“Bicycles: because love requires trust and balance.” NIKKI GIOVANNI
“The first grip I ever got on things
Was when I learnt the art of pedalling
(By hand) a bike turned upside down, and drove
Its back wheel preternaturally fast.”
~ from Wheels within Wheels by SEAMUS HEANEY
Ah, Seamus, I sometimes think you could have scored my life with your bicycling and blackberry picking and your potato-peeling at the kitchen sink with your mother when “all the others were away at Mass.” Sitting at my kitchen table, in Phoenix, Arizona, a lifetime away from Anahorish, my mother recalled you as a young man with sandy hair, riding your bicycle around Castledawson. You might be pleased that her recollection of you is less as renowned Nobel Laureate and more “a son of Paddy Heaney’s” – one and the very same, I think. We talked about you losing your little brother, Christopher and your mother, and then how we all lost you.
A year ago, Ken left us. As is our way, I know I will mark the time – the official pronouncement of death at 1:10PM – and I will do so every year from this point forth. I will turn over the details again and again, holding on to what I imagine was the last moment. My Irish friend thinks we can attribute this to our cultural heritage, that it is most definitely “an Irish thing” sewn tidily into our very DNA. She’s right, I’m sure. Over a cup of tea with her, we realized we have no idea when we learned these rituals, or if they were explicitly taught to us. Somehow, we know to mark the time of death; we know to stop our clocks and wrist-watches at that hour. We know to cover the mirrors, draw the blinds, and close the curtains. We know that we know what to do when led silently up into the room where the deceased has been “laid out,” how to pay our respects in private and in public, how to offer sympathies over cups of tea balanced on saucers bearing digestive biscuits, when to bring plates of sandwiches cut in triangles, all manner of cakes, and tray-bakes. We know to shake hands and when the time is right to whisper or cry or even to laugh as we enjoy a bit of craic about lives lived in full.
Of the details that unfolded, a year ago, the one that affects me most, because it left no doubt of who I am is that of the man named Frank, a stranger, who came into my parent’s house and waited in their living room until he could shake my hand and tell me he was very “sorry for my trouble.” Just like the neighbor in Heaney’s “Mid-Term Break.” I never imagined someone would say those words to me, but it seems right.
How could my American girl have understood these comings and goings, the way we deal with dying in Ireland? Her fervent and only wish was to get home, to speed quickly across three time-zones to see her dad’s dead body, to hold his hand one more time, to say goodbye, to make sure his ashes were scattered at the base of Black Mountain, his favorite spot in the desert southwest.
Discomfited by the unfamiliar rhythms and rituals of rural Derry, how could she know what to expect when trouble comes to your door or how to respond to big-hearted strangers overflowing with concern for her and her mammy? How could she know to not be afraid in the face of the journey ahead?
But my girl has a fearless heart – maybe she’s more Irish than she is American, my sweet sixteen year old girl. Maybe she’s more her mother’s daughter than her dad’s, but I won’t tell her so just yet.
A decade of Christmases ago, Santa brought a bicycle for that same girl, one who had just lost her two front teeth. She wanted a pink bike preferably with sparkles, making it very convenient for Santa and his elves. Lest you judge me, gentle reader, about reinforcing gender stereotypes, let me just say that our girl loved pink that year. In her note to Santa, she even asked that he bring “pink wind chimes to make me feel happy like the sunset’s glow.” (The next Christmas, she had moved on; she wanted a new bike to ride with daddy, and the color was irrelevant).
That pink bike had training wheels, or “stabilizers” as we called them in Northern Ireland. Stabilizers – I think it was my first big word. Even now, I like saying it and conjuring all it connotes – stability, steadfastness, balance, a firm hold. Had I read MIT engineering professor David Gordon Wilson’s Bicycling Science, I may not have been so adamant about getting a bike with stabilizers. The professor wholly dismissed training wheels, pointing out, obviously, that they do not teach you how to balance; they teach you how to pedal. Given that bicycling is the quintessential balancing act, it makes more sense to follow Wilson’s advice to “adjust the bicycle’s seat low enough for children to plant their feet on the ground and practice by coasting down the grassy slopes.” Is it any wonder we are so afraid when we push off that first time without training wheels. We have to learn how to balance, much like the way we are expected to swim if we are thrown in the deep end.
Ah, but if we get rid of the training wheels, then we say goodbye to a rite of passage. I remember well the day after Christmas when we took Sophie to the park to ride her bike – a Big Moment in our family’s story. The morning began with an Irish breakfast – sausages and bacon purchased from Pat McCrossan at Ireland’s Own in Phoenix. Next on the agenda was the removal of the training wheels. As expected, there was some cursing and fumbling with the wrench that would remove forever the useless stabilizers. Waiting impatiently, in a new Aran sweater, her pig-tails plaited, she was confident that those training wheels had prepared her to ride a bike. We knew better and therefore brought band-aids along with a video camera to record the moment. You know the one. Her daddy would run alongside the bike, holding onto the seat, and then let go as she would ride into the afternoon sunshine . . .
Naturally, she lost her balance, and she fell. But only the once. She cried, too. Still, our darling girl kept both nerve and balance when she climbed on again. And then she was riding a bike! Round and round the park she rode, sunbeams dancing on the silver spokes, blue and white streamers flashing from the handlebars, ducks and geese scrambling to get out of her path, and she, buoyant in what Heaney calls the “new momentum.” Equipped for bicycle riding. Forever.
Then in a twinkling, it was the Fall of 2013. Unbeknownst to me, her dad had taken her to a AAA workshop for teen drivers, and was helping her study the driver’s manual for her Learner’s Permit test. Twenty-one correct answers in a row meant she would pass the test on October 16th. Once accomplished, she tells me she gave him a thumbs-up that prompted the wink and proud-as-punch smile she knew so well. It was there on his face when I came home from work – “Look what we did today!” – and he beamed as our baby girl pressed her new Learner’s Permit into my hand. Another family milestone.
Only a month later, one day before our 22nd wedding anniversary, the clocks stopped.
Had someone told us this was going to happen, I wonder what we would have done differently or better or both with our remaining days together. Would an expiration date on our family have changed the way we lived those thirty days? Would we have crammed in the kinds of things typically found on bucket-lists or would we have made sure to say or unsay things otherwise forgotten.
Would we have focused on letting go or holding on?
I don’t know. I know only that the world in which my daughter and I now move is altered, albeit strangely familiar. Smaller. In the weeks following her father’s death, my father, far from his Derry home, taught her to drive on what he still considers the wrong side of the road. Every day, she drove around the quiet streets of our Phoenix neighborhood, hands at ten-to-two on the steering wheel, my father in the passenger seat telling her to “go easy.” With knots in her stomach, she practiced reversing and parallel parking, the latter making her anxious.
After our Christmas Dinner last year, my mother suggested that Sophie take me out for a drive. My baby girl. Driving. I almost burst with pride, looking on as she signaled and proceeded down the avenue, maintaining a slow, steady 25 mph and taking me from adolescence remembered into motherhood and now widowhood, unaware and unafraid. Behind the wheel, my girl was stoic, reminding me of where I started – with Seamus Heaney – and the symbolic passing of a kite from father to sons in “A Poem for Michael and Christopher“
Before the kite plunges down into the wood
and this line goes useless
take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand in here in front of me
and take the strain
~ Take the strain. You are fit for it.