“Faster, Daddy,” my daughter calls from the back seat, “faster!” But we’re already going too fast. The back wheel of my mountain bike snakes through a patch of gravel on the rutted road dropping into a deep valley, Emily trailing me on the extension bike, a one-wheeled contraption with its own seat and pedals which, when attached to a regular bike, creates a bicycle-built-for-two.
“Hold on,” I call back.
“Wheee, Daddy, we’re sliding,” she squeals, oblivious to the danger. I get the bike back under control as we blast through the cold wall of air resting on the valley floor. This drainage cut into the steep hills eons ago was preserved before the loggers could get their cross-cut saws into any of it, a narrow chasm filled with ferns and shaggy moss glowing with an iridescent green. Virgin coast redwoods lean from its walls, heavy drops of water falling from the fog-shrouded canopy, the trail smelling of damp earth. The uphill is grueling. I stand and start pumping in the lowest gear, towing my daughter up the steep incline.
“Faster, Daddy,” Emily says again. “Go faster.”
“I can’t,” I gasp between breaths, “we’re on a hill.”
“But go faster, Daddy.”
“This . . . is . . . as . . . fast,” I huff and puff like The Little Engine That Could, “. . . as . . . I . . . can . . . go.” She quits asking, but I can tell she doesn’t believe me; she’s convinced I can do anything.
The Santa Cruz Mountains aren’t the most awe-inspiring mountains in the West, but on this particular Sunday it would be impossible for me to feel more awe. It is Valentine ’s Day, the ninth anniversary of my stem cell transplant at Stanford. I’m supposed to be dead, written off long before this little creature on the back of my bike even existed. And yet here I am, two fatal diseases later, alive to tell the tale.
The sun has broken through the fog at this higher elevation, pouring through the gaps in the trees like shafts of light in a cathedral. Drops of condensed fog fall through the beams of light, glittering crystals raining down in the shadow of the massive redwoods. We stop at a picnic table to unwrap the sandwiches made together earlier — peanut-butter-and-honey for her and peanut-butter-and-jelly for me.
“Cheers,” she says, raising her sandwich toward mine.
“Cheers,” I acknowledge, gently bumping my crust against hers. She smiles conspiratorially and takes a bite. We eat hungrily. After wolfing down two sandwiches I get up from the table to lie down in a sunny spot on the far side of the meadow, the warmth of the sun a welcome relief.
“Why don’t you come over in the sun with me, honey?” I ask.
“No,” she responds. “I like it here at the table.”
“I know, but aren’t you cold?”
“No,” she lies, suddenly turning stubborn. Her lips are quivering.
“OK,” I say, knowing that if I force the issue she’ll stay shivering in the dense shade. I look up at the treetops against the sky, a startling blue as if it has just come into being. The leaves rustle in the wind, turning their pale undersides up for a moment and then falling back.
I feel her settling against my side; she’s snuck over to the sunny patch of grass, her nibbled-on sandwich in one hand and a water bottle in the other. Coming out of the damp chill was apparently a smart idea after all.
“Hi, Em,” I say.
She turns her head to get my eyes. “Hi, Daddy.” Her brown eyes are unmasked in that way only children’s can be. She puts her sandwich down on the ground and lays her head on my chest. I want to ask her to pick the sandwich up out of the dirt but decide to just enjoy the feel of her head rising and falling with my breathing, her reedy arm slung across me. She’s been working hard on the back of the bike.
“Could you feel me pedaling, Daddy?” she asks.
“Oh yes,” I say, and I could feel the difference those pipe-cleaner, 5-year-old legs made. “You’re a great pedaler.”
Thank you, Lord — I float up an inadequate, silent prayer, lying on my back with my daughter resting on me — Thank you for this moment. For the sun. For my breath. For the tiny piece of Your creation who’s lying with her head on my chest.
I hear a squirrel trilling somewhere and a Steller’s Jay squawking angrily. I lift my head and spy them under the picnic table, fighting over an orange rind. I close my eyes and feel the warm sun on my face. Emily is twitchy, drifting off to sleep. I stroke her hair and am filled with —what? Gratitude? Yes. And wonder. Maybe it’s just the date that has me stirred up; maybe it’s this beautiful creature who could wring emotion from a stone. And the fact that I have become an easy touch, no longer able to protect myself from the arrows these stolen moments aim for my heart.
On the way back home she demands more speed.
“Faster, Daddy,” she yells, “go . . . FASTER!”
So we launch ourselves over the edge of the big hill, eyes watering, legs churning, screaming down into the chill of the valley floor. Then it’s straight up the far side where we have to get off and walk the last bit of trail to the rim of the valley.
I watch her mount up again at the top, ready for more, and it occurs to me, this is the picture of what my life could be — a wild ride with a loving Father. As long as she knows I’m here, she has no cares whether we’re skidding in some gravel along the edge of a cliff, rushing through the thick cold of the valleys or grinding uphill in the hot sun. She takes it all in with the freedom of her fresh years, secure in the knowledge that her daddy is watching out for her.
Watching her settle back onto the seat, blissfully present in the simple joy of riding a bike with her dad, I remember a hint of that freedom I once tasted. It was during the early days after I was first cured, when the yellow light angling through the trees glowed with a heavenly aurora, when the face of my wife overseeing my oldest daughter’s efforts at saddling a horse was precious to behold, when even the shrubs in the median of the highways were verdant and bursting with life. But over the years, I realize as I gaze at my daughter, I have slipped back into my old ways, giving in to the worries and regrets, listening to the yapping fears echoing in my skull.
She waits, straddling the bike, fastening those pristine eyes on me. If only I could love that way again.
Let me be like that, Lord — I am silently praying again — Let me have the faith in You that she has in me. Let me see with her eyes.
I swing my leg over my seat.
“You ready?” I ask.
“Ready!” comes the answer.
And Lord — I append to my previous prayer, knowing that what I’m going to ask for will take a miracle — let me live up to the trust she has in me.
“Daddy?” she asks.
“Are we going home?”
“Can I have some hot chocolate when we get there?”
“Sure,” I answer.
“Yippeee!” she yells.
“Yahoo!” I yell back, picking up the pace now that we’re on the flats again and racing for home.
Bruce Lawrie lives in Scotts Valley, California. His work has appeared in Portland Magazine, The Best Spiritual Writing 2011, Wabash Magazine and elsewhere.