Stainback arrives just outside of Santa Cruz, Calif., where she lives, to welcome the riders who are venturing on the seven-day, 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Each year she dusts off the same sign and hoists it on the side of the road for all riders to see. Each year she commemorates her brother.
The sign was so vividly emblazoned in my mind: I read "1950-1996" with a picture of Gary. The bottom of the sign simply yet powerfully stated "THANK YOU!" I quickly passed this sign, as we pass so many other people and signs on the ride, but couldn't stop thinking about Gary. I kept riding, but without anyone knowing it, this sign made me break down in tears. Seeing "1950-1996" really brings to the surface the hard truth of this disease and the lives it destroys, yet helps remind us along this journey why we ride: to end HIV/AIDS.
As we rolled into camp that afternoon, the sign was so fresh in my mind and I was kicking myself for not stopping and thanking this woman for being there to support us and sharing her story. Thankfully, that night after dinner at news, we heard more about her powerful story.
Gary Stainback was diagnosed with AIDS before the cocktail that could have prolonged his life was made available. Stephanie vividly remembers her brother and explains how overwhelmingly tough it was on her family. She remembers how she used to play football while her brother played with dolls; because of this, they were close and could tell each other everything. "The crying passes but the hole that is left because of his absence never passes," she says. She continues in her video that was shared with us at news that night, "It's really hard [emotionally] to remember him, and this is where I have time and space to do that and this is my way of keeping him alive." This last quote from her really embodies why we ride, "Every time someone even looks at his picture, I know that there's part of him that's going to go on the ride with them. Gary is alive because of people like this." Even though Gary passed away in 1996, he is alive with each and every rider that passes his sign as we take a little part of him with us on the ride.
AIDS/LifeCycle is something very special. Its purpose is simple: to raise money in the fight to end HIV/AIDS. Each year riders from almost every state and many countries come together in this amazing community to ride for this very simple purpose. We wake up early together, eat together, ride together, and fight HIV/AIDS together in the hope that someday there will be a cure. Sadly, stories like Gary's are more common than we think. As long as I am able, I will ride in AIDS/LifeCycle. I will ride for those like Gary who are unable to ride, I will ride for those living with HIV/AIDS, and I will ride because I am able.
Through blood, sweat, and tears I made it along with 2,204 other cyclists through my first ride and am happy to say before even departing on my first AIDS/LifeCycle, I had already signed up for my second. I can't wait for next year's journey and will look forward to meeting Stephanie on day 1 and taking her brother Gary with me on my second AIDS/LifeCycle journey.