I was a late bloomer, learning to ride a bike. While most kids learn by Kindergarten, maybe first grade, it took me until the summer before fifth grade to master it. My brain tumor, unknown to me at the time, was already causing a range of mysterious, but for the most part minor, deficits that I’d learn to work around in the years to come. I compensated for a limp that started in early grade school and affected my left leg by bearing more weight on my right leg. The difference in muscle development was stark. My right leg looked normal, my left, like a withered chicken leg. And a withered chicken leg wasn’t much help when trying to ride a bike.
I wanted to know what it felt like to sail down hills, wind through my hair, taking the serpentine curves and descents down dirt roads that wound through the remote Vermont town where I grew up. Houses around us sometimes were separated by a mile, so bikes opened up the world. Over summer vacations, I’d watch my brothers Sean and Tom, then in sixth grade, pedal out of the driveway after breakfast. I wouldn’t see them again until dinnertime. They and their friend, Donald, rode for miles and hours. I wanted to lose a whole day like they did, exploring. But first, I needed to learn to keep myself upright on two wheels.
Strike number one was in my head and wouldn’t be discovered until nearly three decades passed. Strike number two came at me from the ground, across Newbury Center’s miles of dirt roads. Sand was a constant enemy, crisscrossing the road in thick stripes. If sand didn’t throw a rider, stones might, ranging in size from marbles to golf balls, even on occasion to a baseball-sized booby trap.
Sean had tried teaching me to ride a bike the previous summer, but I gave up mere days into it. While most kids of good health and normal physical ability can balance after a few hours, I remained frustrated, embarrassed, and stymied going into our third day. I leaned heavily into my brother as he jogged alongside my bike.
“Sit up, Annie! Lean right!”
The few times he let go, I was down more than up. Three days of scrapes, bruises, and mumbled cursing led me to wheel my bike into the woodshed for another season as I accepted that the TV probably held more appeal than whatever scenery was out there. The following summer, however, I was ready to try again. Sean, by then a seventh grader, had started a side hustle and was away from the house longer than he was around it, sometimes covering a 20-mile radius with Tom and Donald as they rode their bikes collecting discarded beer bottles and cans for return deposit money. They made a tidy fortune over three summers, taking advantage of the country’s lax laws in the age before “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” swept the nation in the 1980s. Back then, few in our community seemed bothered that people were drinking, driving, and littering roads.
Summer evenings, Sunday through Friday, my brothers and Donald transferred their day’s haul of beer bottles and crushed cans, shifting their stash from small plastic bags that hung from their handlebars into larger black garbage bags that lined the front of our woodshed. Some bottles still held a mouthful of brew, with the smell of warm Michelob, Budweiser, and “Natty Light” wafting on breezes from the woodshed to our front door. By week’s end, Mom complained that this black plastic mountain was in competition with the town dump. She fought back, plopping pots of sunshine-yellow begonias and cherry-red geraniums along the woodshed’s perimeter.
On Saturday mornings, my brothers loaded the back of our family’s Dodge station wagon with their loot and Dad drove them nine miles from our remote home on the hill to the Village General Store. Each bottle and can brought a nickel. A banner week brought in 10, sometimes 12 dollars, enough for a week’s worth of Jawbreakers, Atomic Fireballs, Whatchamacallits, and Charleston Chew candy bars.
Sean collected his portion of discarded cans and bottles astride the saddle of a gleaming Schwinn Varsity speed bike the color of goldenrod, while Tom made do on a gearless, red Vista Rover. Sean’s days on the Schwinn, however, were short-lived. He crashed his bike in the summer of our second year living in Vermont. The Schwinn may have been a slick choice for the paved suburban roads of our former home in Pennsylvania, but was no match for Vermont’s dirt roads. The story goes that Sean was bombing down the steep hill that separated our house from Mrs. Thompson’s. While Tom’s Vista had thicker tires and respectable tread, Sean’s tires were skinny and balding. He hit a patch of sand and his tires jerked left and right. Sean squeezed the brakes on his handlebars in a final attempt.
