Born to ride. That’s Helen Sharp.
It took 96 years for her motorcycle dream to come true.
But come true it did, in all its engine-roaring, wind-blowing, open-highway glory, on a cool September afternoon in northern Michigan.
Helen beamed the whole way.
“It was like almost being in heaven,” she said.
Bringing about this first-ever motorcycle ride took a team—Helen’s family members, volunteers and staff from Spectrum Health Hospice.
It started when hospice social worker Missy McMellen talked with Helen about life goals. Helen said she would love to ride a motorcycle before she died.
“Hospice is more about living than dying,” McMellen said. “When people say they want to do something specific like this, you try to make it happen.”
As she began to work on a plan, Helen’s daughter, Joyce White, said she worried about her mom’s safety on a two-wheel motorcycle. But Helen insisted she would not ride in a sidecar. That just would not count.
Hospice nurse Stacy Dodd, RN, found the solution: She contacted Shelley Spedowske, a retired Spectrum Health surgical technician. Shelley and her husband, Jim, ride three-wheel motorcycles. They offered to give Helen a ride.
When her big day arrived, Helen waited in her daughter’s house in Mecosta, Michigan, both excited and nervous.
“I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry,” she said.
And then she burst into laughter.
Love at first sight
Asked her secret to longevity, Helen described a busy life filled with hard work, love and family.
“No grass ever grows under my feet,” she said.
At 15, she met her husband, Arnold, on a blind double-date at a high school dance in Morley. He had a sweet personality. A bit quiet, but that was fine with her—she didn’t mind doing most of the talking.
“I’m sure it was love at first sight,” she said.
She showed their wedding portrait, taken outdoors in deep snow on Dec. 14, 1941. She wore a slim-waisted, knee-length, royal blue dress.
“I paid $3.98 for it,” she said.
She plans to work with a hospice volunteer to write her life story. There are things she wants young people to know, about life in the 1920s and ’30s.
Money was tight at home, so she left school after 10th grade and worked as a live-in housekeeper. She earned $2.50-$3 a week, plus room and board. She got every other weekend off.
“Times were hard, but I think we were happier,” she said.
After she and Arnold married, they lived on a dairy farm near Stanwood. She helped work the fields, made all the meals and took care of the house. And they raised three children—two daughters and a son.
At 25, her family expanded even more—she met her birth mother.
Helen had known since age 14 she was adopted, but she knew nothing about her birth parents.
One day in 1947, a woman stopped by for a visit. She said her son went to school with Helen and she just wanted to say hi.
That puzzled Helen. She didn’t remember the woman’s son.
After her visitor left, Helen walked into the house and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. And that’s when she realized it—the woman looked just like her. That had to be her birth mother, stopping by just to get a glimpse of the daughter she had placed for adoption.
A couple of months later, a package arrived in the mail with a birthday gift for her kids. Helen noticed the return address in Detroit. She tracked it down and found her birth mother.
Back home, she gently broke the news to the mother who adopted and raised her.
“I had to be careful. I didn’t want to hurt her,” she explained. “I said there was enough love in my heart for both of them.”
She remained close to both mothers the rest of their lives.
At least it’s not bungee-jumping
Helen traced her dream of riding a motorcycle to her husband. As a young man, Arnold loved motorcycles.
“He drooled over having a bike,” she said. “I don’t know why we didn’t get into it. Probably because we had kids and grandkids.”
And Helen wasn’t shy about driving. Sometimes, she drove the big team of horses that her husband used to work the fields in the early days.
She drove the tractor. Rode on snowmobiles, trucks, cars and bikes.
And when they retired, Helen and Arnold did a lot of camping, driving their travel trailer to parks throughout Michigan.
Helen and Arnold were married 67 years. After he died in 2008, Helen lived independently until last spring, when she moved in with her daughter Joyce. Because of macular degeneration, she has limited vision.
In February, she started receiving care from Spectrum Health Hospice. At the time, congestive heart failure caused a lot of problems with her lungs and excess fluid.
“Once hospice took over, she started doing much better,” Joyce said.
With medication changes and regular visits from hospice aides and nurses, Helen lost 47 pounds of excess water weight. Her breathing became easier. She became more active.
“When she’s feeling good, sometimes it’s hard to keep up with her,” Joyce said.
When her mom said she wanted to ride a motorcycle, Joyce said, “Let’s do it.”
She admits she felt relieved her mom didn’t ask to go bungee-jumping or zip-lining.
A need for speed
They drove to Bromley Park, in the village of Mecosta, to begin the motorcycle ride.
Helen eagerly climbed out the car to meet the Spedowskes and examine their Harley-Davidson Tri Glide motorcycles.
“How fast do you want to go?” Jim asked.
“How fast can you go?” Helen replied with a grin.
Shelley had a little gift to help Helen look the part—a pink and black “Route 66” doo-rag to wear on her head.
Hospice nurse Kristen Buff loaned Helen her motorcycle jacket. Many hands helped her put on her helmet and secure the strap.
And then, with a team of supporters, Helen stepped up to the motorcycle and swung her leg over.
She gave a double thumbs-up, and the crowd cheered.
“They’re not going to let you drive it, Mother,” her son, Dick Sharp, said.
“They’re not?” she replied. “That’s just what I had in mind.”
Jim climbed onto the driver’s seat. Helen waved as they pulled out of the park.
And off they went. Down two-lane highways, they zoomed past forests, farm fields and houses.
They pulled up to a stop sign, waiting to make a turn.
“Can you go faster?” Helen asked.
So Jim did.
After a 15-minute ride, they returned to the park. Helen smiled up at everyone. She seemed to be at a loss for words—but only for a moment.
“I can’t believe. I can’t believe it,” she said. “Beautiful, beautiful. I want to go again. It’s in my blood now.
“I won’t be able to sleep tonight. I’ll think about this all night long. Thanks, everybody.”
She patted Jim’s arm.
“You are so nice to take good care of me,” she said.
For Jim and Shelley, the ride was an honor.
“I think we are as excited about this as she is,” Shelley said. “How often do you get the chance to make someone’s wish come true?”
At home, Helen settled back down in her recliner, near a framed portrait of herself and Arnold.
Her husband would have loved the ride, she said. She thought of him as she rode down the highway.
“He was right beside me,” she said.
The experience, after all these years, far exceeded expectations.
“It felt like you were right on the air. Or in the air. It’s hard for me to describe how it felt,” she said.
“Ninety-six years old before I got my bike ride. But I got it. It was fantastic. I’ll never forget it.”