© 2014 Kristine Muñoz
The Christmas that I was six, my brother Martin and I tumbled into the living room in our pajamas. Side by side, gleaming chrome, one glowing red, the other icy blue, were full-sized bicycles. I used a small child’s bike on training wheels as a faithful steed. Martin had abandoned an old black-framed rattletrap at the back of the garage when it got a flat tire. He sometimes rode neighbor kids’ bikes, though he wasn’t fond of being outdoors, or being physically active, or spending time with neighbor kids. His shout of delight made my parents beam as he grabbed the bicycle in bear hug.
I tried to smile when I felt them looking at me, and slid closer to the blue one. The seat seemed level with my shoulders, the handlebars over my head. I looked for a place to touch it, but the spokes in the wheels looked like they might roll forward and snap my fingers off. The frame looked electrified, and hard, and any touch would get it dirty. My treacherous eyes got hot; my heart pounded. I looked toward the wrapped presents; maybe if I ignored the bicycle there would be something else under the tree to salvage Christmas? Martin was rolling the red one toward the front door, my mother laughing, telling him to put some clothes on before he went outside. She went to open the door without insisting; in South Texas, it was 63 degrees on Christmas Day.
Dad came over to me and leaned down. “Do you like the new bike?” I nodded, but felt my pasted-on smile disappearing. He sounded anxious, and the thought of ruining what was supposed to be a huge, happy surprise gave me a stomach ache.
“I don’t.” My voice betrayed me, and the words came out a sob. “I can’t ride a two-wheeler!” The babyish tears were humiliating. Dad sat in the armchair and pulled me onto his lap. “We’ll get you training wheels,” he promised. “I’ll help you ride this one.”
By now kids were outside throwing new balls and shooting off cap pistols and yelling into walkie-talkies. My brother glowed as the owner of the newest, fastest bike that everyone wanted a turn to ride. I curled up on my bed with a Nancy Drew I’d already read – with all of Martin’s excitement, we never got around to opening the rest of the presents – and hoped they would forget I was there.
“Come on, let’s give it a try,” Dad finally said from the doorway. “I’ll hold you up.” I followed him slowly outside, disgusted at the tears welling up again. The bicycle towered in the driveway, balanced on its kickstand, and I held my father’s hand. “Just sit up here on the seat,” he said. "I'll hold you up."
"Don't let it move, OK?" He promised. I put my right hand on his shoulder, the safest place on my planet. I grasped the handgrip with my left, the first time I had touched the silverblue blade.
"Just get on and shove off!" my mother called from the end of the driveway. "Pedal like crazy and I'll give you a push up on the street when you get here!" Dad and I ignored her. I put one foot on the low-slung crossbar to get onto the seat, then realized it was the wrong leg. I tried the other foot.
"Here, I'll give you a boost." Dad reached one arm around me.
"Don't let go of the bike!" I screamed, sure it would crush me into the driveway.
"I've got the bike, I've got you." His voice was low, steady.
"What a babeeeee ...." Martin hollered, riding past on the street.
I sat on the bike, my feet several inches off the ground, while my dad held it still. He slowly heeled the kickstand up and told me to put my feet on the pedals. "Now just turn them," he said.
"I can't, they're too far away!"
"Hop down, I'll lower the seat." He got pliers from his toolbox and I squatted on the ground, hugging my knees, looking anywhere but at the sinister vehicle looming over me, wishing I were inside.
With the seat lowered all the way, I could just touch the ground on my tiptoes. Dad held the back of the seat with one hand, the handlebar with the other, and kept his arm around me. He walked, then trotted, then ran beside me as I pedaled the bike down the street. He was not one to be outside at the same time as neighborhood children; a small town math teacher, he feared their taunts if he did anything less dignified than stand in front of a chalkboard. He was also sedentary by nature, more often lying on the sofa with a book than running or even walking. Yet he ran up and down our street for hours that Christmas Day, as I learned to keep my balance and pedal the clanking machine. When I got up the next day he had bought training wheels at the hardware store and put them on the bike, and on the third try I could ride it by myself.
Outside each room at Legacy Pointe Assisted Living is a shelf where residents put pictures, porcelain doves, strings of wooden blocks that spell out Welcome Friends. My father's room has a picture of him in his Air Force uniform in 1946, just home from Italy. A handsome 24 year old grins in sepia tones from the shiny print, an envelope of hat perched on lush brown hair. The pictures and memorabilia both introduce the person inside, and help residents identify which apartment is theirs. Dad has gotten turned around a few times and walked in on strangers, so the perky soldier’s grin is not foolproof.
“Evening, Dad!” I boom as I come through the door. He doesn’t look up from the CD player on the windowsill that plays audio books, often the same disc for days, repeating until someone remembers to change it. I turn the living room light on to get his attention, and he waves his hand over his head.
“How’s your day been.” He looks up at me, hair so white it’s almost translucent. Apart from a more expansive forehead, his hair is still abundant, as his mother’s was until she died at 96. His watery blue eyes, magnified by his glasses, show no recognition of my voice. I let my dog off his leash and he crowds under my father’s walker to lick his fingers. A smile lights Dad’s creased face: “Hello Peanut, hello there, nice to see you!”
I step past his outstretched hand to hug him, shoulders bony under a lightweight plaid shirt. “How’s your day been, Dad?” He looks up at me and fumbles in his shirt pocket for the latest attempt at a hearing aid. This one is a hand-sized transmitter with long cords attached to earpieces that no longer have rubber cushions on them. I stand silently as he tries to untangle the cords, and finally take it from him – gently, I hope – to undo the knotted wires. He puts in the earphones, I turn on the transmitter, and agonized feedback fills the room. There are tiny sliding buttons to adjust, and when they are just right I speak into the transmitter: “How’s your day been, Dad?”
“Want to walk?”
“Didn’t hear you.”
“WANT TO GO FOR A WALK?”
“Let’s walk.” This time I tug on his walker, and something computes.
“Yes, let’s do.”
It is 100 yards from his doorway, down the hall to the door of the courtyard. The front pocket of the walker is stained with ice cream and carries a urinal bottle, in case of emergency. The courtyard is grassy and quiet, with a few tall evergreens and some scrubby elms that look exhausted in the heat. The oval walkway stretches from his end of the building, to a doorway that leads to the dining room, past an industrial-sized gas barbecue and some bird-soiled porch furniture. Dad pushes his walker, scooting one foot, then the other, pausing between each step so that neither foot completely leaves the ground. He worries mightily about stepping off the sidewalk and falling. I scuffle beside him, moving so slowly it feels like striking a pose, then another, then another. Sometimes I rest my hand on the walker to guide him closer to the middle. My dog races around the courtyard, all fluid motion, dashing from one end to the other. In the 45 minutes it takes us to walk around, he seems to cover several miles, all at top speed.
Halfway around the loop, I pull the receiver out of Dad’s pocket and speak into it.
“Two weeks from today is your birthday, Dad.”
“Your birthday is coming in two weeks.”
“Oh.” He shuffles one foot, then another. “How exciting.”
“Know how old you’re going to be?”
“Amazing, isn’t it?”
“I think it’s mostly a waste of time,” he answers, staring ahead of his walker as one wheel passes over a tiny dead bird.
I put the receiver back into his pocket, and we shuffle forward together.