He ran beside me, one hand on the seat, one on the bars, and I, filled with the fear of the impossibility of balancing on those two narrow wheels, panicked and went full reverse on the pedals, engaging the ancient coaster brake and sending my father sprawling onto the street in front of me. This was 1976 or ’77, East Greenwich, Rhode Island, summertime.
I don’t recall profanity. My dad wasn’t one to swear if he could help it. But as he dragged himself up off the road, sweat shining his forehead, I knew I had done the wrong thing. I noticed his shin bleeding where it had caught my pedal.
He yelled, “What are you doing?” The yelling was rare too. Silence was his normal setting.
And I said, “I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to stop,” and he said, “Don’t worry about stopping! Learn to ride first!” And in my shame I let go of my fear of not being able to stop. I suppressed it, more afraid of my father’s silent rage.
I didn’t learn to ride a bike that day in Rhode Island. That happened later on a hillside in Wales. I was alone. Gravity taught me to ride a bike. My father had given up running up and down the road beside me. I don’t blame him. I did the same with my own kids. It is physically grueling, emotionally draining, and honestly, not even the best way.
Sitting at my father’s death bed last July, I thought of this scene again. He lay there in his bedroom, a hospital bed provided by insurance, morphine and oxycodone suppressing the last wrenching pain of bodily decay after a decade and more of Parkinsonian decline. The disease wrecked his body, and it stole his mind. At the end, he was a waxen shell, Madame Tussaud’s badly rendered, tragic likeness. I sat and listened to his rattling breath and waited, trying to take in the immensity of it, to digest his 80 years as a story coming to its end.
Time moves cruelly forward.
My father was born on a farm in Wales as World War II broke out, the oldest of eight children. His first (possibly apocryphal) memory is of sitting at a dinner table in a field with Italian POWs who had been sent to the farm to work. They were poor, but my grandfather was an ambitious and stubborn man. He pushed my dad off the farm, into classrooms beyond the village, and into a life he never could have imagined for himself.
Dad did a PhD in chemistry, moved to London to work in pharmaceuticals briefly, and then to the US, where he climbed the available corporate ladders of the ’60s and ’70s. He succeeded on the back of a crushingly strong work ethic, what we only latterly labeled workaholism, and though he sat in the conference rooms of multi-global companies, he never took on the airs of executive privilege. He always related better to his men than his bosses, and his ultimate career prospects were probably limited by his unwillingness to play political. He ended his work life better admired than he had been rewarded, and I don’t think that bothered him.
Upon retirement, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, tremors at first, then lack of balance, inattention. Eventually dementia took hold. It was a slow but pitiless wind down. I cried the day he died, but not much. He’d been gone a long time by then.
So I sat there in my parents’ neat, warm condo and thought. There was so much he gave me, honesty, high standards, work ethic, and yet for all the positive lessons, there was a negative too. As the dopamine and serotonin left him, year-by-year, he became more and more reticent, more static. He stopped pushing himself forward and accepted what he was given, quietly, maybe even frightened it would be taken away. For a man who’d boarded the USS France in 1965 bound for who-the-hell-knows-what in America, his late decades found him in nearly full retreat, robbed of that courage, and unable to enjoy its fruits anyway.
There are a lot of ways to teach someone a lesson. Put another way, both positive and negative examples can reach the same conclusion.
We middle-class kids didn’t have to strive for much. The path was paved before us. Grade school, college, career, family, home, happiness. Maybe it’s the absence of struggle that leaves so many of us unsatisfied in our middle age. We have everything we need, but we have a hard time appreciating it. We lack the courage to change course, because we have little experience of it.
This, my dad was telling me. Life is limited, not short, but finite. If you wait, if you think too much of how to slow down, you will miss the opportunity to glide away at top speed. Have faith the future can be better, because the only way is forward. This is the lesson, I think. I just have to decide how to apply it.
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to finish this piece. I started it in the heavy days after my father finally passed. It was fresh then, maybe too fresh. For eight months it’s been in my head. I guess I was finally ready to finish it, or perhaps what we’re all going through right now reminded me that, fear-be-damned, we are going forward. I have learned the lesson that needs to be applied right now, and I won’t be afraid. Thanks, Dad.