I SAW THE BACK WHEEL of the little yellow bike flip up in the air and a little body go over the handlebars. He hit face-first on pavement. It wasn’t a little-kid impact. If it happened in a mountain bike race, they’d suck their breath through their teeth and cut to slow-mo.
When I got to him, he was trying to get up, but he couldn’t do it and couldn’t integrate his thoughts to figure out why. An old gent around 65 was talking at him to be helpful. His Mommy was talking at him to be loving. His Daddy was probably talking at him too, but also knew he needed to be away from the verbal barrage. He was crying, but not in the screaming way. Dirty face and tears of shock. He’s six. I gentled his foot out of its tangle with the frame and picked him up and took him to the fence along the walkway with my back to everyone else, holding him like I did when he was a baby. I told him to hug me tight. He loves hugs but he didn’t. He couldn’t focus on words yet.
His elbows and hands were scraped up, and his knees. His lips were cut by his teeth. There was no mark on his face or forehead. My boys have never seen me go out without a helmet. If they don’t wear their helmets, they don’t ride, but it’s never been an issue. Riding means helmets.
I told him it was okay, rocked him and let him cry. The sobs were less than you’d expect. When I set him down, he didn’t seem entirely sturdy, but he stood well enough that I didn’t pick him up again.
I’d asked him a few times what happened. I asked again.
“I hit that,” he said unsteadily, finally.
He pointed at the fence, but I know my son. He was trying to make a coherent narrative of it all, and hitting a fence was the only thing he could imagine would flip a boy. But he’d been nowhere near the fence; he’d been well away from the walkway edges, riding fast and straight. Not as fast as little legs can possibly push that children’s gearing, which is the same as the granny on my road bike, but fast enough. Say 8 miles an hour. He can do 11 in short bursts, and the only thing stopping him there is he spins out the gears.
I know more than he does about what can flip a bike. “Does your foot hurt?” I asked. And again. And then again, with his name. “Maybe,” he said when he could formulate my question and then formulate an answer. “Partway.”
We went back to his bike and I said, “Show me where your foot was,” and he put it along his front tire tread.
THIS WAS ALONG the salt marsh in Inwood Hill Park, on the way home from Drums Along the Hudson, a Native American festival with a lot of dancing.
For a week before that, I’d been selling the boys on the special chocolate chip cookies we were going to make for family movie night. We’re gonna get SPECIAL CHOCOLATE CHIPS! We’re gonna let the dough sit in the fridge for THIRTY-SIX HOURS! and then we can bake them during the first episode of Speed Racer: The Next Generation, and eat them during the second episode. And that’s going to be forty-four hours, not thirty-six, but that’s okay because the recipe says AT LEAST thirty-six hours, so if we make the dough Friday night before bathtime…
I WAS ON my knees at his level. His face was still dirty and tear-tracked, lips punctured on the inside but not badly enough to stain his teeth. He was still shaken. I was talking slowly, being the good father, but I don’t remember what I was saying because next thing his face crinkled in anger and resolve and he screamed COOKIEEEEES!
I stopped talking and didn’t break our gaze. Neither did he.
I said, “Do it again.”
He looked startled, but he took a deep breath and screamed COOKIEEEEES!
“Do it again,” and I exaggerated that I was about to do it with him, and we looked into each other’s eyes and bellowed:
“Now you bonk your helmet with my helmet. Ready?”
We banged helmets.
“Do you think you can ride?”
“I think so.”
“Think you can lead us home?”
“Okay, lead us home.”
I GLANCED OVER at Kathleen once we were all mounted up and following him, to see how she was taking all this.
She looked like she was misting up a little.
“What a kid,” she said.
AFTER THE ELEVATOR, I worked it so we’d be the last two in the hallway with our bikes, and I got down and whispered, “I’m proud of you.”
He said softly, “But I cried. Crying is bad for your heart.”
“Who told you that?”
“The gym teacher.”
“Well—” My tone said all I needed to about that. “You know what’s good for your heart?”
“When you cry, but you do what you need to anyway. And you did that. That’s why I’m proud of you.”
WE ATE THE cookies during the second episode of Speed Racer. They were outstanding.
The next day after school, he came into the bedroom where I was working, all excited, and said, “Daddy, look! My tooth is wiggly!”
It hasn’t come out yet, but if it does…well, at least it’s not one of his adult teeth.
Thank you, little boy, for showing an entire line of men how it’s done.
And for bringing this man out in me.