ALONG THE SUNCOAST TRAIL — It's been nearly three years now since she died, but Frank Schroeder still talks as though she's there. He says "we" do this, "we" love going here or there. He knows the ghost of her lives within him and around him.
In theory, he would like to move on and not be alone, but that would mean letting her go, and his wife, Oakley, was the most perfect person he has ever met.
His friends affectionately tease him about her bike — cherry red, highest quality, fierce — that still hangs on a wall in his garage. They say that's his Excalibur and the woman who can ride that bike will be the one for him.
Frank, now 66, and Oakley met on the triathlon circuit in the early '90s. Both were divorced with children and were at that time in life where they had learned from the past and were comfortable in who they were and what they wanted.
Both were very competitive and active and, after lingering looks and small talk, they began going to races where the other would be. Then the same races became the same hotel room, which then became the same house, same life, same last name. They traveled the world with their running shoes and bikes. Maui was a favorite, as well as Colorado. China. Europe. Belize.
Oakley wasn't as gregarious as Frank, who, as an engineer and salesman, can make fast friends with anyone. But she was quick to laugh and good to be around. Frank's friends joked that the only reason they put up with Frank was because of Oakley.
When they heard the Suncoast Trail was being created, they built a house alongside it and moved there in 2003. It was exactly what they wanted: peaceful, so close to miles of cycling trails, but with easy access to a highway. Frank built Oakley a putting green in the back, as she liked to golf. They watched deer in their yard and looked at the stars at night.
In that same year, Oakley began having pain in her right breast, though she didn't talk about it. She was a Christian Scientist and she believed that prayer could heal her. The Christian Science Web site says it has no mandates on believers to forgo medication in lieu of prayer.
"Reliance on conventional medicine, though discouraged, is left up to the individual," according to a section on Christian Science on beliefnet.com.
But Oakley not only decided to not seek any medical treatment, but she refused to discuss her disease — as healing prayer is all about the state of mind and talking of death is negative. For the next two years, Oakley prayed and meditated, and Frank took care of her and never intervened. He respected her and her religion, even if he, a man without religion, didn't agree.
It was the most difficult thing he's ever gone through, to watch the love of his life waste away. He ran and biked into the woods and screamed, often. The tumor was never treated and became so bad that it was outside of her body.
Frank bought a three-wheel bike for her, so he could put her in it and strap her feet to the pedals and she could take off and ride, even though she was weak.
A last race
In the spring of 2005, Oakley ran her last race, a mini-triathlon in Fort De Soto. Frank also ran it and waited for her at the finish line. When she crossed it, he scooped her up and took her home and cared for her. A few months later, she couldn't move and was admitted into a Christian Science nursing home in Fort Lauderdale. Frank stayed with her the whole time. One morning, she woke and whispered, "I dreamt that I just ran the best race of my life."
And then a few moments later, she died.
Frank still runs in the mornings and cycles during the day. He owns his own engineering company and has the means to travel often, but he doesn't as it's not as much fun solo. He spends time with friends, instead. This week, he will be going to the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, otherwise known as RAGBRAI.
It's an event that's been going on since 1973; this will be Frank's 18th year. He'll be riding with Lance Armstrong's group, Team Livestrong.
It's hard not to think about Oakley every day, especially during something like this at which they were known as one. They always had so much fun, acting as if on a spring break for adults, seeing Iowa and visiting small towns and eating good food.
Frank says that if he's going to meet someone, she will be a cyclist and maybe, she'll be there this week.
If so, he might have a red bike that fits her, if he'll allow himself to take it off the wall and let it be ridden again.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4609.