The man who, 44 Springs ago, happily lugged me around Central Park's bike loop on the back of Raleigh three-speed and then treated all of us to the famous soft serve at the Boat House, has left this Earth.
The guy who, 40 Springs ago, ran behind my candy-apple red bicycle (training wheels freshly removed) on the boardwalk in Riverside Park, with his hand steadying the seat until I gathered enough speed to stay upright for ten yards, has left us.
The man who, 31 Springs ago, booked me on my first bicycle tour, in which I ranged from Boston to the Green Mountains to the White Mountains, is gone.
That man bought me my first road bike for that trip, a burgundy Saint Tropez, a cheap, heavy, Asian, steel boat anchor, famous for nothing beyond hauling my tuchus all over the East and West Coasts during two high school summers. While I was still admiring the sparkly paint job, the movie Breaking Away was re-released (due to Academy Award nominations); one soft Friday night in April he pressed a ten-dollar bill in my hand and sent me to the Embassy on Broadway and 72nd Street, knowing that it would strike a chord -- but not knowing nearly how big a chord, nor how long-lasting.
That same man stubbornly forbid me to try organized bike racing during the very next summer. He had so many admirable qualities, but he also could be controlling, distant, and overbearing, especially in those days. He decided I would earn money and get my teenaged rear end out of the house. Decent ideas, but I'll always regret not finding a way to sign up for local races anyway, even against his wishes, while I was young, strong, and reckless enough to be somewhat good at it.
* * *
But let us rewind to the beginning. Way back to Riverside Park, when I was about seven. Because what happened there not only is a primal bike memory, it also reflects something more profound about our relationship.
He took his hand off the seat. While running alongside, he took his hand away, to let me experience self-sufficiency.
I shot along the boardwalk on my own steam for a good ten yards before I turned to look over my shoulder and make sure he was still there, and not knowing better, I let my shoulder, arm and hand followed my chin, the front wheel came off-center, wobbled a little and then a lot -- and then I was down on the pebbly pavement. Top speed had probably been six miles per hour, but at that age, every crash is a disaster, life-threatening. But to be honest, I was more upset at what had happened just before the crash and the scraped skin. My father had deceived me. My own dad led me to think he was there when he wasn't. That was a new formulation in my little Technicolor child's world.
Eventually, he got me back on the bike, and the realization came over me (or perhaps he just talked me into seeing) that I had, actually, ridden on my own for thirty feet -- so perhaps I could do it again.
The next three or more decades would mostly be an awkward dance, in which he usually had his hand on my saddle when I didn't want him to, and didn't when I did. Throughout a dysfunctional childhood in my mom's house, Dad did his level best to provide me and my sister with a sense of confidence and a compass for this confusing world. He himself was confused, still a young man, freshly and very acrimoniously divorced. He was with us a lot, but he could only do triage.
So, I wandered all over the map for my first 40 years, unmoored, looking for Me, for Truth, for Safety and Inner Peace. I made some good things, and some glorious and bloody train wrecks. I broke my own heart and lost hope many times over, and, consequently, he suffered, silently, stoically, more than I'll ever know.
Finally, in middle age, I woke up. I went to grad school (his idea), found a career that I fit into, found an amazing woman, found a beautiful place to live, found a beautiful house to stay in for a long time, and found myself, ourselves, beginning the process of adoption. In about seven years, I did all the growing up and risk-taking I had managed to avoid for four decades. It's been harrowing, still is, but it's been good, too. Smartest seven years of my life, hands down.
Dad was so pleased all along, he probably popped buttons on four different shirts. I was finally out of the nest and flying. He was there for my joyous wedding, helped with expenses in grad school, there for my graduation, visited the house we finally bought... quietly smiling, and giving me congratulations each time.
In the last few years, noticing me become the man he always wanted me to be, he began steadily confiding in me, treating me almost as an equal. This blew me away, of course -- my stoic, overbearing father was leaning on me? My life was sweetened immeasurably. Last Spring, when he received his diagnosis, he opened up yet more, quite a lot, in fact. Amongst the upset and anxiety, I was overjoyed. Ages before, he had his hand out to steady me, now, by the blessings of God, I could return the favor. More and more, he disclosed his fears, worries, and joys, and relied on me for perspective, for reflection. He recognized my growing steadyness and maturity, and reached for it to brace himself. I was overwhelmed, even awed, but I can tell you this: I never took my hand off that saddle. I could finally pay him back for the steadfastness he gave me so unthinkingly over the years.
* * *
Dad died Sunday night, after a seven-month bout with cancer. He was strong and dignified to the end, and, thank God, did not have a lot of physical pain to deal with.
I know in my heart he is looking back over his shoulder, just like me all that time ago. He was a doting family man, and his greatest sadness was leaving his wife and children. But now there are no training wheels needed, nor anyone's hand on the saddle. Far from falling, he's flying.
Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
~ Hamlet, Act V, scene ii