I run down the deserted bike path, along the winding, manicured greenbelt behind the homes of our new neighborhood. Through wrought iron fences, I can see into my neighbors’ backyards, their pools and patio chairs empty on this weekday morning. Behind closed sliding glass doors, suburban housewives mind their own business, a few perhaps shaking their heads at the distant sound of a fellow mom losing her shit.
My shrill cries echo in the crisp air, answered only by the thumps of my footfalls and my gasping breath. I run, desperate in his wake.
It’s not that I didn’t believe my ten-year-old could meet this delayed childhood milestone, one of so many skills we’ve had to break down into the smallest steps to help him reach. I just didn’t believe it would be today.
We’d raised his training wheels to build his confidence that he could balance without them, but for weeks now, I could still walk beside him on our daily outings between homeschool lessons and speech therapy as he pedaled slowly, tilting his bike side-to-side to feel the reassuring tap of each tiny wheel on the ground.
At first, I smiled as my kid got his feet moving in a steadier rhythm, his bike no longer wobbling, and I had to jog to keep pace. As he pulled away from me, my blush of pride rose to a flush of panic. He zoomed up the sidewalk as it curved left and, despite my pleas to wait for Mommy, he left me behind.
After all these years of hovering, how am I caught so unprepared? How many times have I warned his aides that they must keep their eyes on him, that he lacks safety awareness, that he absolutely cannot be left unattended? My mind can’t grasp the abrupt emptiness of the sidewalk, the broken tether hanging limp from my hand. I want to reverse time, grab my bike along with his as we leave the house, save my son from bulleting toward dangers he does not understand. But all I can do now is run.
There is no one to catch him at the end of this greenbelt. What awaits him is a game of choose-your-mother’s-anguish.
In less than half a mile, the bike path will split in two. To the left, the sidewalk circles a large pond. I will lose him when his shoestring tangles in his bike chain at the instant he steers too close to the edge.
If he stays right, the path skirts an elementary school parking lot and ends at a busy street. I will lose him when the driver of the next SUV assumes a big fourth grader knows enough to “look both ways.”
If he makes it across the street, I will lose him in the maze of unfamiliar streets ahead when he cannot string enough words together to ask for help or tell someone his address. Will anyone even look at the useless Velcro strap on his shoe to find our phone numbers and the words: Non-verbal autism—Cannot respond to questions?
I round a curve and catch a glimpse of my boy racing away from me. I screech out a warning, but he is distracted by his new-found speed, this taste of freedom my fears have kept him from sampling. He cruises up and over a hill, unaware that his mother is failing to keep him safe.
I run. My heart aches from exertion and impending loss. Sharp twigs stab my throat. From this sickening distance, I see him flattened by that other mother’s car and pulled lifeless from the water and grinning from sun-faded “lost” posters we’ve printed in despair.
I force my body up the next incline, not yet knowing that just past the pond, where a dad will glance up at my yell before turning his back to usher his daughter away, and past the school playground where a line of children will gather behind their safe chain-link fence to gawk at the crying lady stumbling after a kid too old to need training wheels, another uphill stretch of sidewalk will give me back my only child as he naturally slows and steps off his bike to meet my red-faced, terrified anger, confused by my choking demand that we sit on the grass until the shakes subside, his wings clipped by my tight grip on the handlebars as I walk the bike between us safely home.
But now, my legs pounding up the blind side of this Everest slope, I plead for the chance to tell the story of how I over-reacted and crushed my son’s joy over his first independent bike ride.
And I run for his life.
Robin LaVoie is a researcher, writer, and mom who lives in Fountain Hills, Arizona, with her husband and autistic 23-year-old son. Her reflections about life as the caregiver and advocate for her son have appeared in print and online, and she writes a monthly-ish newsletter at itslikethis.substack.com.