What We Learn From The Shadows
An example of balance to guide you…
For me, parenting has been an experience where the learning curve is commensurate with human development. When my son was born, I knew very little about raising a child, but all that was really asked of me was to feed him, change his diapers and love him.
Small side story here. I had been an experienced babysitter prior to having children. But when he was born I was thrown for a loop by the enormity of being responsible for this new life, and everything I thought I knew went out the window. I literally bought a book —a book with pictures — on how to give him a bath. Then I made my husband hold the book open and turn pages, while I followed each step.
As he got older what was required of me got more complex, but I had more experience and did my best to keep up. The bath book was not the last book I read, but I also learned to trust my instincts and to listen to my children.
He is now an adult, though a young adult, and while in many ways he is on his own, I find the parenting much more complicated. I want to encourage and help him without entangling him in my expectations or undermine him in his choices. I want him to know that I am there if he needs me, but also know that I know he can do it on his own.
In my family, I have the reputation of being the person who remembers things from the past. I can’t remember where I put my eyeglasses yesterday, but I have a remarkably visual memory- it’s as if I can be back in the time it happened. In thinking about parenting my adult son, I found myself traveling back to when I learned to ride a bike.
I must have been a kindergartener or younger, because we were in our house in Dunbarton, NH. It was a late summer afternoon, and I was on the back patio, which was a large, grey, concrete slab. We lived in a rural neighborhood, a treed back yard abutting a golf course, with our nearest neighbors being my Aunt and Uncle down the street. I don’t remember where my siblings or parents were on this occasion, all I remember is my cousin Ian.
My cousin Ian was the 4th child in a family of 5- he was seven years older than me. I have no idea how he got roped into helping me learn to ride my bike. Maybe my mom had asked him to watch me. Maybe he had been walking by and seen me riding with my training wheels still on. I don’t remember how he came to help me. But I do remember what he did.
He convinced me that I could ride without my training wheels. He was funny and confident and though I was really nervous about it, I agreed and he helped me take them off. I tried to ride, but jumped off as soon as I had to make the turn. I thought I still needed the training wheels and asked if he could put them back on.
He told me he could do better. He would hold the back of the bike and run behind me. I was unsure, but he seemed so certain, so I agreed. I started to ride around the patio, and though I couldn’t see him, I could see his shadow, right behind me on the patio, and I kept riding.
And he kept running.
It was so much fun. I remember the late afternoon sun, the blue skies, the feeling of moving through the air when you are on a bike, the quiet all around me. I don’t know when it was that I looked down again, but this time I could see that his shadow was no longer there. And I was still up. I just kept riding.
I don’t know when he left, but I didn’t feel abandoned. I felt free. I know that it was because I trusted him to be there in the beginning, that I had the courage to try. I’m sure that if I had put my training wheels back on I would have eventually learned to ride my bike, but the way I learned, the way he supported me and then let me be alone, is a feeling I have always kept inside of me. As clear as the visual memory of his shadow and its absence.
When I think about how I want to support my son as he lives his adult life, I think about that balance that my cousin Ian seemed to already know. The encouragement I needed, but then the freedom to be alone.
My cousin Ian died ten years ago of suicide. I also remember exactly where I was when I learned of his death. I was at a campground with friends, our kids all in middle school. I was leaning against the back of my car, my father’s voice on my cell phone, telling me. Pine needles underfoot, kids voices playing, adults talking about packing up, the morning sun filtering down through the trees. I felt all the air go out of me as I struggled to accept what I’d been told.
I have too much love and respect for Ian’s family to write about their grief. Though I will share that my cousin Cindy, Ian’s sister, has been very involved in suicide prevention, and I encourage anyone who is having suicidal thoughts or concerns to reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
For myself, I had grown apart from my cousin, last seeing him at his father’s funeral. He was funny, and kind, and easy to talk to. I am like everyone who has lost someone to suicide. I wonder if I could have said something, wished I had known what he was going through, wished for a different end for him. Having to accept that he was gone.
I wish I had been brave enough to tell him how I remembered his kindness. How much I loved riding my bike. That even though I always remembered that afternoon, I only recent understood what happened. And how it helps me now, as I try to find that balance of knowing when to hold the bike, and knowing when to walk away and leave them riding.