The first time Elly straddled a bike she hoisted herself onto the seat with Mark holding onto the bike and said, “I can do this Dad.” A moment later she rode away from his steadying hand hold, her brown hair waving in the breeze as her little legs peddled faster and faster while she let out a loud, “Wheeeeeee!!!!” As she rides she waves to the neighbors, comments on their flowers and often sings. She’s taken a few good spills, skinned her knees some and always responds by climbing back on her bike. For Elly riding that bike is pure freedom, independence for the youngest of five, free to explore the neighborhood and enjoy the wind in her hair.
The first time Libby straddled a bike she began by asking questions…”Why is the seat so high?” “Why are these brakes so hard to squeeze?” “What happens if I get going too fast and these brakes don’t work?” She took one bad spill the first day and she refused to climb back on the back again.
This Spring I coaxed her onto the driveway and she gingerly climbed back on her bike, tears welling in her eyes. The same questions came, this time with the energy that comes from knowing the answer to “What happens if I get going to fast and these brakes don’t work”…you fall and it hurts. That day she agreed to ride only if I held my hand on her back and promised not to let go. A week later a family friend took her out and coaxed her a bit more and she rode down the street on her own, anxious and resisting every minute. “Maybe bike riding just isn’t for me Mom.”
Friends invited us down to share a house with them on the beach at Hilton Head Island for the week of the 4th of July. “Bring your bikes, there are lots of trails and we’ll take family bike rides.” Sigh. I wondered how that would be and how nervous Libby would be about the whole experience.
Day one of the trip we pulled out the bikes and everyone strapped on their helmets and secured their water bottles. The hot South Carolina sun combined with all the moisture from the Ocean made for a muggy afternoon. We headed out for the bike paths, which were packed with riders. Elly peddled confidently, navigating the crowds and the cars and bikes, while waving at people and offering “hello’s” to everyone she passed. Libby followed behind me, with Mark riding behind her working to shield her from cars coming up beside us. Every time I turned around I could see Libby’s face intensely focused, biting her lip, eyes forward. She teetered and veered into traffic as pedestrians and bikers came near her. My stomach filling with acid wondering who would die first, Libby from veering into the traffic or Mark from trying to shield her.
The picture was so stark in front me. Both of my little girls on their bikes, one soaking up every ounce of the freedom that riding through the wind brings and the other feeling anything but free as she fought for her balance and her space on the road; freedom for one feeling like bondage and work for the other.
There was no convincing Libby that riding her bike was awesome, her reality spoke loud and strong against it. All we could do was invite her to try and promise to honor her requests to stop when she’d had enough.
Day two we tried again, and in all honesty the traffic and tension were worse than the first day. As we stopped to rest before taking the “big loop” I turned to Libby and asked her what she wanted to do. She stood calmly, and thought for a minute and said, “You know, this has been ok, but I think I want to go back to the house.” I loved her strength and her honesty. No whining, no anger, no begging for everyone to go back with her. As she and Mark turned to go back she wished us all a good ride. When we returned I told her how proud of her I was, for trying again and for not giving up.
That night as the tide went out, leaving a wide-open space on the beach, we brought the girls bikes down for them to ride some more. Libby climbed on her bike and took off across the sand. I watched as she rode faster and faster, the pinched look on her face gone and the wind blowing through her hair. She circled around and around, no fear, no falling, no cars or asphalt to scare her. She navigated around the other girls and took a spill, climbing back on and quickly taking off again.
By the end of the trip she was excitedly asking if they could ride their bikes in the cul de sac when we got back home.
I was surprised to say the least. I watched Libby fight for freedom that for Elly came so easily, costing her nothing.
I believe there is something for Libby in having fought to ride with freedom that changed her soul a bit. She knows today she can do hard things, and that the thing that scared her most can become a thing that provides a freedom she couldn’t imagine.
I get that.
I am thankful for freedom in my own heart that has felt costly to experience, freedom I have had to fight for. I am grateful for the expansive beach of God’s grace that has become a playground for me too.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories and a reluctant dreamer, living by faith that “Hope deferred makes the heart sick but when dreams come true there is a life and joy” (Pro. 13:12). Married for 26 years, she is mother to five kids. After nearly a half century of life, she’s feeling like she may know who she is. Founder of Seized by Hope Ministries, she writes here.