It was surprising to see among her possessions a bicycle. Gardening supplies, antique furniture, lamps, chairs, side tables, boxes of bric-a-brac and a brand new bicycle stuffed into a large storage unit.
She had sold her beloved hundred-year-old farmhouse on the hill, had cast about for a place to land, and to her dismay eventually found herself in senior housing. The small studio apartment was far from adequate to re-home her restless soul, never mind her numerous belongings.
We had come to consolidate the bits and pieces of her tangible assets from two storage units down to one. She had to touch these pieces and talk about when, where, and how each had been added to the collection. She had to remember a life, her life.
My friend has been sick a long time. It will take her away sooner rather than later now. Her inner fortitude versus her physical wherewithal is why she is still standing, standing in this storage unit.
Things have become rather difficult of late. Added to her chronic health problems are intermittent infections that cripple her ambition to simply live another day. Yet, she fights on as only the tragically ill can do in a battle she will not survive.
And there is the bicycle. It is a brand new beauty for sure. I ask, “Who did you buy the bike for,” believing as I did that she couldn’t have purchased it for herself. My god, she couldn’t have thought riding a bike was possible with an oxygen tank.
“For myself, of course,” she replies with a not-too-friendly smirk that telegraphs how stupid I am for even asking the question. I say no more but think, “I know all about bikes.”
Dad had wanted a bike. Long past owning and operating a motor vehicle, he wanted a bike so he could get to his fishing boat, to the banks and grocery stores he owned, to his home where his new wife was waiting for him. The elaborate tapestry his brain had woven over the past few years was complex with finite details. He would ride and be mobile again. He and he alone would dictate his comings and goings, not a failing body or a well-meaning daughter.
I told him repeatedly that his knees weren’t capable of peddling a bike, but he knew otherwise. So strong was his confabulated belief system that his inability to walk unaided or dress himself meant nothing. When opportunity presented itself in the form of a grandson who could be manipulated to aid in his scheme, he jumped at the chance.
“Give me a ride to Benny’s, I need to get some supplies,” he told the unwitting co-conspirator. He even managed to spirit the checkbook out of its hiding place, getting his grandson to help him fill it out. Now he had a bike.
The next day, he pushed the bike to the fire station to pump air into the tires. The young firemen insisted he wear a helmet and produced one for him. A size or two too small, Dad placed the helmet on his head and pushed the bike back home.
Later that afternoon, I received a call at my office from one of Dad’s neighbors. The caller was concerned. Dad was sitting outside his home on a snowdrift wearing a bike helmet and holding onto a new bike. I said, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
As I turned the corner, I could see him still sitting there. He was smiling. He may have been speaking to the people who regularly visited his imagination, maybe even his new wife.
“What are you doing, Dad,” I say as I walk towards him. I say, “You have to get up Dad.” I put my hand out, “Come in the house. I’ll make you a cup of coffee.” He responds, “OK, but I’m pretty tired from riding this bike.”
Once inside, I insist that he change out of his wet clothing, helping him to do so. He doesn’t know how they got wet. I tell him because he was sitting on the snow bank for at least an hour. “Nay, I was riding that bike,” he responds.
The bike became a symbol of our struggle between his unrelenting desire to be free and live a life of purposeful activities and my desire to try and keep him safe. I would eventually win the hollow victory.
Back to the present, my friend and I manage to consolidate her possessions – including her bike – into one unit.
Maybe for her that bicycle is her symbol of freedom. Maybe just owning it is enough. Maybe she imagines riding it with her beloved dogs looping along, young and strong and so alive in memory. Maybe she sees her husband waiting at a crossroad just up ahead, a crossroad she’s pedaling towards on a bicycle she rides in dreams.
By Marilou Newell