Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A compliment, a question, and a few minutes of worrying

My seven-year-old daughter and I were on the Minuteman Bikeway, a paved-over rail trail just four miles from our house. Named one of the country’s best rail trails, it attracts dozens of walkers, runners, bicyclists and in-line skaters on sunny weekend days like the one on which we were using it.

I’d wanted to fit in an afternoon run, and Holly wanted to go for a bike ride, so I suggested we try to do the two activities in tandem. Holly is still fairly new to a two-wheeler, so we hadn’t tried this combination before, but I’d seen other parents doing it lots of times, and it appeared to me that as long as the bicyclist has fairly short legs and a small bike and therefore couldn’t ride very fast, it could work out reasonably well.

We made our way two miles down the path, with Holly just a short distance ahead of me. I could see her the whole time, and at the few road crossings on that two-mile stretch, she stopped to wait for me so we could cross together.

After we reversed direction at the two-mile marker she must have accelerated, though, because I started finding it harder and harder to glimpse her in the distance. She was way ahead of me and quickly widening the gap.

“Nice job!” said a jogger who looked to be in his late fifties or early sixties as he ran toward me. He pointed back toward Holly. “Very good work!”

I’ll take a compliment wherever I can get one, but for the next ten minutes or so I puzzled over just what he meant. What were we doing that constituted a nice job and good work? Was it that I was out exercising with my child? When my son and I used to go running together regularly, strangers would often comment because it’s a little bit unusual to see a nine-year-old boy jogging, but Holly and I weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary. Lots of kids her age ride their bikes. Did he just mean that she was a good steady rider? Maybe. She is small for her age, so although most kids at seven and a half are competent riders, perhaps he was impressed with her skill, thinking she was younger.

Or, I thought, did he mean because I was letting her get so far ahead of me? As I’ve come to realize, there are a lot of adults from earlier generations who think parents my age hover too much. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, on this trail where many parents were biking so close to their kids that their wheels almost touched or else pulling them in bike trailers, that he was complimenting me for letting her ride at her own pace.

But her own pace grew faster and faster, and after she disappeared into the distance, I grew anxious. Compared to most parents we know, I give my kids quite a lot of leeway when it comes to personal safety, but not being able to see her at all in this setting alarmed me.

Still, I needed to keep running. I had over a mile to go before I’d be back at the park where the trail begins. I dearly hoped I’d find her when I got there, but there was nothing I could do in the meantime but keep moving forward. Stopping or slowing down certainly wouldn’t help the situation any when all evidence pointed to the likelihood that she was well ahead of me.

I worried that she had fallen and was hurt. I worried that someone had jumped out of the thick woods bordering the trail and snatched her. I worried that she had reached the park but then wandered into traffic there. And, too, I worried about what other parents must be thinking now that there was a child riding along the path with no accompanying adult anywhere in sight. The man who complimented me earlier might have been impressed that I let her go at her own pace, but that was when she was still within eyeshot of me. I wasn’t sure anyone would compliment me on this bit of recklessness.

The two miles unspooled as I ran at my usual steady but slow pace. I told myself all I could do was continue on to the park. When I got there either Holly would be waiting for me and everything would be fine or she wouldn’t and I’d need to act quickly to get help. One or the other.

So I had nearly twenty long minutes to worry about Holly’s well-being. Then I arrived at the park and there she was, standing next to her bike and beaming. The relief was tremendous, but I didn’t let on that I’d been worried. Nor did I want to scold her for riding so far ahead of me. She’s still new at biking and still developing her skills; if anything, I was impressed at how well she’d done. Although she’d soared far ahead of me, I didn’t really feel she’d done anything wrong.

But had I done anything wrong? I wasn’t sure. I thought again about the jogger who said “Good job!” Good job teaching her to ride a bike? Good job getting out together for a workout? Maybe. Not so good letting her get so far away from me, though – and then worrying about it for the remainder of the run.

But it all worked out. So I’m not sure what I’ll do differently next time we head to the Bikeway together. But whatever it is, I hope someone lifts my spirits with a quick, if ambiguous, compliment along the way.

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