The following was written for Beth Heyde in 2020
Death illuminates the path for the living: it invites us to look at our lives differently, to consider how we might be better stewards of however much time we have left. So every eulogy, in a sense, is the story of the living—those whose presence bears witness to the absence. And that’s the extent of what I hope to do here—to simply bear witness. I could never do justice to the story of Beth’s life, but by providing a glimpse into our friendship I hope that I might give a sense of the profound impact Beth had on everyone who was fortunate enough to enter her orbit. And because bikes brought Beth and I together, it feels only right to meander down our shared memory lane in the manner of the best bike rides: intentional, yet aimless. Going nowhere, slowly. Taking the time to take it all in. Being present. After all, it’s all we’ve got. Beth understood this better than anyone.
Beth and I stumbled into one another’s lives as randomly as the cancer that took her out of it. When I informed my brother Hunter back in 2013 that I’d decided to pursue job opportunities in bike advocacy, he offered to put me in touch with Beth, a friend of his who worked at Bike New York. Beth made sure my resume landed on Ken and Andy’s desks and she advocated on my behalf. I’m certain I’m not the only person who can say this: Beth believed in me before she had any reason to. (She was always advocating for someone or something.) A few months later, I joined the Bike New York team.
Beth immediately became much more than a colleague. She was a mentor, a collaborator, and a dear friend. She taught me how to conduct a business call. She taught me what an RFP was. She hounded me about my terrible diet. She gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received: until you give yourself permission to drop a ball or two, you’ll work yourself to death trying to maintain the illusion that you can juggle everything. We biked upstate, along the Jersey Shore, through Central Park and the City at large. We rode to lunch and to coffee and to simply experience what Beth once described as that “sense of flow that magically unfolds while you weave through traffic and move in harmony with your fellow New Yorkers.” She had a funny habit of responding to the most mundane remarks (“I ran into Mark today”) with an incredulous “Oh, really?” as if everything was a kind of miracle. We packed a zillion box trucks together. We laughed constantly. (If something particularly funny caught Beth off guard, she’d do this thing where she’d quickly jut her head forward as if to catch her laugh’s leading plosive before it got loose. She never caught it. Her laugh was contagious.) We fought often but it never got the best of us. Beth was one of the fiercest and loveliest people I’ve ever met.
She had a profound impact on the nonprofit. (I won’t even attempt to articulate her legacy beyond the walls of the Bike New York offices. It’s still taking shape—and, indeed, learning to walk and talk in her daughter—and anyway it would take a lifetime.) When I joined the team, Beth had already begun the process of rebranding the organization. (Remember: Beth was in the Events department. No matter—if Beth saw a problem or an opportunity to help, she took charge and drummed up support.) The incredible look and feel of Bike New York, the Expo, the Tour, the regional and local rides and education classes—that’s Beth’s doing. When we started batting around the idea of a ride series that would cater to folks who’d just learned to ride but weren’t quite ready for the Tour or the longer Twin Lights or Discover Hudson Valley Rides, Beth committed herself completely to the initiative, giving generously of her time to brainstorm, iron out logistics, lead rides, and—most importantly—make the folks that came along feel like they were part of a family. (They were. They are.)
Beth never shied away from a challenge—the bigger, the better.
Beth also spearheaded one of the most radical and significant initiatives in the history of Bike New York—and, indeed, sporting events in New York City: the greening of Bike Expo New York and the TD Five Boro Bike Tour. The Expo attracts more than 60,000 people, the Tour more than 30,000. This effort, therefore, is tantamount to greening a mid-size city. But Beth never shied away from a challenge—the bigger, the better. Working with the Council for Responsible Sport, Beth led the charge: she devised a plan, secured organizational approval, and enlisted the support of numerous City agencies and thousands of volunteers. In 2014, the Tour became the first event in New York City to be certified sustainable. In 2016, they upped the ante and secured the Council’s second-highest sustainability rating. With every passing year, the torch Beth lit burns brighter and brighter. (Read more about our Beth Heyde Green Goals here.)
