Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bike Ride Part 3 (After the Fall)

            Spencer’s words, “It’s all your fault” ricochet in my head. Blood streams down his knee. I have nothing to dab the blood with. I need to see the wound. What if it’s deep? Tears sting the inside of my eyelids as I frantically look around for a solution. “It’s all your fault!” I could use my t-shirt but it’s covered with dirt. Would I be making matters worse?  Murphy has taken up position next to Spencer. He bows his head while his brother writhes next to him. I feel helpless and angry that Pat isn’t here. Wounds are his duty. Pat’s always decisive in situations like this.
            I look down the bike path. Of course, now that I’m prepared to ask for help, there are no cyclists. Spencer continues to wail as I look in the other direction, my hand on his shoulder.  I spot an older couple cycling toward us and put up my hand.
            They slow and stop in front of us. “Do you need help?” the woman asks.
            “Yes,” I say over Spencer’s screaming, although I don’t really know what I need. I want them to get off their bikes and take care of Spencer’s knee but I know I can’t ask that and they aren’t offering.
            “Here’s some water,” the man says, handing me a bottle.
            “And I have a Kleenex,” the woman adds.
            I quickly take them and pour the water over Spencer’s knee. He screams louder.  I hand the bottle back to the man.
            “You keep it,” he says.
            I almost burst into tears. I’m grateful for the water but I also want to tell them that I hadn’t planned on the bike trip. That’s why I don’t have any water of my own. I blot the blood on Spencer’s knee. The Kleenex is flimsy and shortly turns red. I glance up at the couple. Either they don’t have another Kleenex or they don’t want to give it to me.  
Hot with the shame of needing help and not knowing what to do, I gather my self together and manage to say rather formally, “We’ll be all right. Thank you so much.”
“Are you sure?” says the woman.
I want to yell, “Of course, I’m not sure!!!! I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here. My son hates me and what if he needs stitches out here in the middle of nowhere? What do I do then?  Fashion a fucking needle out of a twig? Rip up my t-shirt to make a tourniquet?  Isn’t it spectacularly clear to you that I haven’t a fucking clue what I’m doing?”
Instead, I say, “Of course.  I can take it from here.”
I see a flash of relief cross the woman’s face before she adjusts.
“All right,” she says, having reconfigured her face to register concern. The man smiles. I smile back. Spencer has been weeping ceaselessly. Murphy’s head is still reverentially bowed. It looks like he is honoring Spencer’s pain and praying for the moment to pass so we can have fun again.
The couple nod and take off. I turn back to Spencer’s knee. I pull the red Kleenex off and take a look. I see a flap of loose skin and a wound that is wet and raw and bleeding. I pour more water on it and cover it again with the Kleenex.
“It’ll be all right, Spencer,” I say.  “Try to breathe. Just breathe.”
“It hurts so much,” he yells.
I can’t tell whether he’s reacting out of real pain or fear and anger. Probably everything.
“OK. OK. I know it hurts. We can sit here as long as it takes,” I say.
He gasps and starts a new kind of wail that consists of longer breaths with deeper resonance. It’s as if he’s taking the opportunity to tap into other grievances.  I know the sound well because I’ve been there. As long as he’s bitterly protesting his wounded knee, he might as well throw in our cat’s death and his loss of the soccer championship last year. This shift in sound indicates to me that Spencer’s agony is part theater. Which doesn’t mean it’s unimportant, it simply reassures me that the knee is probably going to be fine. It’s his sense of betrayal by me and possibly even a general sense of not being safe that needs to be addressed.
Over his howling, I continue to suggest that he breathe. “Maybe concentrate on the scenery,” I say, stupidly. “It’s beautiful here, isn’t it? Just beautiful.” I look out at the scenery in an attempt to model what he should be doing, “Don’t think about your knee. How about that?”
“It hurts too much,” Spencer yells at me.  “I can’t think about anything else!”
