Seven year old Sydney Rose, my middle child, sits frozen on the seat of her bike, one foot on the pavement, one foot poised on the pedal. Her bloodied and bandaged knees thrust out below the hemline of her tattered dress and her helmet, a purple unicorn design complete with protruding white horn, lay askew, exposing half of her sweat-stained, dusty hair. Her tear-streaked cheeks are rosy, perhaps from the sun and heat, but more likely due to the countless trials, the weeks of failed attempts, the tragic starts and stops, the ups the downs, the falters the frowns.
“I don’t need training wheels,” Sydney had said at the start of summer, her voice inflated with conviction. She demanded her bike be two-wheeled. Now, her words hang heavy in the summer air, and I wonder if she is beginning to regret ever having spoken them.
After a deep breath Syd pushes down on the high pedal and the bike moves. She catches herself on the other side, her opposite foot now on the pavement. After a moment of adjustment, she is ready to try again. She does. The bike moves. Same result. Restart. Foot on pedal. Push off pavement. Balance for a second. Foot down on pavement. Stop. Restart. Push off. Balance. Foot down. Stop. Readjust. Start again. Balance . . . and then . . . in one jumbled mass of hair and spokes, bike and rider free fall to the blacktop with a thunderous crash. Sydney calls out to me in pain, her body pinned by the two-wheeled bronco, which still refuses a rider.
* * * *
My mom has this ancient picture of me hanging in her house. In it, I am holding out a paper cup, leaning forward to catch a stream of rainwater as it falls steadily from the edge of a rusted swing set. The picture is large and in full color. I’m young in the image, maybe 4 or 5, shirtless, my dusty blonde hair wavy and long, ribs poking out through my thin skin.
This picture of me has always hung on the wall of our house. Even when we moved after I graduated high school and my parents disposed of most everything we owned, the photo survived, carefully wrapped in tissue paper and placed in a box marked ‘delicate.’
“Why do you keep this picture of me around?” I asked one morning over coffee. I was in college at the time, waiting tables on the weekends and still living at home.
My mother’s eyes traced the edges of the photo, perhaps for the thousandth time and a look of calm came over her. “It was a warm day in May,” she said, her voice steady but soft. “I didn’t take that picture. Your grandfather did. We were at his house and it had rained all morning. It was spring and all three of you wanted out.” Mom held her coffee with two gentle hands and I could tell she was savoring the warmth. “There is something about water that makes kids crazy, isn’t there? The rain, the pools, the streams, the fat droplets. You used to love looking at your reflection in the puddles. You carried that styrofoam cup around all afternoon, filling it up and dumping it out. Filling it up and dumping it out. It was all you wanted to do. You played for hours in the rain, so free and so… young.”
* * * *
Back in the parking lot, I lift the bike carefully from the battered silhouette, lying on the pavement before me. My second in line, my first girl, my daughter. She's only two years younger than my son, and she is almost as tall, but that's really where the similarities end.
I stand there gripping the handlebars of the bike, wondering what I should say to her. I was always so good with my son, seemed to know exactly what he wanted, what he needed at any particular moment. I could always make him feel better. It always seemed easy with him.
Not the same with Sydney.
She was always asking to do things on her own, never asking for help or guidance, even when I insisted. It had been that way with the training wheels.
“I don't need them, Dad. Those are for babies,” she had said when she saw that I had attached them to her bike.
“But they help you learn, keep you safe, slow you down,” I had said.
“I don't need them,” she had repeated.
The conversation lingers in the air as we begin the long walk home, done riding for the day. She does not look back, does not ask me to carry her or hold her or walk next to her. I maneuver the bicycle around a small pile of leaves that has collected near a storm drain.
“It is only a matter of time, Syd,” I say gently.
And then, suddenly, I feel compelled to saw the bike in half, give it away to another child, throw the bike in the nearest dumpster, or at least reattach the training wheels. Around us, darkness signals the end to another day and the nighttime air is cool, the first hint of the changing of the seasons.
I ride home behind her in silence, knees scraping the handlebars with each pump of the pedals.
* * * *
It happens in the front seat of my car a day later, in the mostly empty First Niagara Bank parking lot. I’m folding a deposit slip when I receive the video message from my wife.
It takes a minute to load and while I wait I crack the driver side window, lean back in my seat, and breathe of the late summer air. It is the first deep breath I have taken all day, all week, perhaps. My lengthy To Do list beckons from the dashboard.
The video begins automatically after a few moments and when I open my eyes and look down at the small screen I see Sydney riding her bike. Not just riding, but circling the parking lot. A jolt passes through me as the video ends abruptly, Sydney frozen in the center of the screen, a smile of triumph on her face.
I have missed it. Another milestone. Another chance to be there. Gone.
I blink at the phone on my lap.
I press play, again.
And then again.
I'm not sure how many times I watch the nine second clip, but I know that each time I view Sydney circling the parking lot she seems to pedal further and further away.
I wipe my eyes in silence as a soft rain begins to fall outside, the heavy beads coming in through the open driver-side window. I fit my hand through the opening, palm to sky, and let the cool drops puddle in the middle. This will be a brief shower, a tiny blip on the radar screen, a system which will pass by and be gone in an instant.
I close my eyes, my senses alert now, and for a moment, a tiny fleeting frame, I feel freedom and innocence, I believe again in endless summer days and I dream of the magic of slides and swing sets.
The blare of a truck horn shakes me awake.
I pluck the To Do list from the dashboard, ball it up in my fist, and jam it into my back pocket. There has been a change of plans.
There is still time.
Time to see my daughter so young and alive.
Time to catch that passing smile.
Time to live inside the glossy photograph which will hang forever in my house, the photo of a seven year old girl riding a bike without training wheels, pedaling so free and solitary, her dad in the background hands toward the sky, both faces reflecting light, and love, and the innocence that is and once was, and will forever be.