“I want to be a part of Austin’s game!”
Tommy has been saying this phrase to me for weeks. “Okay, baby,” I’d say back to him. I never inquired about what game he wanted to play or why he wanted to play it. Maybe he meant basketball or capture the flag?
I didn’t know. All I knew was that Tommy was usually too little to keep up with Austin and his friends and it was frustrating to him. So when he came to me a few weeks ago and told me he wanted to learn to “ride the red bike” I decided to let him try.
The “red bike” is this tiny bike that we bought for Claire to learn how to ride a bike. It’s really low to the ground and it is easy to turn. Shawn was insistent that Claire learn how to ride a bike at an early age, so we got the bike when she was in kindergarten. One day, we took all three kids to the park. We met up with some friends. Tommy was a baby, and I had him in the carrier and turned to chat with my friends. When I turned back around about two minutes later, Claire was riding her bike! In the span of just a few minutes, I’d missed watching her learn this critical skill.
“She’s a natural!” Shawn shouted from across the park. He was beaming. And in that moment, I wasn’t upset that I had missed it because I knew it was a moment that he’d never forget. Seeing his proud-father face, I knew it was one I wasn’t going to forget either.
A few years later, we taught Austin together one afternoon. He was a bit older than Claire had been, and a bit less steady, but he eventually got it. “I’m proud of you, buddy,” Shawn had said to him.
So when Tommy wanted to learn to ride a bike, I knew how to teach him. I knew my back would hurt from bending over and holding him up on the bike. I knew when to let go.
But I didn’t know how I was going to handle my own emotions around it. This was the first one of my kids who would learn to ride a bike without Shawn.
But on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon last week, I decided it was time – for Tommy and for me. We got out the red bike and practiced pedaling and steering. Tommy kept looking at his feet and almost crashing. Austin and Julia (my friend Becky’s daughter) watched him try and try.
And then, like magic, I realized I could let go. So I did.
Right at that moment, Becky arrived to get Julia. We all cheered for Tommy. “You did it baby!” I shouted.
“That was FUN!” Tommy said. “Let’s do it again!”
We spent hours that afternoon practicing. Becky took photos. The big kids cheered him on. At one point, Tommy ran inside and screamed, “Grandpa Tom, come see me ride my BIKE!” and got my dad to come outside. “Pretty good!” my dad said, in his characteristic understatement. But he was smiling.
Eventually I was exhausted, but Tommy insisted we go down to his friend Rami’s house to show off his new skill. We did, and the boys high-fived afterwards.
We came home. Tommy showed all the neighbors his new skill and then I finally got him to come inside for dinner.
As we were putting away the red bike, I thought about how big he looked. He had been just a baby – only three – when his dad died. Now, he is a big, 5-year-old kid who is riding a bike and becoming a boy. More than my other two children, Tommy is a different kid than the one Shawn knew. He was our last baby – but he’s not a baby anymore.
All of these things swirled in my head as the kids ran inside.
As he got to the door, Tommy turned around and said to me, “Now I can be a part of Austin’s game!”
I looked at Austin. “What game is Tommy talking about?”
“Mom,” Austin said, looking at me sideways, “he’s saying that now he can be a part of my gang. You know, like a group of kids that hangs out together? A gang!”
I laughed. Of course. Tommy didn’t just want to play a game that Austin was playing, he wanted to be part of the group of friends who played with Austin in the alley. He wanted to be part of the gang.
Tommy chimed in. “Yes, now I’m a big kid! I ride my bike and I can be part of Austin’s gang!”
That’s right, sweet baby, you’re a big kid now. Daddy would be so proud of you.