"Pedal faster! Keep the wheel straight. That's it!"
"You won't let go?" I asked her.
"No. I've got you," she said, but something in her voice sounded peculiar to my young ear. I turned my head around, expecting to see her running lopsided behind me while holding the back of the flowered banana seat I was perched on, but she wan't there. Instead of helping me balance on this contraption, she was on the other side of the vacant church parking lot laughing and clapping!
"Mama!" I cried out in anger and fear.
Her face reflected my fear and she yelled, "Watch where you're going!"
I crashed into the shrub-covered fence row before she finished her admonition. I lay there tearstained and twisted in thorny bracken -- my hands and knees bleeding from the painful prickles and pavement. It would be several months before I attempted to ride a bicycle again.
Remembering the difficulty I had in learning to ride a bike (I finally did, thank you very much) has caused me to put the lesson off as long as possible for my own kids. However, for Christmas two years ago, they both got bikes. I, as the perpetually fearful mom, made certain they came with training wheels. They adored riding them, and I loved that the training wheels kept them upright and scab-free. They soon broke the training wheels and outgrew their bikes, and it became clear to me that they would need new outdoor playthings this Christmas. To continue procrastinating the bicycle lesson, I searched for alternatives to the two-wheeled-thorn-crashing-machine. I finally settled on my items: a knee board for one kid, and for the other, a pair of skates. Based on their squeals and excited "Yes!" exclamations, I nailed Christmas and congratulated myself for both appeasing them and steering clear of bikes for another year. Enter my awesome uncle and aunt from Knoxville.
We don't visit with them enough throughout the year. Isn't that what we all realize about our family during the holidays? Each year, they drive down to celebrate with us, but they've only recently started a new tradition of sorts with their great-nieces and -nephews -- a Christmas shopping spree. Essentially, they give each kid a wad of cash and set them loose in Walmart. My kids are the youngest, so I accompany them on this much anticipated outing every year. This year, I followed my talkative children to the toy section and watched their eyes light up as they surveyed aisle after aisle of potential playthings. Esther settled herself in the pink aisle full of dolls and tea sets, and Josiah wandered through all the Star Wars and superhero figures. All was well. Then Josiah saw the bicycles.
"Mama! A bicycle! Look!"
"Mama! It's a blue bike! Look, a blue one! You see?!"
"Yes, I see. It's just, well, I don't know if you have enough money for a bike, baby." I lied. He had more than enough money for a new bike, but I was certain I could sell him on another toy of some kind.
Josiah was visibly heartbroken. "I don't? Oh... are you sure?"
The mom guilt tasted like rotten potatoes and soured milk combined. "Let me check again for you," I said optimistically. I pulled out his little zip-lock bag of cash and made quite the show of counting the bills. I gave him a toothy grin. "Wow, Josiah! You do have enough!"
"Can I get this blue one?" He was so full of happiness, he nearly yelled the question.
I couldn't help but laugh from my own happiness as I looked at his smiling face, and checked the price of the blue bike. "It looks like the blue one is too much money, but look! You have enough to get this awesome red one here!" I pulled the cumbersome two-wheeler free from its hanging restraints and set it in front of him.
"WOW! That is so cool!"
OK, Sharon Kay, suck it up, buttercup. He loves this thing.
I immediately went to the nearby aisle in a frantic search for training wheels -- which, we later discovered, wouldn't fit the back axle. To ride the bike, he is going to have to ride it for real. We are past the point of training wheels. This means that I will have to do what I've been dreading. I will have to teach him to ride a bike.
He will fall. He will get hurt. He will cry. He will be angry. He will be sad. He will hate it. He will want to quit.
I will encourage. I will cajole. I will console. I will doctor the scabs. I will help him balance. I will wipe away his tears. I will help him back on the bike.
I will let go.
I will let go, and he will balance without me.
I will let go, and he will shout, "Look, mama!"
I will let go, and he will laugh with pride.
I will let go, and he will ride his bike like a champ.
I will let go, and he will pedal away from me.
Maybe what I'm discovering -- while writing this piece, actually -- is that the training wheels were for me, after all. Maybe I'm still trying to find my balance -- but not on a bike. This time it's as a mom -- the balance between keeping them safe and pushing them to learn to ride on their own -- and I'm always afraid I'm screwing it up.
When we got Josiah's autism diagnosis, it knocked the wind out of us. We saw many of the dreams and ideas for our son blow away. I battled in the only way I knew how: I jumped right into research and advocacy. I've spent the years since his diagnosis trying to anticipate what may cause a massive meltdown with him so that I could help him side-step it. In doing so, I began to get a "feel" of how to parent him. To give you an example of what I mean, I'll tell you another story. This one is about his birthday this year.
Josiah loves Rise of the Guardians, Star Wars, and Spiderman 3 -- "the black one, mama!"
I got him none of those things for his birthday. You see, I had suffered with him through too many "I've lost/broken my very favorite toy" meltdowns to get him birthday gifts he would fall in love with. Typical children will throw a tantrum. Josiah will cry for hours and obsessively grieve for months. (This afternoon, he began crying in his room over a toy lion he had broken beyond repair last year.) I decided that, to help him avoid being hurt, I'd keep him from falling in love. So, I concocted a mom-plan that became my mantra for a while -- get him things he'll like, but not love. At his party, he opened all of his gifts from me with a general, "meh." Exactly what you want from your kid when you give him a present. Apparently, my plan had worked like a charm.
After he was so crestfallen at his birthday party, I made the brave decision to get him all the things he would genuinely love for Christmas. Should meltdowns occur, I'd just deal with them. His squeals, laughter and exclamations of happiness on Christmas morning were a balm to my worried soul. It felt, to use the word all families of children with special needs avoid, normal.
He's growing up, and so am I. We're both still figuring this thing out, and we'll both learn how to keep the balance together. I can't tell you that we won't get hurt, or that we won't feel brokenhearted, but I can tell you that I'm sure that now is the time. For Josiah and for me, it's time. It's time to shed the training wheels, give him a gentle push and lift my hand off of the banana-shaped seat -- but not before checking the immediate area for menacing thorn bushes.