Wheels, Wings and Water

Elihu’s father had a bad experience with a bike once. It was early enough in his bicycling career and frightening enough to cause him to put the bike down for good. Once, in our early twenties, I’d tried to take up the campaign to re-acquaint him with riding, to remind him of the pure joy he would experience, to show him the sense of freedom it might bring to his life. Instead of seeing joy as I rode behind Fareed, I saw stress in every square inch of his body. He white-knuckled the handles and his torso remained one stiff, unbending unit. He was one big lump of fear. He wasn’t joyful, and clearly, he wasn’t experiencing anything similar to freedom. This, for me, was profoundly disappointing. As a young adult whose living was made pretty much with his hands alone, it became clear in a single afternoon that we would probably not be riding bikes together in our relationship. It just wasn’t a priority for him, and yes, it was quite possibly dangerous to his career (so was washing dishes – oh, that coveted right hand thumbnail. !). And I understood it, but I can’t say that I didn’t mourn it (as in for all twenty-two years of our relationship). I suppose I shoulda given that first, tiny rift a bit more consideration when I chose to make my life with him…

Time’s been a-passing, and I’ve been getting a bit concerned that Elihu himself might grow up not knowing how to ride a bike. Now Fareed’s parents didn’t themselves ride, so he didn’t have any backup, anyone motivating him. So when he gave up, it wasn’t considered a real loss. But to that I say: how does one grow up not riding a friggin bicycle?? To grow up not knowing the joy of exploring new neighborhoods and the independence and adventure that comes with it, never to experience the exhilaration of a fine, down-hill coast, never to know the incredible sense of freedom of that first, hands-free ride? This is all part and parcel of what it is to be a human being growing up on this planet – in virtually any country you might choose! Unless, of course, you live in the Australian outback, or perhaps on the frozen tundra – ok, then, maybe, a bike’s not a plus. But anywhere else – no, make that everywhere else – on this silly planet? Come on! It’s the single most ubiquitous form of transportation on the globe! Period. Not to ever ride a bike and know its freedoms and pleasures would be a heartbreaking loss. And if, as a mother, I did not teach my child how to ride a bike, I would be committing an inexcusable crime in parenting. So today, I took action. We will be a family who rides. We will!

It so happens that my family’s extended minivan (the Conants always needed an extra long vehicle for the transportation of harpsichords) needed to be driven a few miles before the guys at the garage could re-test it for the state emissions tests. So I threw our bikes into its cavernous interior and we headed out for the local middle school parking lot. I have never before found such a perfect place for learning to ride. Absolutely perfect. First, the place is huge. Like a high school, really. Second, it’s so close to level that riding in any direction is easy. There’s a bit of a grade here and there, imperceptible when going up (that’s nice), but a nice bit of assistance when going down. Lots of opportunity for easy forward movement. And aside from the couple we met who were walking their golden retriever, we were truly alone. The sky was blue with fast-moving clouds from horizon to horizon. A majestic day. Not hot, not cool. Perfect for riding bikes.

(Taking in the expanse of the parking lot, I remembered a story I’d heard many years ago: I once knew a man who’d played guitar in Ray Charles’ band, and it had been his job to take Ray out to the salt flats where Ray could put pedal to the metal and send his Buick flying at top speed in any direction. Yup, blind Ray loved to drive. And with all that wide open space, the salt flats were the only place he could really let loose. I can’t imagine riding shotgun in that car. Yikes.)

At first I nearly forget the helmets. Helmets are still rather a ‘new’ thing in my world; most of my bike-riding life has been without one. (Although I did bring mine along, I was a bad mom and neglected to wear it as a good example.) But I had Elihu well-prepared; in addition to his helmet he had on my old sailing gloves. If he went down, at least his hands wouldn’t end up scraped and bleeding. He is nine this year, and truthfully I’d thought he would have been riding by now, but each summer so far has been full of just so much stuff there’s never been an opportunity like this. Plus, Elihu just wasn’t interested, psyched. And you can only force so much. Especially on a gravelly, bumpy old driveway like ours. But today something was different. On the short drive there, I tried to sell him a bit on the way in which his world would simply open up when he could finally ride. Not sure if he needed it or not; by the time we got there, his face was all smiles and he darted away from me as if he had not one single forethought of a nasty fall (it was forefront in my mind for the first hour). My child does not have a natural aptitude for things physical; sports – games especially – things that involve either speed, balance or tracking of moving objects. Much of this is due to his having Achromatopsia, but then again, much of it is simply do to with, well, being my and Fareed’s kid.

I let it all go. Occasionally I shout out some of the briefest advice – but no coaching, no matter how understated and succinct it may be is really going to help him. What he needs is simply time. Did we not all learn by having all those summer hours to while away on our bikes? At first we tried to keep pace with the big kids, our training wheels allowing us to go just about anywhere they did (only much slower, and it certainly did not look very cool). So then maybe dad takes off one side. Three wheels. It’s still comforting. But hey, look, you’ve spent hours doing this now – and have you noticed how you’re not really even using that third wheel? You hardly touch it to the ground now. Hey – it really does seem like you’re ready. Yeah. Think so. So you come out one morning and dad’s already done it for you. No more little wheels. But you know in your tummy how it feels to ride, to balance moving forward, to roll upright. It feels just so, it feels right. Now you  know. Finally, you can ride.

