Clara taught herself how to ride a bicycle the other day.
Earlier this summer one of the training wheels fell off of her fairy princess pedal machine, and she asked her father to put it back on. But after replacing it two of three times in just a few days I finally gave up and left her with a one legged bike. Apparently the opposite training wheel also eventually fell off and she was left with a useless bicycle without any training wheels to keep her balanced. All the while neighbor kids rode by in the street in great flocks migrating towards sun lit cul-de-sac’s and joyous meadows.
She sat on the porch and watched them. From the shadows she studied their movements. The subtle tilt of their wrists while they went around corners. The way they shifted in their seats to remain balanced. And then she looked down at her bike laying in the driveway and had an idea.
She called me out into the yard that evening at 11 o’clock saying she had something to show me. Some new trick she could do on her bike.
“We stayed at Gran’s house too long Sweetie and now it’s way past your bed time!” I called after her. “We have to get our pajamas on and go to bed!” I chased her out the door into the slanting summer sunlight. And I stood blurry eyed on the front porch waving for her to come back in. Suddenly she came racing around the corner of the garage, riding her bike across the yard. With her face set in a fierce stare, her pink helmet sitting crooked on her head, she pedaled in two tight circles on the grass. She wove perfectly in and out of her long thin shadow and then turned without hesitation to head back toward the house. Every motion was perfect, confident, never once reaching to touch the ground.
I was amazed. I had been intending to take her out to a parking lot one of these weekends. I had dreams of throwing her bicycle in the back of the van and going to a park, just the two of us. I had an image in my mind of holding onto her seat and yelling words of encouragement while she teetered and fell and got back up to try again. I would dust off her pants and help her back on. Steady… steady, I would say. I knew where I would be standing as I watched it all finally click. After days of practice and determination I would finally let go and she would go sailing off in a wobbly line into the setting sun. I had dreamed that she would need me to be there to do all of that. That was my job as a father, to carry her over this glorious threshold of youth. But then here she was. Like a vision coasting across the yard. A graceful ghost. Six years older than my little girl was supposed to be. I saw her purple face crying as the doctor held her up to the light, I wrapped her in a tiny blanket set her down and left the room for only a moment, and when I came back she was here in the yard riding a bicycle.
In the end it was negligence that taught my daughter to ride a bike. It was a cheap broken bicycle, and the infinite timeline of summer heaped up like a pile of gold, the enticing laughter of potential friends floating out in the concrete ocean moving too far and too fast to catch, endless Saturday morning cartoons repeating that you can do anything if you just believe in yourself. It was the stubborn commitment of a first born, coupled with the pressure to succeed, and the clever mind of a girl that sees everything in the world as a mystery to be solved. All of this chained together in a long line. And she had done it.
She proudly walked back to the house and I hugged her on the front porch for a long moment, then I quietly motioned for her to step around me and into the house. She smiled and it seemed a smile that was half pride and half apology.
“I did it Dad!”
“I know Dear. I saw.”
“Now we can take bike rides together.”
“I know Dear. We will.”
But we both knew something different had just happened. She had opened a door and walked through it without me. Without fear, and without question, she faced something impossible and defeated it. And she had defeated it alone.
As she bounced up the stairs she seemed to grow taller with every step. And for a brief moment, only half a second, she turned and looked back at me in the darkness of the hallway before disappearing into her room, and for that small instant I saw a grown woman smiling back down at me and then she was gone.