A Pinky Promise and Two Capri Sun.
May 15, 2021.
“I’m going to tell you something, but you have to promise not to tell anyone,” she says. Her hair is braided into high ponytails on each side, white bows wrapped around the top. She sits next to me on the front steps of the porch, Capri-sun in her hand, a black and red bicycle laying in the grass near us.
Brown eyes enlarged, she leans in and whispers, “I don’t know how to ride a bicycle without training wheels.”
“It’s my secret. I’m 9 years old and I don’t know how to ride a bike!” she states, all matter of fact, sadness intertwined in her words.
I sit there. Do I tell her that no one knows what they’re doing, that we all had to learn things from scratch? That there’s never a timeline?
“Laila,” I say. “It’s okay. It’s never too late to learn.” I stand up. “Come on.”
She’s over five feet, legs longer than her body, and when she stands next to me, the top of her head goes up to my shoulder. A smile flashes across her face. She reminds me of myself when I was her age.
“I’m going to show you how to ride a bicycle,” I tell her, grabbing the black and red bicycle.
Laila pedals as I steer the bicycle by the handlebars and we practice on the sidewalk. We pass the trash cans, the crack in the sidewalk, and the anthill. Over and over and over.
She’s a little too big for the bicycle, knees almost touching her chest, but this is the only bicycle we have. I realize the right pedal is stuck and she often needs an extra push. I figure the next time she rides a bicycle it’ll be easier and I tell her this.
“The balance is the most difficult part,” I tell her after 40 minutes of practice. “But once you’ve got it, you’ve got it forever.”
“You think I can do it?” Laila asks.
“Of course you can!” I say.
“I’m going to let go as soon as you feel comfortable. Just let me know when,” I tell her, pausing.
As we pass the anthill again, she screams, “Okay! I’m ready!” I hesitate, take a deep breath, and let go.
She bikes for about 20 feet and I watch in awe.
“Yay! I’m doing it!” She screams and I watch as she crashes directly into a trash can. Running over to help her, I worry- what if she’s hurt? What did I do? Laila looks up at me. I realize that she can see the worry on my face and her eyes well with tears.
I offer her a hand. “It’s okay, sometimes you’re going to fall and it’s going to hurt a bit. You just have to shake it off and keep going. Like this.” I move my body from side to side, waving my hands in the air. It takes her by surprise, as I can tell that she’s not accustomed to adults being so silly.
Laila laughs, shaking her body from side to side and we collapse in laughter. She later hugs me asks me if I can be her new stepmom and I ask her- “what about sisters?”
We try again.
“Okay! Let me go,” she screams. My hands are tense, sweaty even, and then I let her go. The letting go is the hardest part because I want to protect her and keep her safe, but I realize I can’t. If I hold on forever, how will she learn? How will she grow?
Is this what parenting feels like? I take a deep breath.
When she falls, I run over and help her back on the bike, give her a push of confidence, and off she goes.
Each time she pedals a bit farther. I watch as she quickly learns to catch herself when she starts to fall. Laila soon doesn’t need me to help her up and I slow my pace down to a walk when she falls. When she lands in the grass, she quickly grabs the bicycle and throws her leg back over the bike. So far, so good.
I tighten the straps on my sandals and run behind her, cheering her on. She improves, steering the bicycle, going from the sidewalk to the grass, back and forth, back and forth. As long as she doesn’t venture into the street, all is well.
All is well.
After three falls in a row, I grab the handlebars again and she pedals. “This is just a practice round, okay?” I tell her. I figure we all need a hand between falls.
Laila starts to pedal faster. She’s 30 feet out, 40 feet out, and then she’s so far down the street that I run a bit faster to tell her to turn around.
We take a break with tropical fruit punch Capri suns in the shade. As I stick my straw in the little hole to open my drink, I think of my childhood.
I wonder, just wonder, why we all rushed to become adults, now living what could easily become a lackluster life laced in capitalism and loneliness (if you weren’t careful). Somehow, we convinced ourselves that we couldn’t get dirty and that certain activities needed a specific type of apparel. We sat in front of computers all day and later on the porch to watch the children play.
