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Returning Favors

My father just got back on his bike for the first time in 8 years. He’s 81.

He commuted by bike around Chicago his whole life. The city has magnificent bike paths that are strictly enforced. Nobody “accidentally” rides in the bike lanes. Drivers don’t harass cyclists for being on the road because everybody actually has something better to do. People who aren’t used to it, actually LEARN how to get used to it, rather than get angry because it‘s not what THEY do. Novel, eh?

He had to stop riding when he could no longer leave my mother alone. At first she got frightened when she couldn’t find him. It’s like he was her brain. She was able to communicate to him what she needed, and he would do it for her. She would never come right out and admit that she couldn’t do it herself. He would have to figure it out. She hid her Alzheimer’s well. She wrote herself yellow sticky reminder notes for things like the contents of a cabinet or things that she wanted to say to people. She probably never ran across the notes again in the pile of papers on the dining room table. The notes stopped once spelling didn’t make sense for her anymore. She painted a ceramic dish and in signing the back of her art, she misspelled her name.

She got mad one day when papa left her in a gift shop to go back to their hotel room. She forgot he was leaving. Plus, the layout of the lodge was in short-term memory. She could find her way around the neighborhood she lived in for 45 years, but she had no idea what to do here. He finally came back for her and she yelled at him, telling him never to leave her again. That’s when he stopped riding his bike.

He continued to work out at the gym, because he needed to keep his heart healthy. He was vigilant, but the stress of taking care of mom was beginning to show up in his body. A mystery prostate issue resulted in a body scan revealing a tumor on his pancreas. In removing it, the surgeon mucked up his intestines, resulting in two more surgeries in two weeks and a gastric bag for another 10 weeks. It was this drive between Asheville and Chicago that made me determined to get them to move here. They stayed with me for two months while papa healed and I helped them find a place to live. He had a year to downsize. Halfway through it he developed severe Achilles tendonitis and shuffled for an entire year. He shuffled up and down three flights of stairs and between two houses, 45 miles away, packing everything up.

It took three doctors, exercises, stretching, shoe inserts, massages, and two different physical therapists to heal it, and by the time it was better he developed sciatica – no doubt caused by the shuffling. When the doctor recommended total knee replacement as well, he said, “Getting old isn’t easy.”

They moved here just as mom was at the point where she wasn’t quite sure where she was anymore. They struggled for far too long because papa was scared to make her do anything she didn’t want to do. The new apartment was set up with all of their old furniture, so she thought she was still home. The problem is that she kept going to the basement, which was no longer where the washer, dryer, tools and crafts were, but now the main lobby. She would find her way down the elevator in her nightgown at 5 a.m. after papa had finally fallen asleep. The maintenance men would bring her back, knocking at the door. As much as he hated to, Papa stopped putting her in the cleavage-bearing nightgown.

Although we found adult daycare for her, papa’s days were spent figuring out how to outsmart her, convince her to put on her coat, coax her to eat, shop for the household, and manage the finances. She kept falling on the floor or simply getting down to sit yet unable to get back up. I would drive across town to hook her under the armpits from a sitting position and hoist her to her feet amidst much yelling and slapping – from her, not me. He would cheer her with a kiss, and all would be forgotten. He was exhausted. We had to find a nursing home.

He now thought that he could ride his bike over to her because it was ridiculous to drive one mile back and forth twice a day. He took out his bike, pumped the tires and took it for a dry run around the parking lot. He said he felt a little unstable, but then took it to the street. Chicago is flat. Asheville is not. Just the huge speed bumps out front of his condo were enough to shake him up. He climbed up to the stop sign and decided it was too hilly. I don’t think he really changed gears while living in Chicago. He only had five of them on his Raleigh. He said he didn’t need any more.

He complained that he didn’t feel as stable any more. I feel like his injuries and lack of being on the bike have weakened his cycling muscles, but more than anything, every time I get back on the bike after a hiatus I feel clumsy. I think that if he just does it, it will come back. It’s just like riding a bike, right?!

What he needed was a flat place with few obstacles. I took him to Carrier Park. We started down at the French Broad River Park where there would be few obstacles or hills. I brought my boys, Elijah on his bike and Wyatt on a tag-a-long behind me. I pulled the bikes out of the pickup and got everyone suited up. It took me a while to get the tag-a-long attached and the winter wind was howling at 43 degrees. I watched papa wheel up to a post and sit on his bike. “I’m afraid I’m going to tip over,” he says. “I just don’t have the balance any more.” I had thought about bringing training wheels, just to get him confident again, but didn’t want to embarrass him. “Let me get you started,” I say. “I’ll just run along beside you in case you fall.”

He wouldn’t have anything to do with it. I thought about the blocks he had tied to my pedals when I was little. He would push, holding onto my seat, and as soon as he gave me the final shove I would careen into a tree. It took me a while to get it. He laughed when I nailed that maple, but he helped me back onto the bike. One day I sat staring out of the window at the sidewalk, imagining riding a bike and suddenly I realized that I could do it. “I want to ride my bike,” I told him, as he watered the plants. “No, not right now,” he said. “I’m busy.” But I pleaded, “No papa, I don’t need your help. Just get the bike up the steps for me.” So he did. He went back to the front windows with his watering can as I wheeled my bike around. I kept swallowing the lump of excitement down my throat. I got on, put my foot on the pedal and looked up at the second-story window and waved at him. I stepped down on the pedal and took off, relaxing my body into full stride. I grinned up at the window to see him laughing and continued down the street like I’d been doing it all summer.

Now he wouldn’t let me run beside him. I knew better than to argue, but I was terrified that he would crash to the pavement and break something. What an idiot they would call me in the emergency room. “You took your 81-year-old father for a bike ride?!”

I got Wyatt on the tag-a-long and pedaled over to him. “Go ahead Papa,” I will follow. “NOOOO!” he said as if I were stupid. “If I fall you’ll get all tangled up in me,” he says. Clearly he is not familiar with the type of riding that I do, which is really sweet. I guess there’s not much that I can do to save him if he falls, no matter where I am, so I don’t argue. I pull ahead and by the time I turn around he is riding. I’m so happy, but I don’t want to embarrass him, so I turn back around to hide my grin and tears. He careens a bit through the gate, but makes it fine and isn’t struggling at all. We ride around twice before I bring him onto the dirt path connecting toward Carrier Park and I worry again as he cranks up a small hill that is always challenging for the boys. We make it all the way to the racetrack where he sits on a bench looking exhausted. I’m a little worried that I’ve pushed him too far. He already worked out this morning.

The kids run around the playground, but it is cold, so we head back after 20 minutes. We are all freezing and Wyatt cries almost all the way back to the truck. I want to race back, but I have to ride slow because I don’t want papa out of my sight. He is also cold and tired. Elijah races ahead and helps us into the truck, which I turn on and crank the heat, placing the baby in the driver’s seat. We are cold, tired and hungry, but inside I can’t believe I’ve gotten papa back on his bike. I drop him home and as I kiss him, I tell him how proud I am of him riding his bike. He laughs and limps up to his condo, pushing his bike along.

A few hours later I call to see if he is ok. “Oh, yes!” he laughs, “I was just on my way out for a walk. Thank you for checking on me.”

Mom is gone now, but papa is back on his bike.

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