Yesterday, I spent the afternoon at Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia with my oldest son, Hayden, filling out questionnaires, complaining about litter downtown (Hayden, slamming the dashboard, "Am I the only one who cares about trash in the trees?!") and paying our monthly visit to the lovely Dr. Choo.
If you live in the Northeast, then you know we are getting an unseasonably warm and early start to spring, about a month ahead of schedule. Wondering, with every day that passes and moves us closer to April, can we trust this weather? Can we shave the dog yet? Can we shave the Hayden!? (These will be addressed in upcoming blogs...)
Following a long wait and relatively painless appointment, Hayden and I were antsy to get home with plans to go on a bike ride and get out in nature. We battled I-95 traffic and arrived home in the slanting late afternoon sun to find Piper (4) insisting that she needed me to take the training wheels off her bike--she was ready to ride a two wheeler. These are the slightly rusty training wheels that I had only recently located in the weeds and under the porch where Max had hidden them after jimmying them off her bike last fall, apparently mortified to have a sister who needed training wheels. (Note: Max has been a seasoned bike rider since all of last May. More on that later.)
We lost a few important mechanical pieces in the process, the hazards of using a seven-year-old mechanic, and ended up reattaching the wheels with various pieces of scavenged hardware and zipties. So I was a little reluctant to take them off again--she and Quinn have been having a great week riding loops on their teetering pink and purple training wheeled bikes, but yesterday Pip insisted: no training wheels. She was ready!
Off they came. Then there was the process of suiting her up. The boys raided her ice hockey bag, just put away for the season, and jammed on various knee pads and elbow pads, and slapped a friend's borrowed helmet on her head. Max's hand-me-down Adidas and black hockey gloves so stiff they stayed curled on her handlebars completed the ensemble and gave her a very 'motorcross chic' look.
"I want to start on the grass," she said, because she had heard of a preschool pal who has mastered the technique with many bruises but no actual bloodletting. So we went to the lawn, wobbling along the grass towards the edge of a hill steep enough for a toddler to sled down.
"Don't let go!" she shrieked. I didn't. But then I gave her a little shove to show her that falling down doesn't hurt, just like ice skating, when you're covered in pads. Over she went, and shot me such a look betrayal from under her tilting, too-big helmet.
"I said don't let go."
"But honey," I explained, "if you are going to learn how to ride a bike, I have to let go sometimes."
If you have never seen Piper seriously pout, I can just assure you, it can be scary.
Her brothers called out that she should try the long stretch of gentle sloping driveway where they both learned so we headed over, me holding her up by the handlebars and seatback. They circled in on their big boy bikes--last year's favorite birthday presents from my parents--and gave advice. Quinn (3) sped down from her house up the hill, training wheels rattling, handlebar tassles fluttering, and insisted she needed her training wheels removed too.
"Not yet!" her mother and I chorused in unison.
Piper and I ran up and down the long stretch of driveway, the little muscles in her shoulders tensed, with her barking a constant running monologue of "Don't let go! You're not letting go! Hands on the handlebar, and my seat! I don't feel your hand on my seat! Don't let go!"
Max zoomed by, standing up on his pedals, and called out glibly the same thing we said to him in a thousand botched training-wheel-free sessions, "The faster you go, the easier it is, Pipes!"
Max learned on this same stretch of road last May, quietly, with his older brother, in about two minutes. But this was after three years of whimpering and crashing with me and J. Probably we started him too early, pushed him, eager to have him off and biking with his big brother and the cousins and friends who show up to ride the loop. Inevitably, the second we put Max on the bike, he'd start this high-pitched keening whimper, and as soon as we let go, he'd intentionally jerk the front wheel hard to the left, crash and run back to the house in tears. Every few months we'd try this, and then give up. He seemed content to ride a plasma car behind the pack of bikers, one leg tucked under him, the other pumping crazily to propel him forward. Like those super-crawler babies, why would he ever learn to walk? But eventually, on his own, long after the others, he did.
And as the afternoon wore on and Pip's monologue of insisting that I NOT LET GO continued, I realized this would not be the day she learned to ride a bike. And I'll admit at first I felt a twinge of annoyance--that I was going to have to hold her up, stooped over, for the rest of the evening walk with the family and that afterwards, I was going to have to figure out how to get her training wheels reattached for the next few weeks, (or months, years...) I was tempted to push her--she could learn today! It could be so liberating!
But as we continued on our loops in the perfect spring air, Sampson swimming in the pond and shaking his wet and slobber on us, the boys zooming ahead and then back again, catching a snake and letting everyone touch it, baby Harper with her little bare feet up on the handlebar of her stroller, my Mom and Linden and Quinn talking about which berries would be ripe first, I had a whooshing rush of gratitude.
Why wouldn't I want to run alongside my pedaling daughter and hold her up? How lucky to have the chance to show her in a concrete way that I am listening to her, meeting her where she is, and I am there to literally catch her when she falls? So we went fast on the long stretches, me hunched over and loping awkwardly like one of the Hobbits. I made my finger and thumb into a loop around the crossbar over her handlebars, showing her that just as Max kept bellowing, the faster she went, the less my fingers needed to grab and steady her. And she got it, and she giggled as we sped on down the hill.
Piper did not learn to ride without training wheels yesterday. Sometime today, when Quinn shows up ready to race around the loop with her, I'll jimmy them back on. But last night, nobody came home in tears. Piper was proud of her accomplishments, of her bravery, of what she had done. When J pulled in the driveway, she crowed,
"Daddy, I'm learning to ride without training wheels!"
And she is.