But it took hours around the neighborhood to get to that point. Or at least hours around a better driveway than ours. So we will simply have to artificially enhance the hours spent on the pavement by driving here each weekend and just riding around. Til he gets it. And given his enthusiasm and sheer delight today, I think he’ll be riding before too long. I am very happy about this. Cuz I too had a wonderful day, riding in lazy circles, standing on my pedals, feeling the wind, imagining myself flying, flying…. I’d told Elihu (as a means to entice him) that riding a bike was probably the closest thing to flying he would ever get to experience. Today he told me he thought he just might agree. Happy boy was he. !

We found a natural conclusion to the day, a consensus that we were done for now. We loaded our bikes into the van, then sat in its open side door, taking in the vista of the wide, wide sky above. “Lake George?” I asked him, inspired by the sky and craving even more of it. “Yes, definitely” he answered. I knew he loved our last visit there, now two years ago. We’d heard my old friend David Amram play, he’d caught ducks and we’d eaten at a restaurant over the water. The memory, for some reason, lived larger than so many others in his mind. We still needed to put another 50 or so miles on the engine before it could be re-tested, so this was perfect. After dropping off our bikes and a quick change of clothes, we headed north.

The sky continued to uplift our spirits, and seeing the lake from its southernmost point, framed on either side by mountains, that was a sight that impressed even my low-vision child. We first drove around town, taking it all in, getting a feel for where things were. There’s really not much to it. It’s a tiny tourist town. The draw for us is the lake, the sky, the seagulls and ducks. We found our way to the restaurant we’d been to last visit, and had high hopes for a lobster dinner over the water. Turns out they’d downsized the menu a bit recently, which was just as well. I was feeling a bit ill about spending so much when we had so very little. We settled on some lobster bisque instead. And some clams. Perfect. We have a lovely little meal during which neither of us can stop tapping our hands or feet on account of the too-loud music they’ve pointed at our table. My thing is my right foot. Been playing an imaginary kick drum for half my life now. Hardly know I’m doing it. My kid – he’s just plain playing any surface just about all the time. We groove, we laugh. We have so much fun. We watch the parasailors float by in front of the pine forest mountains behind. We learn to say ‘thank you’ in Slovakian from our waitress. We have a pink plastic pig which we have decided we will now take places with us and have photos taken of him on location, much like Flat Stanley (his went to Cairo!). We snap a pic of pig on the roof of the marina’s tarp, looking out over the majestic body of water. We laugh. We pay our bill, stash some extra oyster crackers in our bag, and head to the docks.

We’re able to bring the gulls in close with our modest cache of crackers. I try to snap some pictures, then, frustrated with the delay time of the silly shutter, I put it away and choose to enjoy the moment instead. The sun is going down behind the mountains, and we are bathing in its final orange glow. Elihu has been smiling almost the whole day, I notice. We finish our close encounter with the gulls and head up to ‘the strip’. We discover the town is slowing down. Summer is over and shops will be closing soon. We find an arcade open and walk in to explore. The prices are good; we enjoy a few fast-paced games of air hockey, then Elihu wins not one but two prizes (and not lame ones either) in the nearly-impossible-to-win game in which the claw drops and then lifts up, hopefully bringing with it a trinket in its clasp. Two prizes. He was so pleased with himself, and I commenced to fan the flame of his pride with my continued exclamations of “No one does that! How’d you do that? No one does that!”. Finally Elihu plays a winner of an airplane game which moves him up, down, left and right, in a surprisingly thrilling simulation of actual flight. No topping that one. Time to go. Besides, we’re almost out of cash. Almost.

We cross the street and head for the car. We’re a savory-over-sweet family on most days, but a fudge shop whose lights were still on just drew us in. They had a wall of nostalgic candy items, many of which I had to explain to Elihu. (I also added that we rode our bikes to the stores that sold them…) He got some gold miners gum nuggets in a little cloth bag – just  like the stuff my brother and I use to get at Leo’s, and then, as I was paying Elihu spied two remaining boxes of crickets. Salt and Vinegar flavored, to be exact. We threw em in, much to the disgust of the young five year old watching, who covered his  mouth in earnest, and finally we headed on our way.

The ride home seemed to take but fifteen minutes. Mighta been closer to twenty, but sure was quick. We went to Grandma and Grandpa’s to swap out cars and recap our day’s adventures, then we were off to get the birds in and get to bed.

Getting to sleep wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it might be in the wake of a full day of outdoor air. But there was so much to go over. So many sights to re-see in the mind’s eye. I read an old Swedish Fairytale to Elihu, then after feeling the night set in, I spied a favorite stuffed parrot on his shelf. “What’s his name?” I asked. “Lenny” he responded, quietly. “Would you like Lenny tonight?” I asked, feeling that he really would. He nodded. I brought the big parrot down and Eilhu took him tightly in his arms. Maybe this would help me to leave sooner. Maybe it would be just the reassurance he needed before he set sail into his night of dreams.

Good night, my beloved son. Thank you for another blessed day. I love you as much as the skies are wide…

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