childhood

Bicycle Race

Even before I was born, my mother had to square with the fact that I might die.

Her contractions started about a month too early, and as a premature baby I was at risk for a whole bunch of things. The most terrifying possibility was that my under-developed lungs weren’t world-worthy, and I might suffocate when I left the womb. The doctors had my mom sign a waiver that she wouldn’t sue, because in working to better my odds of getting oxygen they were also making cerebral palsy more likely. I’m safe in saying that everyone is happy with that decision, as I’m alive to write about it.

Still, my mother had seen the Grim Reaper over her shoulder, gunning—scything?—for her baby. They played high-stakes tug-o-war for a while as I, the trophy child, sat by in a clear plastic crib, wrapped up in tubes and tape. When at last my mother wrested me from the bastard she stormed from the hospital for the last time and didn’t look back. Whatever else she did, she had determined never again to let Death near her daughter.

In winter, I was that kid wearing a full-body snowsuit so thick that I couldn’t put my arms down. Underneath, I wore a sweater, sweatpants, and a jacket. I remember longing so much to actually feel the cold that I bolted into the night jacketless—just for a second—from the sliding door of our kitchen. I came back as soon as I was shouted for, but I had a moment of freedom and it was worth it.

In summer, I rode my bike, a scooter, and even—for one ill-advised moment—a pogo stick. But on top of the standard-issue helmet, I was required by maternal law to wear elbow- and knee-pads. If I was going to go out into a world where Death walked free, I was going to do it in armor.

For a long time, I went along. I was a Good KidTM, operating indefinitely under the assumptions that 1) Mom was always honest, 2) Mom was always looking out for me, and 3) Mom probably knew best anyway, so whatever. Then, one day, I forgot the elbow- and knee-pads.

She didn’t notice. Then I started skipping them on purpose. But hey, I still wore my helmet. Right about then was when I started pulling stupid stunts.

It started with the stairs. We lived in a split-level condo, so on either side of the long building there was a big hill. On the right, there was a sidewalk that led from the front parking lot to the back one. In-between, in order to navigate the hill, the sidewalk broke up into three steps. Each one was far enough from the previous one to fit a bicycle. So, on that pad-less day, I rode down the stairs.

I did it slowly the first time, certain that some law of physics beyond my comprehension would immediately bring about my death simply because I was doing something I was not supposed to do. Navigating each step was a shock to my system: first the climbing anticipation as the wheel approached a step, then overtook it, hovering over nothing; and then the crash that shook the bike and me.

Everything rattled. Then everything was still. And I hadn’t died.

Soon I was riding circuits around the condo. No stopping, no slowing down. From there, I started trying to tighten my bike turns in the parking lots. I remember—though perhaps I remember wrongly—one time brushing the side of my sneaker (which was on the bike pedal) against the ground during a turn, and not falling over.

Down the other side of the condos, instead of lawn, was a bunch of trees. There was sidewalk there, too, but it just ran in a long, somewhat steep decline. Here and there old tree roots broke up, through the cement, for tripping over. I used to ride full-speed down that hill, bumping over the cracks and the roots, until I flew off the sidewalk at the bottom and rode a victory lap through the big puddle that always gathered in the waiting parking lot after a good rain. It was wonderful.

One time, I rode so hard up onto my mother’s lawn that I flew off the bike seat and into the handlebars. My chest ached for days. I scraped my hands, skinned my knees, and scared myself. Finally, I realized what my mother had known from the first: in everything I did, I might die.

The knowledge was liberating. It gave my life value, because it could be taken away.

The pain was liberating. It made my body a real thing: weak because it sustained injuries, but strong because it could withstand them.

I wasn’t going to live forever, and I wasn’t just my brain. Those were the two things I learned out on my bicycle. I had limits—of control, time, pain thresholds—and the real joy of existence is exploring all that lies between them and me. Maybe even pushing them.

A little.