I Didn’t Want This Really Nice Bike
My husband got me a new bike.
He didn’t ask – – not this time. Just said, “I’m getting it.”
He asked the first time, a couple of years ago; took me to a bike shop along our favorite trail, a trail he’d ridden not long ago by himself. I remember that day – – the day of his solo ride – – It was the first time I realized I was angry about being sick.
He came home drenched in sweaty exhilaration, no effort to hide his delight. I wanted to knock the endorphins right out of him but instead, pounded my pillow. I yelled, cried about wanting my old life back; about how could he do it? How could he ride “our” trail without me, knowing my joining him wasn’t even an option?
He tried to hold me, wrapped his arms around from behind – – probably afraid I’d hurt myself. I told him to leave me alone, and he did. He went outside and took up some project I’d begged him to finish, or to weed the flower bed that I couldn’t – – something to make up for abandoning me, for having fun while I was stuck at home, mostly in bed, in a body of pain – or maybe he was just trying to get away from all the emotion.
I felt horrible; couldn’t believe I was treating him this way. I could tell he was panicked, confused by my reaction. But I couldn’t seem to help myself. I wanted out of my body, to be free of the ache that had settled into my skin, muscles, and bones. I wanted to crawl out, to liberate myself from a soul-holder that was crushing my soul. I wanted to ride my bike, to go fast.
But I couldn’t so I settled for getting out of my house.
This was no small feat. It was probably a more horrible idea than riding a bike, but, like a thief bathed suddenly in flashing red light, I snatched my car keys and headed for the door. I still had trouble remembering which side of the road to drive on, how to get home, what a stop sign meant. I still had vertigo. The bottoms of my feet were still too tender to press the pedals without pain, but for the first time in months, I got behind the wheel.
My husband’s panic did not subside.
He’d brought our daughter out to help weed. I still remember her watching, without a word, her mother’s head explode. But I didn’t linger on her face. I was sick of feeling guilty on top of feeling sick. I was sick of being chauffeured; sick of being watched, helped, protected.
So, I drove. Not far but to a place more painful than even our old bike path, another place I could not go anymore to be who I once was. I didn’t have complete sensation in my legs most of the time, and I was weak. I hobbled and trembled toward the closest picnic table where I collapsed, staring at the trailhead. I wanted to hike, but I couldn’t. I wanted to ride, but I couldn’t. I wanted to be a partner to my spouse and a mother to my children, instead of an invalid. But I couldn’t.
I sensed myself trying to harden against the longing, trying to feel nothing, but this was my place and, without a sound, I wept. I’d shared this space with my dog before she died and occasionally with my kids, but mostly, I’d come alone. My exile from here had produced a craving – – not like when you really want candy or a cheeseburger, more like the ache you feel over the absence of the one you love most. It had been so easy to pray here, so simple to set my mind straight. It was a place where I’d put one foot in front of the other, worked my way up hills, learned to feel small at the bottom of ravines, and remembered the big picture from their peaks.
Biking was different.
I’d never considered myself a “cyclist,” had no interest in squeezing into tight uniforms or locking my feet into pedals; was never intent on beating a clock. I just loved to ride my bike.
It was like getting into a swing or slipping down a slide. On my bike, I found my child’s heart. It’s a quiet experience, the hum of skinny tires, birdsong, a breeze streaming past your ears. It was fun to be speedy, to try and run over crunchy leaves, to reach overhead and let my fingers touch the ones on the trees, to stand tall on the pedals, or ride with no hands.
My husband could still do all those things, and I understand now why, many months after my tantrum and my driving rebellion, when I was a little more mobile, he tried to get me to try a “more comfortable” bike.
I wasn’t angry the day he took me to the bike shop, just sad – – as if sad is better or less. He fed me first at a nice local restaurant. We sat outside where I could see all the people on their bikes. I recall that not helping, but I didn’t say anything. After dinner, he spoke a gentle command, something like, “Let’s go. Just try one.” And we went. He was taking me to look at the cruisers — the Townie Electras – the comfortable bikes.
When I was well, I actually wanted a Townie. They’re a charming vehicle; hipster, with cool baskets and shiny fenders. But that was different – – that was a choice for days when I might want to wear a skirt and sunhat to ride my super cute bike to the street market or something. It wasn’t because leaning forward onto my time trial bar or sitting on my skinny racing seat just hurt more than I could tolerate. It wasn’t because I was disabled.
We looked that night but didn’t commit. I ended up in the car with my head on my husband’s shoulder sobbing, not ready for what I referred to as “a sick person’s bike.” It felt like giving in to something that I just wanted to go away.
Back to now.
He bought it, and I keep it in the back of the van so it’s handy whenever I want to stop for a ride. I still don’t ride “our” trail without him. It’s just too lonely, but I’ve found other paths for myself, and we go to ours together, knowing that he’ll go farther and faster, that I’ll need to turn around sooner; take my time, take more breaks.
I don’t zip past people anymore and rarely call out, “On your left!” I have days when I struggle to pass people walking, when the sight of them up ahead makes me cringe at the effort getting by them will demand. My seat is wide and cushy. My back is straight. I have seven gears and use two. I wear a sunhat and am in the market for a basket – – but it has be to wicker, and it has to be darling.
I didn’t want this really nice bike. I didn’t want a chronic, debilitating disease. I now have both. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.
On a recent solo ride, I was headed up a hill, amazed that I was doing it. Riding my bike; riding it up. I had on my sunhat, baggy pants, and sandals. (Sandals to ride a bike?) I was working those pedals for all I was worth, stunned that my muscles were still with me, and then I heard it.
“On your left!”
A guy, feet locked in the pedals, body squeezed into a second, endorsement-covered skin, helmet fastened down, flew past me up the hill and beyond, racing to beat the clock fastened to his handlebars and the one ticking away inside his head.
I laughed. No weight-of-the-world sigh, no sorrow or despair. I laughed at the picture of me eking up that small hill on my “sick person bike” while he whizzed onward. The laughing nearly cost me the thrill of reaching the summit – nearly, but I made it. When I got to the top, I could see him far away already. I took a break to look at the river, now below; to watch Herons wade and Kingfishers dive.
My old bike is silver, a smooth, swift ride — quiet and faster than my husband’s touring bike. (Maybe that’s why he wanted to get me another?) I pushed left of a lot of people on that bike. It was great, the speed, the feeling of strength, of dominance.
Odd, how much stronger I felt struggling up that little hill. I felt stronger than that fast guy. It was easy to whiz past when I was healthy; easy to get healthier, when I was healthy. But, the way I see it, I’ve been persistent, diligent, steady in trying to get up a hill for the last four years, or more like a lot of hills, and every tiny summit has been a happy surprise.
I’ve a new moniker for my Townie. Not a “sick person bike,” but a “restorative bike”; a bike that gives me grace to slow down and take in all the sights along the trails I couldn’t visit for so very long; a bike that brings me back to familiar and longed-for places, that restores my child’s heart. She’s a bike that says, “It’s Okay to not be completely healthy, to feel weak, to go slower than I used to. It’s Okay.”
On second thought, look at her, the sweet little hipster. She’s a bike that says, “It’s cool.”