I'll never forget when my nephew James learned to ride his two-wheeler. An extremely agile and athletic child, he was around 5 years old when he looked hard at his bike, removed the training wheels himself and began riding around the neighborhood a few hours later.
From what I can discern, this is not a typical bike-riding experience. At least, it wouldn't be normal for my son.
Until about a month ago, my 6 year old had zero interest in learning to ride a two-wheeler. I'd be like, do you want to help me put away laundry? Or go outside and ride your two-wheeler with your dad?
He'd choose to put away socks.
But now riding his two wheeler is all my son thinks about.
Every day when he arrives home from the bus he yells "Can I ride my bike?"
Unfortunately, he's not exactly a natural.
He gets home from school, throws on his helmet and drags me outside, away from doing Very Important Things (AKA my books and my wine) and makes me run up and down the street, in flip flops (okay my fault, not his) holding his seat.
I let go of his seat days ago. He rides all by himself, though it's in a zigzagy sort of way, like you'd ride if you were really drunk. Then he realizes I'm not holding on, screams like Nathan Lane in The Birdcage and topples to the ground, wailing.
So we go from determination and pride to wailing within the course of 5 minutes. This scene is repeated every afternoon with very little variation.
I lift the bike off him. He's huddled on the ground in the fetal position, sobbing.
"Mo-OM! You didn't catch me!" he says accusingly.
(I want to state that Big A actually has a huge bike that's his correct size due to his legs being so long. When he falls, he falls 3 feet into the ground. If I even attempted to catch him, we'd both get injured.)
"Calm down, calm down," I urge him, his shrieks so high-pitched that neighborhood dogs are moaning and covering their ears. "You're fine!"
"I'm NOT!" he yells, cradling his arm as a tiny speck of blood the side of a freckle appears on his elbow.
Now he's lost all confidence. Now he's lost all the excitement of riding his bike. And my Chardonnay is still being held captive on the kitchen counter.
I walk the bike back to the garage, as he shuffles and moans like a member of the living dead.
I apply expert first aid once we get inside, splashing wine on his boo-boo and letting my 3 year old daughter bandage him with a Hello Kitty Band-Aid and a kiss. He rolls his eyes "I'm not wearing this band-aid to baseball tonight."
Big A skulks over to the couch and throws himself on it dramatically.
"Promise me that I'll never fall off my bike again."
I laugh. He glares. I stop.
"I can't promise you that. You will fall off your bike again."
"Promise you'll always catch me when I fall, then" he says.
I sing a few bars of Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time. "If you fall, I will catch you I'll be waiting!" I sing.
"You will?" he asks, brightening.
"Actually, no." I admit. "Your father and I are always here to help you with good advice and support. We'll try to help you get out of jams and pickles and the like, but I can't promise that I'll always catch you if you fall off your bike. Like today for example."
He looks devastated.
It dawns on me that this could be an opportunity for a life lesson. I recall the Batman Begins reboot with Christian Bale when he falls in to the pit of bats as a child.
"Do you know why we fall?" I ask him, trying to keep a straight face and be earnest.
"Because I can't ride my bike that well." Big A says.
"No! We fall so that we can learn to pick ourselves up."
"Why don't you just pick me up?"
"Because if I picked you up, you wouldn't learn how to do it yourself. And you and your bike are incredibly heavy. You're like the largest first grader I know."
"Why don't you just buy me knee pads and elbow pads then?"
"Because those are for sissies. And I'm cheap." I say.
I come closer and wrap him up in my arms.
"Listen, buddy I know that riding your bike is scary and that falling hurts. But when you came home today you were so excited to try to ride your bike. You were so proud when you did! Did you know that you actually know how to ride your bike? The whole time I'm running alongside you, I'm not even touching you, did you know that?"
"Really. It's all mental. And then when you see I'm not holding you, you freak out."
"Mom, we're a whole family of freaker-outers."
"True, but we have passion! Who wants to be vanilla and calm all the time? Not us. But the point is, I don't want you to stop doing something you love, because it's scary. Don't let the fear stop you, okay?"
"And I know that you are capable of picking yourself up, dusting off your scraped elbows and getting back on the bike. I know it."
"Now do you want to get back on the bike?"
"No, I just want to lay here with my injuries."
His injuries, of course, being the glorified mosquito bite on his elbow.
Big A then stripped off his Hello Kitty band-aid and went to baseball and played with his friends afterwards.
When he came home, I heard the familiar "Can I ride my bike?"
It was nearly 745 pm and he hadn't had dinner yet or taken a shower. This defied our nearly sacred be-in-bed-by-8-pm rule. But I was happy he had gotten over his fear so I let him ride up and down the street, once, to show his dad.
Big A was very proud.
Until he ate it on the ride back. I was prepared for him to wail so loudly he'd break the sound barrier once again without an airplane. But there as just silence.
He gets out from under his bike, picks it up, climbs back on and tries again. And again. Until he falls one final time and we call him in for dinner.
He walks his bike into the garage with his head held high.
"Band-aid?" I offer him since I see a new scrape or two.
"No, thanks. Did you see me ride my bike?"
"Did you see how I fell and I picked myself up all by myself?"
"Yes, Big A, I saw that."
I feel a lump in my throat. Big A has been practicing every day for a month. Bike riding does not come as easily to my cautious, overthinking boy as it may come to others. He'll go on any roller coaster and be brave when blood is drawn or teeth are filled but he's nervous about trusting himself.
I watched him give his bike a little pat, put it back in its spot in the garage and carefully hang his helmet on his handlebars until tomorrow. I know he's going to get the hang of it. And I know the bigger lesson is that just because you keep falling doesn't mean that you shouldn't keep trying.
At that moment I feel a little hand tugging on my skirt and I look down at my 3 year old daughter smiling up at me. She's managed to put her brother's helmet on her head.
"Can I ride my bike?"