I can still remember, vividly, the day that my father taught me to ride a bicycle. We lived at the end of a quiet suburban street lined with cherry and dogwood trees, our house set back from the cul-de-sac by what seemed to me, at age 5, to be a very long and very wide drive, perfect for small bicycles, and my dad and I spent hours there together as I circled that drive, round and round and round, on my little bike with the big training wheels. On the day that the wheels came off, we left the security of that smooth-paved drive and went out onto the street.
Dad kept his hand on my back as I pedaled down the street, and he kept it there as I pedaled back up the street, and he kept there as I pedaled down again and up again and with every pass the pressure of his hand became lighter and lighter and lighter until suddenly I couldn’t feel it there anymore, and I was flying, all on my own, and I remember that moment, I remember it keenly, that moment of sudden, terrifying, exhilarating realization that I was on my own, that I was doing it on my own, that I could do it all on my own, and I turned my head to see where he was, and he was there, of course, just some distance back, smiling as wide as I would ever see him smile, thrilled, proud, because this was something we’d done together, this thing, this getting me to be able to do this all on my own, and he was prouder of me than I was of myself, and the cherry trees and the dogwood trees flashed by me as I sped along, not looking where I was going, and it was wonderful, wonderful. And then I crashed into the bushes on someone’s lawn, and I cried.
It hadn’t occurred to me until this morning, watching my husband teach Emilia how to ride her bike all on her own, that my own bike-riding lesson with my own father summarized our relationship perfectly, that it did, in fact, summarize parenthood perfectly, if one could overlook the banality of the trope of lifting parental hands from the shoulders of the child, inasmuch as that moment – the banal lifting of one’s hand, figurative or otherwise – is in some ways the moment, the moment that stays with us, parent and child, as the moment during which everything changes and yet becomes – in the very same moment – ever fixed. I can still feel my father’s hand on my back, I can still hear his footsteps running alongside me as I pedal harder and faster, harder and faster, speeding along, speeding away. And I can still sense him there, behind me, smiling, proud, watching me go.
This is what a father gives to his daughter, what a parent gives to a child; this what I saw my husband give to our girl this morning, this encouragement to fly, this promise to always keep his hand ready to catch her, this covenant of letting go and holding on, this pact of saying goodbye and never parting. This lived promise that is family, that is love.
I can still feel my father there, I said, and that’s true. I can no longer see his smile, because he’s gone, but I know that it’s there. I can still feel his hand on my back.
Today I saw my daughter’s father put his hand on hers. This is how life goes on.
(If you have HBO, you need to watch or DVR this film today and share it with the dad in your life. It’s a wonderful, heart-lifting and heart-yanking meditation on fatherhood and parenthood and the love that we feel for our kids and as I said last week at the film’s HBO premiere, it’s the kind of film that reminds you of things that you didn’t think you needed reminding about. Like telling your kids that you love them. Your parents, too.
It’ll be out on video next month. I’ll remind you about it then. You’ll thank me.
Now, go hug the dad in your life.)