“Well. Just try,” I say, keeping my voice even.
I continue looking out at the scenery and an unbidden thought occurs to me. We are renting the bikes by the hour. By now, we’ve tacked another hour onto our initial expense and who knows how much longer it’s going to take Spencer to calm down. Add to that, the time it will take for me to address the knee and coax him back onto the bike that bucked him in the first place. We’re talking a small fortune for this hellish ride. My shoulders sag. I feel depleted of will and initiative. 
I pull my cell phone out of my pocket and call Pat. He picks up on the second ring, “Hey, what’s up?”
At his voice I burst into tears and manage to get out the words, “It’s Spence. He’s fallen.”
“What? What’s happened?” Pat yells back, immediately.
I hear the panic in his voice. Now I’ve made things even worse.
“It’s nothing,” I sputter, “We’re OK. It’s OK.”
“It doesn’t sound OK.”
“That’s because it’s not,” I say through my tears. “I just don’t want you to worry. We’re fine. But we’re not OK. We’re not in trouble or anything.”
“Look,” says Pat, in a calmer tone, “can you give me to Spence?”
“Sure,” I say and hand the phone to Spencer. “It’s Daddy.”
Spencer’s crying softens as soon as he hears Daddy’s name. He reaches for the phone and brings it to his ear. I get up and walk to the other side of the path where it drops off into a ravine. I wipe tears off of my face. I hear Spencer listing his grievances again. Mommy told him to ride on the side of the path. Mommy wasn’t prepared. His knee really, really, really hurts and it won’t stop hurting.  Between complaints, I hear Pat’s tone, not the words. His tone is measured and reassuring. I walk back to Spencer just as he moans, “That’s the exact opposite of what Mommy told me to do!”
What? I think, what?  What’s the exact opposite? Now that I’m closer, I can hear Pat’s words. He’s telling Spencer to pay attention to the pain, focus all of his energy on his knee.
Spencer’s weeping subsides as he takes the Kleenex off of his knee and concentrates. Murphy looks at the knee as well. Blood trickles down his shin. But it is quiet. 
(to be continued...")
When Spencer calmed down I quickly took this picture of him talking to Pat on the phone

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Bike Ride -- Part 2 (In Motion)

              Our practice lap around the parking lot does not portend a smooth ride. Spencer wobbles noticeably and panics when Murphy and I take a wide turn on the tandem into oncoming traffic on the street.
            “Mom!” Spencer shrieks as a car swerves out of my way.
            “Don’t worry, honey,” I yell back. “The cars know this is a biking area.”
            “TURN AROUND, MOM!” Spencer yells.
            “I’m trying, honey,” I say, glancing over my shoulder to see if I can loop back, “It’s not as easy as it looks because it’s a two-seater.”
            When the coast looks clear, I take a wide U-turn back to the lot and brake in front of the bike-rental guy. The bike tilts over and Murphy falls off onto his feet. Murphy looks relaxed enough, so I assume that Spencer was overreacting.
            “You’ve got to look where you’re going, Mom,” Spencer says, pulling up beside us.
            “Relax, Spence. Seriously, people bike around here every day at all hours. People who aren’t anywhere near as fit as we are, make it back in one piece.” I eye the bike-rental guy who looks like he is barely squeaking out of his teens, “Is it possible to lower my seat? I can’t really touch the ground when I’m sitting so I keep throwing my kid off every time I stop.”
            The teenager shrugs, “It won’t go any lower.”
            “Huh. OK, I guess. Murphy are you cool with that?”
            “Sure,” says Murphy, all smiles.
            “OK,” I say to the teenager, “we’ve got our map but where do we start?”
            He points to a crop of bicyclists funneling into an opening in the woods, “Just follow them.”
            “Will do,” I say, saluting him. “OK. Murphy, hop on. Spencer do you want to lead us?”
            Spence looks a little wild-eyed. “No,” he said, “you go first.”
