The Ride of Her Life

Have you ever done something you were sure you’d never do? For 2011 Life Lessons Essay Contest winner Dorothy Fortenberry, that moment came when she faced down her worst childhood fears and, at long last, started pedaling.

Photo by  Thayer Allyson Gowdy

The year I turned seven, I discovered the unpredictability of the universe. Six had been a pretty solid age—I was a frog in the class play, my hair grew long enough for barrettes—but after my seventh birthday, in December 1986, the unfair surprises started and kept on coming: the true identity of Santa Claus, a case of chicken pox, summer camp. Most important, No. 1: My father died. And No. 2: I stopped learning how to ride a bicycle.

No. 1 was impossibly unfair. As a result, No. 2 only made sense.

At the time of his death (to answer the most common questions: sudden; heart attack; not overweight; not a smoker; 42 years old; yes, yes, it was), my father and I had gotten about halfway through the standard riding lessons. I understood that my training wheels would not last forever, but we hadn’t yet graduated to the running-behind-and-holding-and-then-letting-go part. That was supposed to happen in the spring. A lot was supposed to happen.

As the winter thawed outside our Washington, D.C., home, my bike stayed in the hall closet, waiting for me or my mom to grab it again. Months passed while the two of us ate our way through the hams of consolation and wondered when life would ever feel normal again. When my first-grade class was given a writing project that began, “If I could have one wish…,” I completed the sentence with “I’d wish that Santa Claus was real.” This broke the hearts of about half my classmates, and while I didn’t mean to hurt them, I can’t say I felt too bad about it. The universe is unpredictable, folks. I was just telling the truth.

By the time we finally fetched the bicycle again, nearly a year later, I had grown about six inches and looked like a bear in the circus, perched on the seat. My mother and I soon moved to another part of the city, and my bike was given away. The hall closet in the new house held only hats, coats, and umbrellas.

Not that I wanted a bicycle. As a gangly, awkward kid with a deep fear of failure, I wasn’t in a big hurry to learn to ride. When friends’ fathers would offer to teach me, I’d always say, “No, that’s fine, you all go on ahead to the ice cream store. I brought a book.”