Life is all about balance, which is obvious unless you are an uncoordinated kid. I’m not ashamed to say I loved the training wheels on my bike as a child. With them, my joy was blazed in trails of contentment in motion. I believed I had the means to transport myself into realms beyond the well-worn sidewalk in front of my house. Four wheels and my imagination stretched the boundaries of adventure into infinity.
Once the training wheels were off; however, I fell right over. Staying upright on two wheels seemed a feat meant for tightrope walkers. I lacked a certain coordination that gave me the confidence to ride off into the sunset.
I did put in the effort, but riding seemed to be a magic trick that I couldn’t master. This infected my morale. I believed that I wasn’t athletic. Something as simple as catching a ball, for example, would make me flinch. My father taught me to tighten my fists as the ball was coming towards me and open them just as the ball arrived into my hands. This was genius. He somehow was able to convert my fear into an intentional tension that allowed me to keep my eye on the ball and bring me into the present moment. When I released my tension and caught the ball, it opened something inside me that connected my mind with my body.
After that, I actually caught a pass at school, scoring a goal that lifted me up in the eyes of the jocks, who only saw me as a comedian at best.
Still, I was unable to ride. It was a hidden point of shame, like still sucking your thumb in the first grade. There was a woman named Mary, who had taken care of my grandfather and was an ongoing integral part of our family. One day, Mary took me out and somehow got me to balance long enough to start pedaling. My grandmother came outside and saw me actually riding. For a minute, I felt like I was flying. Here I was, accomplishing something that was outside the realm of possibility. Then I hit the mailbox, toppling over in pain. The humiliation stung worse than acute soreness.
I was done learning how to ride a bike after that. I had tasted success, but the pain became a mental and physical block. My father decided that it was my time to ride. He put my bike in the trunk and drove the family out to Topeekeegee Yugnee park. We knew it as TY park. It wasn’t crowded there and had plenty of wide-open space, with no mailboxes.
My father was a methodical man. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do, as far as I was concerned. Leaving my mother and sister behind, we went into what I felt was the wilderness. It was just the two of us, and it was as if he was the shaman initiating me into manhood. Dad had me face my fear. We built on the success I experienced with Mary. I can’t remember what he told me, or the technique he had me employ, but something clicked and I was riding! It seemed fantastic and natural all at once as if the bicycle were just an extension of my being and that, somehow, I had always been riding. Not content with me being able to ride and brake, my father told me to ride in a figure eight pattern. This covered being able to turn and anticipate obstacles.
Once I had mastered this trick, we went back to show the family. We may have only been gone an hour but it seemed a lifetime. I felt taller than the trees as I rode around my mother and sister. It felt miraculous, like overcoming a handicap. Dad told me to show them the trick I just practiced. I went into the figure eight. What I didn’t anticipate was performing on shifting gravel. On our rite of passage quest, I’d only rode on a black top road and in dry grass. It was only after my first turn that I looked down at the little white rocks shifting beneath me and took my eye of the ball, so to speak. My confidence went out from underneath me and so did the bike.
Scraped up and bleeding, I started to cry. Before I could implode, my father told me to get back on the bike and make the figure eight again, on the gravel.
“If you don’t get back on right now, you won’t believe you can ever do it again,” he said.
I remember looking at my mom. She seemed miles away. All I wanted to do was to run into her arms and have her hold me. Somehow, in that moment, I knew her sympathy wouldn’t be able to hold me tight enough to overcome my fear.
Shaking, I got back on the bike and did the two tight turns without a hitch. I rode away from my family onto the open road and tasted the freedom of self-assurance that my father had given to me, as if it were an inheritance.
I am fortunate in that most of the roads I’ve traversed since then have held an aspect of wonder and a quiet tenacity that, even when it wavers, is an inextinguishable flame. Each bend in the road I take, I am able to lean into because my father made me get back on that bike. It might not have worked if he had just barked out the command. My success wasn’t for him. He wasn’t embarrassed by or for me. His insistence was a wisdom he conveyed firmly but with a love that I understood innately.
That love rides with me, into the unknown, even after his passing. Life is about balance. I am grateful to and for my father for instilling a sense that, in any given situation, balance is attainable. Even on the shifting gravel of this uncertain time, my father is with me as we ride that figure eight of infinity, together.