            “Great,” I say, throwing him my mommy-has-this-covered smile. “Follow me. I’ll take it easy, you’ll see. This is going to be a blast. The best thing we’ve done all vacation.”
            Spencer reaches up to shift his helmet a little.
            “Is it secure?” I asked.
            “My hair itches.”
            “You won’t notice that once we get going,” I say, walking the bicycle in a big loop so I don’t have to negotiate it with Murphy on the back. “Hop on Murph.”
            I tip the bike down to his level and Murphy wiggles a foot over his seat.  Once he standing on one leg with his other almost reaching the opposite pedal, I slowly ease the bike up with him on it. It occurs to me that it’s going to be tough to stop without toppling him over every time. I remind myself to take the stops slow and give Murphy plenty of warning. I shimmy forward on one foot until we reach a small decline in the pavement. I push off, wobble slightly as I find the pedal with my foot, and start pedaling. “Murph? Are you pedaling?” I throw over my shoulder. “ Because I can’t feel it.”
            “I’m pedaling, Mom. I’m just smaller than you.”
            “Is Spencer behind us?”
            I feel Murphy shift, “He’s right behind us, Mom.”
            “OK,” I yell back to both of them. “Take it easy. See that opening in the woods? That’s where we’re headed.”
            The muscles in my stomach tighten with the effort of pedaling, I shift gears and there’s some relief. We hit the tree line and the gravel path that leads into the woods. I glance back and spot Spencer.  I look forward and feel the wind on my face. The sunlight pools through the trees here and there, but mostly its shady and lush. I pick up speed.  Cyclists whiz toward us on the other side. I nod at them, companionably. We understand each other. We are doers. We get on bikes and ride them through forests. These are my people.
            “Mom,” I hear Spencer say, “can you speed up?”
            “Really? OK, sure.  Or better yet. You lead. How about that?” I slow down to allow Spencer to pass me. The angle of his back as he pumps the pedals betrays attention not abandon.  He is still slightly unsteady but I figure that this ride will give him confidence.  He zooms ahead and I whoop, “That’s the way to go!  Isn’t this fun? I’m having fun. I’m loving this.” I speed up to keep pace with Spencer. “This is gorgeous,” I say over my shoulder to Murphy. “Aren’t we lucky?” 
            And I do feel lucky. My kids are great sports, taking this on. We’re all healthy. The woods remind me of my own childhood in Germany. The dirt floor of the path gives a little as we speed along. I see an older couple biking toward us and yell up to Spencer, “Keep right, honey. Let people pass.”
            Spencer teeters to the right slightly. We reach an incline. I switch gears and start to push. I can feel the weight of Murphy not doing much of anything behind me. Spencer strains up ahead. We’re both working now. This part isn’t very fun, I think. I wonder what people get out of biking tough routes. You really only want to go flat or down. Up is bullshit. It hurts. I gasp. My thighs press. Shortly, we reach flatter terrain and I yell, “See? Not so bad. Now we’re rolling!”  We accelerate, the gravel crunching beneath our wheels. We’re sailing again.
            Up ahead I see some benches and a few cyclists resting. A map is posted at the fork in the trail. “Let’s take a break up there,” I shout to Spencer.  He nods and we slow down. As I tilt the tandem to stop, Murphy jumps off and sprints next to me until I can come to a stop. Spencer has already leaned his bike against a tree. I rest the tandem in some underbrush.
            The clearing is mottled with sunlight. I can feel the humidity, but the shade cools my skin. The scene strikes me as belonging to no particular time or place. We could easily be in nineteenth century France, with Eduard Manet painting a couple of nude picnickers off the path. Spencer looks flushed but pleased. Murphy runs up to the map, “Here’s where we are.”
            “Right,” I say, not looking.
            “Mom,” says Spencer, “where’s our water?”
            “A bottle of water,” he says more insistently.
