He was in front of me when he crashed. He’s six and had been riding his bike solo, sans training wheels or a spotter running alongside, for less than a month. As seems to happen with novice riders, everything was going perfectly when the crash began. It was not a moment, not something that happened in the blink of an eye—this tumble was a short story with a beginning, middle, and an end. We were riding along the bike path at the park in the late afternoon, about a half hour after the Florida sun had sunk low enough in the sky to spare us from the feeling of being cooked alive, and he was doing exceptionally well. He hadn’t crashed nor inexplicably careened off the path even once. His confidence had built during the 10 minutes or so that we had been riding, and he was chattering away about all the things he was seeing and about his amazement that I was able to keep up with him despite his phenomenal speed. We entered a flat, straight section of the path where it passes along the soccer fields, and that’s where the crash began.
I noticed that the front wheel of the bike began to swing wildly back and forth, sort of the way it does when people stop at a stop light while bike riding but refuse to put their foot on the ground, instead imagining (I assume) that they are spellbinding passersby with their uncanny senses of balance. My son was doing the same thing, but he was still moving forward. Rather remarkably to me as it seemed to be nearly impossible to do, he next hunched forward on the bike so that his weight was over the handlebars, amplifying the frantic swinging of the wheel, eventually causing the bike to lurch to the left. He tried to compensate but his fledgling abilities as a bike rider simply weren’t enough to allow him to correct, and he began to fall. It seemed to take forever, not so much because I was a worried parent but more because he fought the fall all the way to the ground. The bike listed sharply to the right, his torso went left, and his legs–his beautiful, long legs that let him run with the beauty and nearly the speed of a horse–tangled in amongst the tubes and chains and pedals of the bike. It seems to me that he rolled along like that for 8 or 10 feet before, finally, gravity and inertia flung him to the ground, his left knee taking the full force of the impact.
He was still entwined with the bike, oddly positioned so that he couldn’t see the knee that must have been throbbing with pain. He was struggling to get up, half out of embarrassment and half out of that weird curiosity that forces us to look at anything that we think blood might be seeping out of, but his legs forced the bike downward every time he moved. I leapt from my bike and pulled him free of his. I expected that he would burst into tears.
He had been playing sports of various kinds since he was three. One of the things that we had always talked about when we discussed what it meant to be good at a sport was the old chestnut “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” I never really thought that he understood the saying, or at best thought that he understood it but didn’t care about or accept it. Nonetheless, it was a phrase that I used often to repeat a theme in those instances when he didn’t feel like practicing or when he felt as if he could not learn a particular skill. He had heard it a thousand times and although it never really seemed to make any difference at the moment when I was trying to teach him something, I figured that one day, probably when he was older, the words would come to him in a moment that was important for his own achievement.
I stood him up and examined his knee. It was still that gruesome white color of bone or fat when I first looked at it, but as I inspected it, the blood began to rise though the tissues, and soon it was a scarlet mess. He looked into my eyes first, not at the knee. He asked me “Is it bad?”
“No, it’s not bad. But it is bleeding.”
I could see a thought or maybe an emotion wash across his face. I had never seen it from him before. It struck me with astonishment. He turned around, picked up the bike, pointed it down the path, and got on.
“Might as well keep going. Quitters never win, and winners never quit, right?”
I was so honored to be a witness to the moment in which he transformed from a toddler into a boy that all I wanted to do was scoop him up and smother him with hugs, but I knew that was not what he wanted or needed. I extended my hand and reveled in the sensation of his tiny palm slipping into mine and of his strong little fingers boldly gripping my own. His eyes rose from our clasped hands to look at my face. I smiled. “You know, it’s okay if you want to cry,” I assured him.
He looked at his knee for the first time, and then back at me. “Nope, I’m okay.” He released my hand and rode on.
He reminded me, as he has done so many times in his life, that everything I say to him, everything that his mother says to him, is internalized and saved, ready to be used when the moment presents itself. A crash on a bicycle was that moment this time because he seemed to realize that if he was going to be a guy who rides bikes, these things were going to happen. I often scold myself for being frustrated with his seeming nonchalance and apathy because nearly every week, he reminds me through his actions that he cares about everything, pays attention to every word I say, remembers every admonition and every affirmation, and needs only a good reason to show me the depth of his comprehension.
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