Sometimes the conversation at the adult table at the function was unfulfilling. Adults spoke of careers and long-term goals and chores and the news
We desperately were seeking play, all of us grown children with just a little bit more insight and experience. We forgot how to have fun. Fun cost money, in dive bars with expensive margaritas and loud music. There was a seriousness to life that my best friend’s 5 year old son didn’t consider when he asked me, a grown woman, to play freeze tag at the park.
But I was learning that there was so much more to life than work and spending money. There was a freeness in my afternoon on this sidewalk with Laila.
As an adult, there were things that needed to be done, bills to be paid, so childlike play was reserved for children. But the more I played, the more joy I felt, the more creative my art was, the better I slept at night. We cheered on children when they accomplished anything because no feat was too small but somehow, just somehow, we forgot that adults needed the exact same encouragement. I needed a push sometimes, an extended hand, and a “great job” just as much as Laila needed it. However, to admit that was not an easy task. As an adult, I was supposed to pretend that I knew what I was doing at all times and act accordingly.
But I didn’t. I often fell in adulthood and scraped my knees in a metaphorical way. I had no idea and also no way of knowing without having the actual experience first. There were life lessons I learned from stories, others I learned alone, and some I read in books. It was difficult to differentiate which lesson would be learned and from what source.
I often thought of the quote by James Baldwin on page 5 of my favorite book, Giovanni’s Room. “People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”
And so I wondered, what percentage of learning is actually gaining the confidence to know that you can?
I was gentle and kind with Laila in a way I was just learning to be with myself at almost 29 years old.
“Okay! I’m ready! Can you please give me a push?” Laila jumps up and grabs the bicycle off the grass. She throws her leg over the bike and looks at me.
I grab the bike’s handlebars.
“Let’s do this!” Hands sweating, I count down from 3 and then I let go.
Laila screams with joy and her feet pedal faster and faster. Soon she is up the street, just a dot on the horizon. I run after her, heart pounding in my chest, and I feel something that I’ve never felt before; a mix between joy and nostalgia and the strongest hint of happiness.
I catch up to her. “I did it, I did it!” She screams and tosses her hands over her head. We high-five.
“How do you feel?” I squeal, excited beyond measure. “I’m so proud of you!”
“I feel amazing! I did it! I did it! I know how to ride a regular bike now! Thank you! Thank you!” She squeezes my hand.
I pause. “Promise me something, okay?” I say. “Promise me that for the rest of your life, if you ever meet anyone that wants to learn how to ride a bike- and it doesn’t matter how old they are- but if they want to learn, that you’ll teach them. You’re a bike rider now!!”
We lock eyes. “Promise,” Laila laughs.
“Pinky promise,” I say, extending my left hand and sticking out my pinky finger.
Laila and I laugh even harder as we pinky shake and nod our heads in unison.
“Ok. I’m going to try again,” she tells me, one foot on the ground, the other on the pedal.
“Do you want me to give you a push?” I ask.
“I think I can do it myself now,” she says and I smile. “Okay.”
Laila pushes off with her left foot. I watch as the bike wobbles from left to right and she swerves towards the tree, but regains her balance at the last minute. She grips the handlebars tighter, a determined look on her face, and she rides the bike down the street.
Her mom walks outside onto the porch and I point to Laila off in the distance.
“That’s my baby! Look at you riding a bicycle!” Her mom cheers from the front steps.
“You know you have to buy her a bicycle now, right?” I tell her mom, laughing.
“I will! Thank you so so much!” she reaches and squeezes my hand.
We clap as Laila rides back down the street towards us. Plastered across her face is the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.
I realize that this is something that I will never forget.
The next day I hug Laila and her mom goodbye in the driveway. “Thank you so much for teaching my baby how to ride a bicycle,” her mom tells me.
Laila hugs me extra tight and I look at her, a big smile across her face. I tell her I’m so proud of her and to remember our pinky promise.
“I will! Pinky promise!” Laila, my friend’s sister, and Laila’s mom get in the car, and I watch as the car disappears down the street.
I feel that pang in my chest again.