Family of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley dances in kitchen

Happy Birthday, Chris

I am terrible at picking out presents for other people.

It’s true. Sure, every once in a while I stumble upon a great cookbook that I can give to a friend or a sequined skirt that I know my sister will love. But mostly I give gift cards or practical things like muffin tins and coffee mugs. I keep a bin of cheap new toys in the basement so that when one of my kids is invited to a party they can just choose something from the “present box.” The idea of going out and shopping for a specific individual is something that fills me with a bit of dread. I can’t ever find the right thing and I feel like even if I did, the present wouldn’t really convey how I feel.

So as October rolled around, I started to feel a bit nervous. Chris’s birthday was coming up. What was I supposed to get him?

I asked the kids. “Oh, definitely something for his bike!” Claire said. Austin nodded and said, “you know he loves riding his bike!”

Yes, I told them, Chris is an avid cyclist. But what other things did he need for his bike? I pointed to the pile of bike-related objects on the kitchen counter. “I don’t even know what any of this stuff is! How could I possibly pick out something that he doesn’t already have?”

The kids conceded that finding a bike accessory was going to be difficult, especially when we couldn’t really just pop into a bike shop and browse.

But it’s not just that. It’s also that I don’t understand much about bikes, so even if I thought up something that he might like, like a bike light, I would have no idea which brand or style of light to buy. I’d probably get something that would break or be ill-fitting. Chris is a gracious and loving partner, so he would tell me it was lovely, but if it wouldn’t be useful, what’s the point?

I kept brainstorming with the kids. We couldn’t come up with anything. It made me feel like the worst partner ever, because Chris is the kind of partner who buys me presents for no reason, and I couldn’t even think of something for his birthday. I knew he wouldn’t care, because he doesn’t really care about things. But still.

I really wanted to find something perfect for him.

A few weeks before his birthday, Chris suggested we ride our bikes downtown. We were meeting up with a few people for a small and socially distanced outdoor event, and it seemed like a better idea than taking the metro or a taxi. He had all the special gear to do it, so he outfitted our bikes with lights and small bags and we put on our helmets and headed out.

I’d never really used my bike for much other than accompanying the kids on an outing. Biking for either exercise or transportation isn’t something I do if I have a choice otherwise. I am a bit of a bike rookie, to say the least. Still, as we pedaled into the sunset (literally), I felt good. Chris was happy, as he always is on his bike, and that made me happy.

But after a few minutes, we hit the hills. I started to sweat when we went uphill, and then hit the brakes as hard as I could as we coasted down. I was unsure, and it showed in the way I rode. Chris kept checking in with me and encouraging me, ever so slightly, to use a bit of speed when it felt right.

As we cruised down the third big hill, I let go of the brakes, just a little. I was going fast – or at least a lot faster than usual.

It felt somewhat precarious, even though I knew I was at a safe speed. Even though I knew we were wearing helmets and using the bike lanes. Even though I knew we were honestly going a lot slower than the other cyclists we saw….even with all of that, I was still outside my comfort zone.

And whenever I’m outside my comfort zone, I can feel like there is danger all around me.

I guess it’s part of widowhood. We’re scared of nothing, because we’ve faced the worst, but we’re also scared of everything, because we know that bad things can happen no matter how hard you plan.

And that means that sometimes we shy away from danger. Or at least I do.

In his guest post for this blog, Chris wrote about running with me. He wrote about “listening, observing, caring,” and “staying close when it feels right (and) giving space when it makes sense.” Running, he concluded, is a space where he and I practice a “nuanced choreography,” both in terms of how we keep a mile-by-mile pace and also – metaphorically – in how we relate to each other in our relationship.

Cycling isn’t like that. The communication has to be more direct, and it’s definitely faster. You can’t always hear the small noises that the other person makes when they go over a bump. Instead, cycling dares you to take a few more risks and sometimes to even do things that are a bit scary. Or at least it does for me.

But the feeling of the wind in your face as you speed down a road faster than you ever have before? It’s exhilarating. And it’s not something I feel during a run. I’m not quite sure I can accurately capture how it’s different to move on a bike, but I just know that I like it. I also know I wouldn’t have ever tried it without Chris pushing me, ever so slightly.

“Go in front of me,” he said to me when the cars came up behind us that evening, as we cycled downtown. “I’ll watch out from behind.”

And so I did. I knew he was behind me, so I could ride faster. And that’s exactly what I did.

I almost let out a yelp at one point, because I was overcome by such joy and such freedom. The delight wasn’t something I’d felt in such an embodied way since childhood. I thought about it for a long time afterwards.

I never did find the perfect bike accessory for Chris’s birthday. It’s sad, really, as Chris has gotten me so many lovely things and I have yet to get him much more than a card.

And yet, it’s not the objects that I have loved the most from Chris, though I do love them. Rather, it’s how he’s made my life so much better, not just by listening and watching, but also by prodding and pushing – ever so slightly – and getting me to experience brand new thrills, ones that I didn’t even know were possible for a 41-year-old widow with three little kids.

I want to give him something back that is equal, somehow, to what he’s given me. Because he’s given me such freedom, delight and exhilaration, both on a bike and in those moments when we’re all in the kitchen together, dancing to a song on the radio. He’s also shown me that the best experiences in life aren’t always the ones that are so straightforward. Sometimes the best things can also be the ones that initially seem a little scary.

Of course, there’s no present that conveys all of that. And all those sentiments wouldn’t ever fit on the side of a mug.

Instead, all I can do for his birthday is promise him one thing:

I’ll keep riding with you.

Happy birthday, Chris.