A few months ago my sister called me to tell me she had crashed her bike. Out for a healthy ride one afternoon, she didn’t see a pothole and lead her hybrid wheels right into it, thus toppling over the handle bars and onto the city street. It took a trip to a doc-in-the-box and several stiches to her forearm to get her on the road to recovery.
When she told me about the crash, I immediately thought back to a day in our childhood when she suffered a similar fate. The great crash of 1970, the bike wreck to end all bike wrecks, left my sister with welts and bruises and me with a scarred conscience. I was only 5, maybe six years old, but can recall the incidents of that fateful afternoon clearly.
As a precotious child, I was into everything. I was also terribly eager to win the approval of my opinionated and powerful father; one way I found to do this was to be hyper-competitive and the other was to be unafraid, to tackle any dare or experience, even those that frightened me. If dad wanted me to learn how to throw a football, swing a tennnis racquet, play a round of bridge or chess or ride a bike, I learned and I learned fast. Even though I was 2 years younger than my older sister, I learned to do most athletic acts before her. I was riding a bike, without my training wheels, long before her, never realizing the pain my actions and abilities might be causing her. She wanted dad’s attention, too, but was usually not as able to keep it because she wasn’t as much as a dare-devil or attention hog as I.
When she finally did learn to ride a bike, it was a big deal….I remember how slowly she would wobble down the street. Her eyes focused on the road, hands gripping the handles of her banana-seat bike, streamers trailing in the wind, she would screw up her courage and ride her bike down Virginia Road. I am not sure how happy this made her, but she knew it was important to learn how to ride, especially since I was doing it with ease and speed. I liked to pretend I was a racer, an Evel Knievel always ready to soar across unheard of heights and experience G-force winds on my face.
I admit it; I pushed my sister to do more. As she learned to ride her bike, I often challenged her to tackle the big hill, the one that lead from our house at the top to the Corley’s house at the bottom where it flattened out. To us, as children, this hill seemed huge, a slope as big and daunting as any mountain. My friend’s and I would fly down it, squealing with delight and terror, and then play in the ditch at the bottom. This hill, to my sister, presented a monumental challenge and one she didn’t necessarily want to face, especially not without the aid of the training wheels.
On the day of the big crash, I had hopped on my bike and ridden up and down the street, perhaps in an effort to show her how easy it was, perhaps in an effort just to show off. Finally, she agreed to try it. We sat at the top of the hill, just above the driveway to our house and my sister began to peddle. She moved slowly at first but then began to gather momentum. As she accelerated, something inside her froze. She forgot how to turn the handles, to push the brakes, and she began to careen out of control toward the bottom of the hill. A car, innocently parked on the shoulder, loomed before her unsteady bike and leaped out to greet my sister. She hit the car, bounced off the bike and landed face first on the asphalt. I ran behind and found her, a crumpled and moaning mess beside the car’s tires. Her bike lay in a heap. Terrified, I asked her if she was alright but got no response. She was bleeding, immobile, and I thought for a moment the ride had killed her.
I ran back up the street toward home, seeking help, someone to rescue and revive my sister. Inside the house I called for help and Lizzie, the woman who came every day to work in our home, came running. “She’s dead, Lizzie,” I cried, pulling on her hand to get her out the door and down the street to the grizzly scene. “I’ve killed Nancy.” I was crying hysterically and now Lizzie we getting worried too. We bounded down the hill and found Nancy in the same fetal position, the purple of bruises beginning to bloom on her skin and a huge, orange-size swelling growing from her forehead. “Lord help us,” Lizzie said as she tried to carry Nancy back to the house.
I’m nor sure what happened next. I think someone drove Nancy to the local doc and he checked her out for broken bones. None, thank goodness…But plenty of contusions, mercurochrome soaked bandages and broken blood vessels. She was battered, bruised and mad as hell at me for making her go down that hill on her bike. I was to blame for the crippled girl sitting at the dinner table, the one whose wounds took weeks to heal.
There is a picture of my sister taken the night of the big crash. She sits in a Queen Anne chair, glaring at the camera, arms bandaged, welt on the head, angry black bruises on her face and legs. Her hair is in pigtails and she looks exhausted. My father must have taken the Polaroid as he took all the documentation of our childhoods. Maybe he was recording the crash for posterity or maybe he was just a wee bit proud of my sister for reaching beyond her comfort zone and doing something so edgy, so reckless.
I can still see that picture, feel the burn of her eyes as she spits at the camera for recording her shame, her failure and her bandaged body. I realized then that I could not push her so hard. It was my egging her on that had caused this fiasco and I was responsible. For a moment, when I saw her lying face down in the street, I really thought I’d killed her and that feeling, of engulfing panic and fear, still lives in me today. One moment she was sailing down the street, the next she was part of the pavement. Blink and everything can change.
Of course, she finally healed, just as she did from this latest bike crash, almost 40 years later. She mastered the bike and many other physical feats and I forgot about the day I pushed her too hard, the day I ran home in abject terror, thinking I had committed a sin for which there would be no forgiveness.
We lived on in southern suburbia, in relative normalcy, and I think she quietly forgave me for forcing her down the hill. At some point she must have climbed back on her bike and faced the challenge of trying again. And by the time we were older she had mastered the hill and would whiz up and down with me and the rest of the neighborhood gang.
Once, after we had been gone from that area for years, we went back to visit the old house. The monstrous hill, the nemesis of her childhood cycling days, looked like nothing more than a gentle rolling slope, not the 45 degree angle of our younger minds. “So this was the hill that ate the bike and spat you out at the bottom?” It looked so much more foreboding when we were kids, when we were learning how to navigate all the twists and turns in the road; it looked so much larger then when we were learning how to steer and brake and respect the limits of our being.