I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until I was eight. For years I had tried, and failed, and I had convinced myself that I could never learn. I was scared of some loose gravel or pothole catching my tire, throwing me to the mercy of the asphalt. My knees and elbows had already been witness to the unforgiving nature of the stones. Surely, some pebble had been permanently lodged inside my skin. Surely, bits of my pink flesh were now irrevocably implanted in the road.
I tried, from the time I was four years old, to overcome my fear. I remember seating myself on the throne, seemingly miles above the safety of my driveway. I remember pushing off and struggling to simultaneously keep balance and not think about the way my hands would feel when they met the street.
“You can’t be afraid to fall,” my mother told me after she picked me up for the second, fifth, tenth time that day. She was brave for me when I was scared, often pushing me as I pedaled. That’s when I made it the farthest; her hands on my bony shoulders, guiding me down the street. Slowly, first, as she tried to straighten my awkward turning. Then faster, her shoes hitting the deadly pavement harder and harder until we soared. The breeze cooled my face. My tires seemed to glide on the pavement. My mother squeezed my shoulder and I was flying; invincible and unstoppable.
And then she let go.
And I felt it. I could sense when she left. I became suddenly so aware of the fact that she was gone, that I was by myself. And without fail, every time she let go, I would lose control and crash.
Another scraped elbow. Another bloody knee. Another reason to give up.
“You can’t be afraid to fall,” she told me. “You have to overcome it.”
My mother died when I was six years old, and she never got to see me ride a bicycle by myself. I finally did, two years after her funeral, and sailed down the street without falling.
With the absence of one fear came new things to be afraid of: the start of high school, where I was thrust, a fourteen-year-old kid in his uncomfortable shell, into the monotonous hallways thick with judgment and the teenage-smell of inattention; The summer I cooked for less than minimum wage at the waterpark, breathing in grill smoke and fryer grease for fifty hours a week; the day that I moved into college, wide-eyed and anxious for the future I didn’t know if I was ready for.
I was scared, once again, to fall: to not find my place, to waste the money she worked so hard for, to not succeed or make her proud. Without her, these tasks were insurmountable. I was five again, pedaling alone before slipping up, crashing, and hurting myself.
Somehow, I managed. I found my place in a new environment. I worked a job even though I hated it. I was the first person in my family to graduate high school.
I learned how to ride a bike.
Even now, it feels irrational to have been so scared of riding without my mother. She had let go, she wasn’t there anymore, but she wasn’t too far, really. She was always behind me, watching me push, unaided, down the sanctuary of our street. I never looked back at her, but I’d like to think she was smiling – her eyes lit up from the summer sun, hands clasped together, watching me in silent encouragement.
Sometimes I can still feel the tips of her fingers brushing the backs of my shoulders, as if to push me forward. As if to reassure me to keep going. As if to tell me she’s still there, standing at the end of our driveway, watching for the day I succeed.
James Jaskolka is a junior communication studies major at Wilkes University. Also holding a minor in English, Jaskolka is editor-in-chief of the Beacon, Wilkes' student-run newspaper. After graduation, he hopes to land a job writing for a magazine.