Health

Like Riding a Bike

They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle. Boy, were they wrong.

(Getty Images)

Marissa and I, bestest buddies since college, live in different states. For our annual get-together, we planned a road trip through the Palouse, the "breadbasket of the Pacific Northwest." Rolling hills of green and gold—and temperatures in the 100s—were a far cry from the sophisticated urban centers of espresso and rain.

We stayed mostly in dive motels and anodyne hotels, but we splurged one night on a deluxe Victorian bed and breakfast. There was a creek flowing through the back of the property, beds soft as clouds and scones made from scratch, topped with raspberry jam prepared from their own raspberries. Idyllic.

We lolled in wicker rocking chairs on the shaded veranda and contemplated dinner—or, more accurately, we contemplated beginning to start thinking about getting ready to actually stand up and get moving.

Marissa spotted the bicycles leaning against the house. These weren't sleek lightweight bikes like the one Marissa rode across town to her job every day; these were two-speed bikes with straw baskets attached to the handlebars and pedal breaks. Andy-of-Mayberry bikes, though spiffed up with high-tech helmets, locks and tire pumps.

I spilled out of my rocker and stood, looking at the bikes. "I haven't ridden a bicycle in years," I said. "I used to love bike riding."

"They say you never forget," Marissa said.

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I hadn't been on a bike since my car accident, many years before. Intensive care and paralysis and months of grueling physical and occupational therapy. Yes, I relearned to walk, swallow, hold a pen and a fork. But I still have "stability issues." My balance sucks. And riding a bicycle requires balance.

I use handrails on stairs, grab bars in the bathroom and I lean on a friend's shoulder if a curb is too steep. I practice standing on one leg every day while I brush my teeth, but I often fall over, even now, years later.

You never forget how to ride a bike. Could I still do it?

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"It's only two miles to downtown," Marissa said. "If you change your mind at any time, I'll come back, get the car and we'll drive. No problem."

Marissa checked the tires for air and made adjustments. We confirmed that the locks both opened and closed. We walked the bicycles down the steps of the B&B and over the grass to the large, empty street.

I easily got one leg onto each side of the bike and rested my butt on the seat. "So far, so good," I said.

"Seat height looks fine," Marissa said. "How does it feel?"

I nodded. Seat height felt fine. And me? How did I feel?

Nervous, but fine. I felt fine. It would be like riding a bike. Once you learn, you never forget.

I pushed myself into the street on my bike. Marissa also pushed off and was soon rounding the corner. My bike was gliding forward, but I couldn't seem to lift the feet that needed to pump up and down, round and round, if I were going to stay in motion.

The bike wobbled … then fell. I splattered on the asphalt, a tangle of bike and limbs.

A lone car drove up and stopped. The driver jumped out.

"Are you OK?" he asked as he carefully pulled the bike up and off, allowing me to untangle.

"Fine. Thank you. Really. I'm fine," I said. The only thing bruised was my ego.

Marissa circled back. "Here," she said. "Let me help."

I got back on the bike and she held it steady. She ran alongside, keeping me stable and allowing me to start pedaling on my own. Memories: my dad, my childhood.

I kept pedaling and Marissa let go. I was wobbly but I was pedaling. I was riding a bicycle.

I could do this. I could ride two miles to downtown, with cars zinging by, inches away. I could eat dinner and then, in the evening dark, I could make my way back to our B&B without GPS. If downtown were busy, I'd still be fine. I wouldn't need Marissa this time to hold me steady until I was able to pedal, and …

Who was I fooling? Darkness and cars? I was wobbling even as I was the only moving object on this stretch of sun-drenched road. I tried to make a U-turn but couldn't, so I pedaled weakly around the block and crash-landed on the B&B lawn.

I could force myself to do this, to ride into town, to power my way through. And I could fall again, perhaps this time to really hurt myself. Black of night. Inches from cars. Because I wasn't a quitter, dammit!

Or, I could be clear-eyed and realistic. Bad balance. Not yet ready to bike two miles in a strange town as darkness set in.

Marissa bicycled back. "I can't do this," I said, feeling I'd let her down.

We carried the bicycles back onto the veranda, then drove into town. I was near tears. It wasn't Marissa that I'd let down—it was myself.

"You've already accomplished your goal," Marissa said.

"Yeah, how to be a loser," I said.

"You got back on the bike. You did it," she said.

Falling asleep that night, I pondered the positive side of my afternoon. I wasn't being foolhardy, or a quitter; I was being wise. I wasn't a failure; I was taking care of myself. It wasn't lack of gumption or persistence; it was instead hard-earned love and acceptance.

If I truly wanted to ride a bike, I would find a deserted lot and oodles of time, and I'd wear knee pads and wrist pads and ego pads, if they made them. Until then, I'd tell everyone about my adventures in the Pacific Northwest: raspberry scones and waterfalls and time with Marissa, and isn't that life? Memories you never forget. Just like riding a bicycle.

   
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