The Last Ride
By Megan Lewis
I am thirteen years-old and have just finished a soccer game. Even though I ran my heart out and assisted in the scoring of several goals, I’m unhappy with my performance. I SHOULD have tried harder, I SHOULD have run faster, in short, I SHOULD have been better.
Shoulders slumped, holding back tears, I make my way back to my mom – always at my soccer games cheering me on. I know it concerns her – this intense, unnecessary pressure I put on myself to be perfect. She pulls me close and hugs me and I can feel the strength of her arm and back muscles – muscles that have resulted from hours spent swimming and lifting weights at the local YMCA.
“How about we take a bike ride to Smolak’s Farm?” she suggests.
“Can we get apple cider at the store?” I ask eagerly, my mood instantly lifting. “Yes, and we can even get cider donuts!” she grins.
I bounce up and down in my cleats like a 5 year-old. More than biking, even more than cider donuts, I love spending alone time with my mom. Of course, I love my dad and my ten year-old sister, Brittany, but they just don’t GET it – they don’t get what it’s like to have this strange new body with curves and hair in places they weren’t in before, or these strange new feelings where I’m giddy one minute then crushed or embarrassed the next. (Brittany doesn’t get it because she’s too young and, Dad, well, he’s a BOY so, naturally, he doesn’t get it either.)
But with Mom it’s different – she listens to my endless thoughts and concerns about friends and homework and all the other very important things going on in my complicated brand-new teenage life.
When we get home, Mom makes us grilled cheese sandwiches (whoever created grilled cheese sandwiches should be elected President of the United States). We fill up our water bottles, pump up our tires, and we’re ready to go!
“Long way or short way?” Mom asks as she clips on her helmet. “Long way!”
Through Mom I’m learning the value of exercise, especially running. A lot of kids in my P.E. class moan when we have to run laps around the gym and I moan, too, but secretly I love it. I love the way my heart pounds in my ears. I love the euphoria running makes me feel (Mom calls it a “runner’s high”). I love how strong it makes me feel. But, most of all, I love how it – temporarily – presses mute on my anxiety. I know Mom feels the same way because she told me so.
We ride in companionable silence. Pumping up the hills, feeling the lactic acid burning in our legs and the triumph that comes with making it to the top. Then the sheer joy of coasting down the hill.
The leaves are brilliant shades of yellow, red, and orange – the beautiful foliage that is famous to New England.
I don’t remember how long the ride took us or how many cider donuts we indulged in. The reason this ride stands out in my mind is because it’s the last vigorous physical activity I remember us partaking in together. Because of that, it has an almost mythical feeling.
During this last ride, we didn’t know that soon Mom would be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). An autoimmune disease, it stripped her from the body she worked so hard at strengthening. The inability to exercise and, at times to drive and work, not too mention the incredible pain she too frequently experienced was absolutely devastating to witness.
In my naive thirteen year-old mind I thought that if I concentrated on loving her enough it would take her pain away. Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way.
The day my dad called me and told me he’d found her unconscious at the bottom of the basement stairs was the absolute worst day of my life. It was fifteen years since that wonderful bike ride and I was working at a nonprofit in New York City. As I rode the train back to Boston horrible images images flashed through my mind of her laying crumpled and broken after falling down the stairs.
My family huddled terrified in the waiting room of the I.C.U. as the doctors tried to figure out what happened. Was it a stroke? Meningitis? A simple misstep that caused her to fall and bump her head?
Never in my life had I assumed it was a suicide attempt. My world shrunk. The thought of my mom in such despair turned my insides cold and enveloped me in a level of helplessness I never knew existed. Then came the guilt. Living in New York City was so selfish of me. I should have been living closer to home, spending more time and taking care of her. We spoke by phone at least twice a week. How could I have not known how depressed she was?
The next few weeks were a blur. A blur of psychiatrists and social workers and family therapy. I thought it was all bullshit. How could these so-called “professionals” help my mom when her own family couldn’t?
But it did work. Little by little, with the help of medication, therapy, and support groups, my mom became my mom again.
She slowly became as strong as she’d been that day we’d gone for that bike ride so many years before. However, her strength has shifted. It has shifted from the physical to the mental and emotional. She has immersed herself in activities like gardening and playing cards that keep her mind busy and her life social. She’s an avid reader. She has the strength to get out of bed every morning and face the day. She’s the bravest person I know, and I am just so very proud of her.
Megan Lewis has a BA and MA in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She currently lives in NYC where she works as the Economic Empowerment Development Assistant at the Arab-American Family Support Center. She loves running, chocolate, and sleeping in.