            “Oh. Sorry honey. I didn’t bring any. I wasn’t planning on biking and then I figured that the ride wouldn’t be that long. Can you last?”
            I hate my tone. It’s manipulative. It asks Spencer to be reasonable. If he answers in the negative, he’ll sound whiney.
            “I guess I can last,” he shrugs.
            “Good. We’ll be back before you know it,” I say. I hadn’t been planning on going on too much longer, since I’m paying by the hour.
            “All right, boys. Let’s get going. Murph, what did the map say? I think we’re supposed to go straight on, right?”
            “Yeah. Straight is good,” he says.
            We haul our bikes out of the brush and start again.  This time, Spencer is behind me. I remind him to stay right and we fly through the woods.  I sit up straighter and steer with a light touch. I point out views to Murphy who crows with delight. I whoop. My chest lifts toward the sky and the air tingles the perspiration on my skin. I smell the earth and almost feel the bike lift off the ground. My spirit is flying out of me – ahead of me.
            From behind I hear a skid against gravel, a thump, and Spencer screaming out in pain. The echo dully bounces off the trees.
            I pull over and slowly lean the bike, so that Murphy can jump off. I drop the bike into some leaves. I can hear Spencer howling and I move without consciousness. I work to reunite my spirit with my body.
            I see Spencer on the ground, his bike toppled behind him, clutching his knee, screaming. Something clicks in my body and I am activated. I am present. I feel Spencer’s pain slice through me. I bend down to look at his knee, which is already covered in blood. Bikers whiz by throwing curious looks. I smile like I’ve got this handled. This self-sufficient smile marks a lifetime of habit – don’t ask for help.
            As I lean in to get a better look at Spencer’s knee, I can hear that his howling isn’t general – it’s words. Very specific words.
            “You did this, Mommy! You told me to stay right!!! It’s your fault!!! We don’t have water!!! It’s your fault!!! It’s all your fault.!!” be continued.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fish Creek -- The Bike Ride (Part 1)

            “I wanted pancakes,” my seven-year-old grumps, staring at his sandwich oozing melted yellow cheese onto its wax paper wrapping.
            Murphy’s older brother stares at his own limp sandwich, shrugs and say, “It’s OK.”
            It isn’t OK with him really. But Spencer is the pacifier, the reasonable one, and I worry about this. I can see him two decades from now, walking down the aisle to marry a woman he doesn’t love just because she presented a logical argument for why he should.
            I narrow my eyes at Murphy and say with more force than I intended, “Just eat the sandwich. They don’t’ serve breakfast here. The man who told us that there would be breakfast here was wrong. It happens. People get things wrong. Eat the sandwich.”
            Murphy’s lower lip juts out further as he grabs half of his sandwich. He bites off a chunk that’s too large and has to stuff half of it into his mouth with his fingers. His cheeks bulge and he chews slowly with effort and resentment. Spencer picks up his grilled cheese and takes a tentative bite. I lift my chicken salad sandwich, a big glop of which breaks off and drops to its wrapping. I exhale and stare through the window which needs a vigorous wipe, not merely the absent-minded daubing I saw the teenage counter girl give the tabletops.
The walk to the restaurant was longer than I expected. It’s already ninety degrees outside the diner. I try not to imagine my parents and my brother’s family on the sailboat that they rented. Besides the usual resort fare of wearable art and whimsical lawn ornaments, Fish Creek, Wisconsin offers every kind of lake activity a vacationing Midwestern family can imagine. Wisely, the rest of my family opted a calm glide across glistening lake water, a soft spray cooling their faces. I could have gone with them. They offered to pay for the boys and me. But I am tired of taking their money. Tired of giving thanks and nothing else in return. Tired of being the family beggar.
Instead of accepting the boat invitation, I smiled and said that the boys and I would take a walk into the national park. The woods, I remembered from a previous visit, are cool and admission is free.  The last time we were here, my husband was with us all. Today Pat is in Los Angeles, working small jobs while looking for a bigger one. I remember that earlier family trip to Fish Creek clearly. Pat and I were flush with money. He bought a raincoat and I got a pair of brown suede clogs.
