On an empty neighborhood street near my home a father teaches his son to ride a bike. The boy sits on a tiny two-wheeled machine wearing a helmet roughly the size of a prize-winning watermelon. The father balances the bike and offers reassuring advice.
“Keep your head up, and just keep pedaling, and…”
Scattered on the driveway are disassembled training wheels which have been removed from the kid’s bike. The nuts and bolts lie on the pavement like memories of a bygone infanthood.
This boy is about to be one of the big kids today.
The child sits on his saddle wearing the face of Neil Armstrong before blastoff. It is the same facial expression Chuck Yeager had before breaking the sound barrier. The same look I once wore when I realized my income taxes were considerably late.
“I’m scared, Dad,” says the kid.
“You’re gonna be fine.”
“What if I fall?”
“What if I can’t do it?”
Meantime, I’m watching from a distance. They don’t see me eavesdropping.
Right now I am having a few memories return to me. Not memories of bicycles, but of times I once sat in the proverbial saddle and asked myself similar questions.
Can I do it? Can I withstand failure? How about rejection? What about embarrassment? Or pain? Will I make a fool of myself?
There was the time I worked up the bravery to ask Dorothy Lynn to couple skate at the fifth-grade roller-rink party. I was nauseous about it. I felt as though I would vomit all over my shoes.
Dorothy was the most popular girl in fifth grade and I was a chubby redhead whose T-shirts always seemed too snug. Boys like me did not ask Dorothy Lynn to couple skate. Boys like me held the regional record for the most rice puddings consumed during a single cafeteria period.
But I asked Dorothy anyway. I ignored my nerves, I faked confidence, and it worked. Dorothy’s face lit up and much to the surprise of the entire fifth grade we held hands and skated.
I am pleased to note that Dorothy’s hand was just as cold and clammy as mine. We skated to “Only You,” by the Platters. Afterward, I went into the boy’s restroom and vomited on my skates.
There was also the time in community college when I took my math final. I had to retake a lot of college math courses because I am essentially a math-dummy. I took one particular math class three separate times and failed twice. On my third attempt I was barely scraping by with a C average.
This last exam meant the difference between earning my degree or enduring another semester beneath the tutelage of a woman with the same maternal sensitivity as Joseph Stalin.
On test day I was the last student to finish. It was only me and the teacher left in the classroom. When I turned in my work she peered over her eyeglasses with doubtful eyes. “How do you think you did?” she asked.
“I think this is turning into a long term relationship.” I said.
As it happened, I got an A minus. What a great day.
There was also the time I asked a beautiful woman to marry me—which was very difficult. I don’t care who you are, when you propose marriage you’re putting your self-worth on the line. The wrong response from a woman could kill you.
I’ve known guys whose proposals were met with bitter rejections. These men ended up spending the rest of their lives in dim rooms, weeping violently whenever George Jones came on the jukebox, claiming it was their allergies.
When I asked Jamie Martin to grow old with me, my speech didn’t come together at all. I stumbled over my words like Don Knotts reciting the Preamble to the United States Constitution. And when I placed the tiny velvet box into her hand, her first reaction was not “Yes, I’ll marry you.”
Her answer was, “Of COURSE I’ll marry you.”
We held each other and cried happy tears. My nose starts running just thinking about it.
So when I see this kid on his bicycle I relate to what he’s going through. I feel his hesitation, his fear, and his fledgling trust in himself. I relate to his doubt, apprehension, and angst.
Believe me, kid, I get it. At times during this life I’ve wondered if I could get through it. But here I am, still pedaling. One day, you’ll say the same thing about yourself, and you’ll marvel at how strong you never knew you were.
“Are you ready?” says the boy’s father, clapping his son’s shoulders.
“I’m too afraid.”
“Will you catch me if I fall?”
“You won’t fall.”
“What if I do?”
The boy takes a steadying breath. Even he knows it’s time. His father gives him a running push-start. And suddenly the boy is off. Dad jogs behind the moving bicycle, cheering all the way. And…
Success. He’s doing it. The kid is really doing it. He is riding with the kind of tenacity you only see in movies. And when his triumph is over, the father lifts his son into his arms and kisses the boy’s cheeks.
They were both too overjoyed to notice the redheaded neighbor watching in the distance. And this is probably a good thing.
Because my allergies were acting up today.