My mother’s cadence on the bike has always been impressive. She can seamlessly glide from first gear to third without breaking her stride. The sound of her chain effortlessly shifting sounds like fingers snapping a melody. We ride together on a winding dirt road. We are going incredibly fast considering her mountain bike is a heavy beast. The tires are wide and fat. But it is a cheerful red color. It is the color of tricycles and little wagons. Though she is only thirty-six, it is odd to see her on something that calls to youth.
Especially since she is dying as we ride.
We ride side-by-side. I have to furiously pump my legs to keep up with her powerful stride. I puff my cheeks but try to keep my heavy breathing to myself. Once we clear a small hill, I look over at her. She smiles broadly under her white helmet. Her face catches the sun and she shines. Her smile is almost enough to make you forget the bald patches on her head, and the scars that cover her skull like dried river beds. A pair of sports sunglasses hide her eyes. As I toss glimpses at her, I realize I have her nose. It is long, jarring, and now, as I study it, uniquely beautiful.
A pair of muscular shoulders guide her tan arms on the handlebars. With each stroke of her legs, her muscles flex and shift. They rise and fall like breath filling a pair of lungs. Aside from the marks on her head, she looks fit and strong. The sight of her so healthy is confusing considering where we are.
I look back at the dirt road. Trees line the road we race across. At their feet are low bushes tinged with wildflowers. Endless fields fill the space behind the trees. On our right side, a huge field of sunflowers spreads across the landscape to the horizon. It is a bucolic and peaceful scene. But the brightness of the blue sky is already darkening to an azure. Dusk will be here before we know it.
And then it will be time to say goodbye.
“Can we slow down a little?”
I ask out loud and silently beg her to oblige. She looks over at me. Her smile is plastered wide across her face. Even behind her tinted glasses, I can see the ornery look she gives me.
“Sure thing honey,” she says.
She lets her feet slow on the pedals. Finally, they look less like fan blades and more like actual feet. I sigh with relief and shift down.
“I didn’t even have to remind you to do that,” my mother says approvingly. She sits up slightly and pulls her water bottle out of its holder. I laugh and wipe the sweat from my forehead.
“Do you think I would forget? Always remember to shift.” I mimic her easily, even getting the accusatory, slightly snotty inflection of her voice. “I think that phrase is beaten into my head for life.” She laughs loudly.
“That’s right,” she says. “If you don’t it will ruin your bike and your legs. Two birds, one fuck-up.”
I nod, smiling at her choice of words.
We ride in silence for a few seconds. Our tires make a purring sound over the loose dirt. “Why are you in such a hurry?” I ask. “Don’t you want more time to enjoy this?”
My mother doesn’t respond. I see her lean back and adjust her glasses with one hand. She slides the water bottle back into its holder with the other.
“I guess that competitive streak just won’t die,” she said. “Honestly, I wanted to feel that adrenaline rush one more time. I don’t think that is something they will let you do on the other side. What with eternal peace and all.”
I feel tears well up in my eyes. I suspect this will not be the last time this happens today.
“Mom,” I say carefully. “I need you to tell me a few things.”
She nods. Her bike turns slightly on the road. I can tell she is looking off into the distance. I know what she is looking for. I feel the sting of panic gnawing at my ribcage.
“Because the closer we get to that valley, the closer we get to the end of you and me.”
She looks over at me and whips off her sunglasses. She tucks them into the open fanny pack sitting on her lower back. Her blue eyes snap and spark. They look like tiny lakes.
“You know damn well that death won’t keep us apart,” she lectures. But there is something else in her voice too.
I sigh. “Regardless, I wish you’d tell me how to be who I am. I don’t know how to become whatever I’m supposed to be without you.”
She faces forward and narrows her eyes. I can’t tell if she is looking into the trees or trying not to cry. “I knew from the moment I held you that you would be special,” she said. Her voice labors over the words. I swallow and feel something click in my throat. “I would have gladly given my life for you. I would have gladly made all your mistakes and felt your heart aches for you. But I only carried you into this world. It is up to you to decide how to be in it.”
Dusk impatiently taps on the horizon. The wind that blows across our sweaty skin is slightly cooler. The day is dissolving fast.
“That’s not very helpful Mom,” I say. But honestly, I’m not sure what I want from her. There are too many once in a lifetime questions to ask. It feels like trying to decide what to grab when your house is burning down.
What tokens of your life are most important to save?