Last June, I found myself in the City for a professional workshop at Columbia University (I’m now a teacher in Arkansas), where Beth earned her Masters of Science in Sustainability Management. I had arranged to meet up with Beth and Jon and Ella a few days into my stay. I was already feeling a little off-kilter in the way that you do when you’re back in a place where you used to live without the people you used to live there with. It’s like breaking and entering a dream you’ve already woken up from. Everything is the same, as the Hassidic proverb goes, just a little different. Add to this my uneasiness about my imminent meet-up with Beth—I didn’t want to treat her as if she was dying, but I also didn’t want to treat her as if she wasn’t. I was walking a tightrope. And so I’d been wandering around the City by myself after long days at the workshop, listening to The National—a band Beth and Jon loved—fretting over whether I should buy a pack of cigarettes (a habit I’d kicked in the city nearly a decade earlier) and getting caught up in the band’s elegiac musings on life, love, death. (“When I think of you in the city / the sight of you among the sites / I get this sudden sinking feeling / of a man about to fly.”) All that good stuff. All that bad stuff.
The day came. I borrowed my sister’s boyfriend’s CitiBike pass and rode from South Williamsburg down to Beth and Jon’s apartment in Clinton Hill. (At that time, Beth was on medical leave from her job as Director of Operations and Outreach for the City’s bike share system. Her colleagues at the Department of Transportation pooled their PTO days to provide Beth with nearly a year of paid time off while she underwent chemo.) We laid around on the grounds of Pratt, across the street from their place. We didn’t talk much. We were, in the parlance of Beth’s mindfulness practice, in the moment. After all, it was all that we had. It was a beautiful day. I remember watching Beth, already a few months into chemo, as she looked at Jon while he and Ella napped, and I remember thinking, I’ve never seen a look like that. It was like Beth was already on the other side of something, and she’d made her peace with it while still fighting it with everything she had. That was Beth—at peace fighting the good fight, and smiling. I took a picture.
Taking my leave, I promised I’d let them know the next time I was in New York. I haven’t been back since, and Beth’s no longer there—or here, in a bigger sense.
As I walked to the nearest CitiBike dock to pick up a bike and head back to my little sister’s apartment, I listened to The National and thought about my wife and son back home in Arkansas, about the new life my wife was carrying inside her, about all the bike rides Beth and I had gone on and the terrifying possibility that we would never again ride together, about how many more times Beth and Jon and Ella would lay in the grass on the grounds of Pratt and watch the sun crash through the clouds. As I walked and thought and listened, a lyric that always strikes me struck me, emerging from the gloom of the song’s melody: “Do not think I’m going places anymore / I want to see the sun come up above New York.” But of course I was going places and—here’s the great random lucky miracle of life, a miracle that some are luckier to enjoy longer than others—I still am. I’m still here. (“Oh, really?”) And no matter how many New York City sunrises I’ve seen, as long as I’m alive I’ll always want more. And that’s the point, and Beth understood this—to desire what is readily available, to want what you already have. To be in the moment.
On August 29th, you’ll get to see the sun come up above New York. And what better way to see it than surrounded by tens of thousands of people on bikes. Beth’s dream. A dream she was lucky to live, if only for a short time. A dream she made reality for thousands of people over the years. On that morning, as you look north up Church Street and the sun begins to illuminate the glass and steel canyons of Downtown Manhattan, remember Beth’s advice: “Don’t worry so much. It’s okay. There is so much goodness to embrace. Ah and breathe. Deep deep healing breaths”—especially on the way up the Verrazano. On the way down, let it out and let it roll. You did it. You’re doing it. You’re doing it.
By Sam Slaton, Former Communications & Marketing Director
Sam is a former Director of Communications at Bike New York and is currently a teacher at the Thaden School in Bentonville, AR. He can often be found cycling around Bentonville with his family.