“Ass over elbows,” Tom remembers.
On impact, the Schwinn’s kickstand plunged through Sean’s calf. A visible, two-inch thickened scar still gleams white against his summer tan, 40 years later. With a totaled bike, he needed a replacement and commandeered our sister’s purple bike. Soon to start her senior year of high school, Mare was more interested in earning money from babysitting and hadn’t used her bike all year. She snickered when Sean approached her.
“You want my bike? It’s got a banana seat. And a basket.”
The basket was the first to go, tossed into a corner of the woodshed. The banana seat landed in a heap beside it, and Sean salvaged the saddle from his Schwinn. He spray-painted the purple frame silver, and was back on the road. I gave Sean the space he needed to come to terms with the loss of his Schwinn before asking him to help me again. The start of the school year was two weeks out and I figured if I tried harder, I’d be able to tell my friends on the bus that I’d spent part of my summer riding my bike.
“I think I can really do it this time,” I announced, when I found Sean in the den.
His eyebrows scrunched. “We tried last summer. You hated it.”
“Yeah, but that was ‘cuz of the sand. It pulls the tires.”
As soon as I’d gotten the words out, I knew it was the wrong excuse. I looked at Sean’s shin, the wound still red and raised. He waited for me to lift my downcast eyes.
“If I can wipe out, what do you think’s gonna happen to you?”
“I’ll be careful,” I promised. “I’d never go as fast as you. Come on, I wanna ride a bike like everyone else.”
He shrugged. “We can try again tomorrow.”
My bike, like my sister’s, had a banana seat, a white basket with red and blue plastic flowers, and multi-colored handlebar streamers. The blue paint had flecks that glinted like diamond chips in sunlight. You can do this, I coached myself, as I pushed the bike out of the woodshed the next afternoon.
I weaved. Wobbled. My handlebars went herky-jerky. I snapped at Sean to hang onto the chrome bar that rose in a U-shape high above the back of my banana seat.
“Don’t let go, I’m not ready!”
Every time he did, I fell over. It was as if a rope was lassoed around my handlebars. I’d land in the sandy road, furious and defeated. It burned each time I soaped the skin on my elbows and knees, and it seemed I may never get the hang of it . . . and yet, I did. When I started school two weeks later, I was a solo rider. It would take another month before I summoned the courage to try my first hill that plunged to Mrs. Thompson’s house, the same one Sean flipped down.
I mapped my route before I started that September afternoon, walking a dry run and kicking stones to the side of the road. I dragged my sneakers through sand, feeling for thick, powdery pillows that I scuffed and leveled. Few cars traveled where we lived, which gave us freedom to use the entire road. The sand was deepest where it rolled into ditches. After grooming the road, I pointed my bike, dead center. Unlike Sean’s handlebar brakes on his long-gone Schwinn, my blue beauty braked by reversing my pedals. I was elated when I reached the bottom. It was a long, slow inch to independence, brakes in near-constant engagement, but I did it. Despite my chicken leg.
The victory also belonged to Sean. My brother helped open my world as he held on to the back of my bike, propping me, before pushing me off. He propped me up again 30 years later as I navigated my brain tumor diagnosis. He was my chauffeur, medical transcriptionist, therapist, head cheerleader, and sponge in the room. He and my siblings and mother faced the operating room with me, its hill of uncertainty as steep and terrifying as the one that plummeted to Mrs. Thompson’s house.
At 40, after open-head surgery and months of recovery, the return of my health and independence stretched before me like a winding road, possibilities around every corner.
Ann Kathryn Kelly writes from New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. She’s an editor with Barren Magazine, a columnist with WOW! Women on Writing, and she works in the technology sector. Ann leads writing workshops for a nonprofit that offers therapeutic arts programming to people living with brain injury. Her essays have appeared in a number of literary journals. https://annkkelly.com/