“Let me ask you something instead,” she says. I sit up on the bike and twist my shoulders around to stretch out my back. “What’s that?” I ask.
She leans forward on the bars. For the first time on this ride, she looks defeated. “Do you believe I did everything I could to stay with you?”
The question shocks me. The frown on my face is nearly as pronounced as the shadows creeping in below the trees. “Of course I do,” I say. “The notion that you didn’t never once crossed my mind.”
She relaxes. “Good,” she says. She wipes her nose on her sleeve. Her cheeks are now mottled with tears. “If you learn anything from me, I hope it will be that. Do anything you can to survive. Even if it kills you in the end.” She laughs bitterly.
My lips pucker. I fear there is no saving the dam I’ve tried to put up against the tears. I remember the chemo treatments. I remember her groaning in pain. I remember the hair clumps, the root canals, the way her body wasted away. The trash cans filled with puke. She had almost disappeared into her bedsheets. And to see her like this now, healthy and strong and ready to move on, was almost too horribly beautiful to bear.
The road widens under our bikes. The trees are beginning to thin out. Soon, the inviting curve of the valley ahead will glow like a beacon. It will call my mother home.
And I will ride back alone.
I clear my throat. “Do you have any advice on men?” She laughs again. “Men? Seriously?” I let out an exasperated sigh. “Yes. Men. Marriage. Love. Relationships. Things I should know as a grown-ass adult.”
She wrinkles her nose. “They are idiots. Never trust them. And marriage is for suckers.” She snorts at her own retort. I laugh as well, and the tears threaten to blind me. “But if you find the right one, or three, marriage can be really fun,” she says, sniffing. “But please always embrace love. Love is what keeps us alive. Without love, there is nothing to fight for. Nothing to hold onto.”
She looks at me again. I meet her eyes. We look so much alike that it feels like looking into a mirror. We move at a crawl over the dirt. “You were the brightest star in my universe,” she said in a small voice. “I wanted you so badly. And when I held you, when I got to see who I introduced to the world, I was so thankful. I’m just sorry that I can’t stay with you longer.” She finally breaks down. I let out a gasping cry.
“Can we stop please?”
She nods and squeezes the brakes. We stop our bikes and dismount, letting them fall to the ground. I dash into her open arms like a little kid. As I sink into her embrace, I try to take a snapshot of the moment. I try to lock away her smell. Her Neutrogena soap, Oil of Olay moisturizer, and Suave deodorant. But I know I will forget. Those sensory details are never saved. All that will be left of this moment is an outsider’s memory. Where we were and what we were doing. The rest, the emotional heart of the moment, will be a slave to conjecture.
We hold each other. As we do, the birds change shifts. Owls clock in for the night watch. Frogs rehearse their midnight songs. The night is closing in fast.
“Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me,” she quotes. I squeeze her harder. My tears dampen her shirt. “The bike held but just ourselves—”
“And Immortality.” My voice quakes as I finish the stanza. She pushes me away gently and kisses me on the forehead. I feel like all the bones have been torn out of my body. I can barely stand up. Grief has taken over my body like a parasite.
“I miss you already,” I sob loudly. She puts both hands on my cheeks.
“No sense in missing me yet,” she says gently. “I’m still here. And I’m going to be here,” she taps me on the chest. “For the rest of your life.” She pulls me back into one more hug.
The azure deepens into purple. Ahead, the place in the valley begins to glow. Already, my mother is distracted. She can’t look away from the light for more than a few seconds. I want to grab her, scream in her face, demand that she turn around and ride home with me.
But I know it can’t happen that way.
“Always embrace love,” she whispers. “As long as you do that, I will never be far from you. Laugh every single fucking day. Keep writing. Keeping striving. And keep that big beautiful spirit open to the world.”
She lets go of me and bends to pick up her bike. I watch her, helpless. She adjusts her helmet and zips up her fanny pack. Her attention to detail makes me laugh. She looks at me and smiles. I can see the lights flickering in front of her as she mounts the bike. A hum vibrates over the gravel. It sounds melodious and soothing. I even feel calmer. There is a finality to the moment that shoves me into adulthood. Now, I understand more than I ever thought I would.
My mother rides away from me. But before the shadows blot her away, she turns around and faces me. She looks years younger. She looks like a version of me. But she is the most peaceful I’ve ever seen her. She calls out to me over the hum.
“Always remember to shift.”