Dusk had fallen as I nosed my car up to the locked gates of the small elementary school on the north side of town. I turned off the ignition, removed the keys, opened the car door, stepped out onto the pavement, rounded the back corner of the car, and waited for my husband to pop the hatch. He reached inside, both hands gripping aluminum and rubber, and pulled out my new lime green and toothpaste white bicycle.
"I am 33. I am 33. I am 33," I chanted beside him. It was as much to myself as to any passerby. Standing only five-feet-tall and dressed in pink shorts and a purple shirt, I looked the daughter to my husband's six-feet-tall-and-bearded father.
"You got it?" he asked, one hand on the bike as the other reached up to close the hatch.
"Yeah," I said, rolling the bike along with me toward a small footpath alongside the gated school driveway.
The empty school parking lot had been my idea. It was Sunday and school was not yet back in session, so the parking lot satisfied my two requirements—there would be no audience, and there would be room to careen haphazardly without hitting anything of worth. My knees, palms, and head were another matter altogether.
It had been at least 15 years since I'd last been on a bike. As a child living in the mountains, I was at a loss for flat places to learn to ride, and thus didn't until age 12 when, after my grandmother's funeral, I found an old bike in her basement. In the Jones' Fish Camp parking lot, my father ran along beside me, holding on to the back of the bike's seat, as is apparently the only way in history man has ever devised to teach a kid how to ride. I suppose it's marginally better than the float or die method of teaching swimming.
That summer my father gave me a bike for my birthday. The bike was emerald green with knobby tires and 18 gears for climbing hills. I didn't like hills. Going up one was hard, but worse yet was rolling down one backwards, as I constantly feared would be my end. I didn't like going down hills forward either, which I blamed on my sixth-grade teacher. Her son was riding his bike too fast when he hit loose gravel. He and the bike slid out of control across the pavement, tiny rocks carving into his skin. He was hospitalized and for days on end subjected to hot tub soaks to soften his skin that was then scrubbed with a wire brush to expose and expel the grit and debris. His screams echoed throughout the hospital.
At least that's how I remembered the story, so I rode slow. I was a mountain biker burdened with a creative and vivid mind bent on imagining my severe injury at every corner and creek crossing. Though I disliked hills, I very much liked riding down trails so rocky that no earth showed through and my mind maintained such a narrow focus on picking the path of least resistance that there was no room for fear.
Thankfully my accidents were few. There was a run in with a sawbriar that ripped a now tiny scar into my left thumb. There was a drop-off that well bled my right knee. I nearly passed out once and did pass out on a ride up an old gravel road, which scared my dad, but the doctor ruled that I'd simply not had enough time to digest my morning pancakes.
I didn't take my bike to college. I wasn't comfortable riding around so many people and in such tight quarters. The majority of other students seemed to agree, and historic brick sidewalks took care of the rest. By then Dad's knees weren't what they used to be, and our bike riding just stopped.
When I had a stroke at age 28, bike riding was the last thing on my mind. I wasn't sure that I would be able to walk again unaided, much less command any sort of transportation. It took six months for me to get back to driving, and then I only allowed myself to go out during day-light hours on familiar roads at low speeds and with a chaperone. It was a tremendous victory when I had built up enough confidence to go the 1.8 miles to the grocery store alone.
Five years later, there are hardly any outward effects of my stroke. Those who know what Horner's Syndrome is—the drooping of an upper eyelid caused by a stroke's damage to the sympathetic nerve system—can spot it once I mention my history or I'm exhausted. However, the residual loss of pain and temperature on my right side isn't visible, nor is the fact that I can not walk with one foot directly in front of the other, as I need a wider base to maintain my balance.
Balance has been my greatest hindrance to re-establishing a "normal" life post-stroke. One really never realizes how often he or she stands on one leg, reaches for something far away, takes the stairs without using the railing, or walks somewhere carrying a cup of coffee until one is unable to do so. The ability to perform these extraordinarily simple tasks took years to get back. Along the way, I was accused of being drunk or high and given dirty looks for making use of handicap accessible facilities because the public didn't perceive me as someone who could be a stroke survivor.
Any stranger looking on as I stepped astride my shiny new green and white bicycle in that elementary school parking lot wouldn't have seen a stroke survivor either. Any stranger would have seen a hand grab tight on my arm as my first attempt to get both feet on the pedals left me hopping and falling over. Any stranger would have heard my husband's flip-flops scuff to an abrupt stop as on my second attempt I pushed off, turned the wheel too hard to the right, screamed wild-eyed with indefatigable grit, and hauled off for the far end of the parking lot laughing. Any stranger would have seen me gently squeeze the hand brake, lean into the curve, and ride wide circles around my husband as he called out, "You look good!"
Any stranger would have perceived the nothing out of the ordinary, the everyday; yet sometimes I feel that the stranger is me, as I push to discover who I am now instead of dwell on who I used to be.