“I don’t want to eat the rest of it,” Murphy says, sliding the sandwich away from him. His voice is edged with recalcitrance. I decide not to invite full-on rebellion.
“Fine,” I say. “Don’t crab to me if you get hungry. We might be walking for quite awhile.”
Spencer continues to take small bites, evidently determined to finish and receive a grateful nod from me. For my part, I can’t finish my soggy sandwich. I ball it into its wrapper and throw it out. Murphy and I wordlessly watch Spencer chew.
It will be fine when we get to the park, I tell myself. We’ll be in the shade. The boys love spotting birds and squirrels. Our prickly moods will slip away and we’ll talk about their buddies back in Los Angeles and what books they want to get out of the library next. In the woods, I will find myself again. Because I almost always do when I hike.  If I train my thoughts on my children, if I breathe and move my body, if I take a moment to be grateful, I will be able to transcend the punishing worry about our finances for a few hours.
Spencer dutifully swallows his last bite.
“Let’s go,” I say too soon and too cheerfully. The boys look at me as if I’ve been replaced by a fake look-alike. I adjust. If nothing else, I can give them the truth. “Look, we’re all cranky. But I think we’ll feel better when we get to the park.”
The wall of heat that slams into us as soon as we step outside is not promising. It makes me long to retrieve the half sandwich I threw in the trash, if only for the twenty more minutes of air conditioning it would grant me. Fortunately, I can see the entrance to the park, half a block away. The boys and I resolutely step into the heat and pick up our pace. We stride down along the edge of the road, traffic whizzing past as I bark orders, “Keep left”, “Eyes up”, “Single file”.
As we reach the entrance, I am tempted to tear into the woods without picking up a map. But visions of lifeless bodies of campers mauled to death in Yosemite guide my steps to the office, trailing my single file of sons behind me. The office is a good choice because it has great air conditioning and books about animals for sale. The boys start thumbing the books happily, while I stand in line at the information desk.
Behind the counter I spot a sign for bike rentals. During that earlier family trip here, I remember my youngest brother and his wife renting bicycles and taking my young sons for a spin in a chariot that they pulled behind them. We still have the pictures. The boys peeking out of the chariot, Murphy clutching his bottle.
The line in front of the desk inches closer and I envision myself biking through the woods with my boys. Now that’s as good as a sailboat, I think. That’s a true adventure. Especially because we don’t normally bike. The boys have only recently mastered their two-wheelers at home. I dance on my feet a little. What harm would it do to just ask the rental prices? If it’s too expensive, question answered and we hike on.
By the time I get to the head of the line, my heart is fluttering. And it strikes me that my face might look a little too eager as I ask the man his prices.
“Seven bucks for a child’s bike,” he says.
“Only seven bucks?  Really?” I say, a little breathless. “OK. Good. That’s very good. Seven bucks. I can do that. How about…Wait…”An image floats into my head of me on a tandem with Murphy the sullen grilled-cheese eater. I would save the day completely. I’d be super-cool mommy sailing through the mysterious woods on a tandem bike. The wind would whip through our hair as we laughed and bonded over the awesomeness of us being together on a completely spontaneous adventure.  An adventuring mom with her sons. All for the low, low price of…
“How much for the tandem?” I ask, afraid of the answer.
“Fourteen for an hour.”
“Fourteen? Wow, that’s great.” I breathe out relief. “I thought it would be like a fifty or something crazy like that.”
 The man gives me an unreadable smile.
Murphy appears at my elbow, “Mom, I get this 3-D tiger bookmark?”
I look down at him, “Not right now, honey. Because, we’re going on a totally awesome bike ride!”

(Next week The Bike Ride Part 2: The Case for Planning Ahead)
My father on the sailboat while the boys and I were renting bikes