behind and before
We rumble over bridges, wheels rolling across weathered slats, dappled shadows stretching. Zoe takes the lead, crouching low, blonde hair flying behind her in ribbons. Kevin trails her gently, restraining his pace just enough to let her go. Somehow at first, I’m in the middle, sandwiched between these I love–two blazing, two simmering. The path curls, winding through waving trees, beside meandering streams. Content to ride alone, I concentrate on being present–noticing the warmth of the wind on my cheeks; the explosions of color at the base of the trees; the statuesque, paralized lines of elegant deer who see me first. I count them…2…4…5. Late sun glitters the whole paved way like tiny scattered diamonds. On the water, the same light makes mirrors, long and thin. I gulp abundance in full breaths.
Faintly now, I hear Riley encouraging Adam, ” ‘s okay, Bud, just a hill. …People are coming now, get to the right. …Just tell that fly to go away. It’s okay.”
Adam’s deep tones travel on the breeze, flying down the path to me much faster than he. “Go away, fly. Leave me alone.”
I smile. He used to scream over anything on wings. Now he rebukes, in that deep almost-a-man voice, the syllables halting.
Riley stays just in front of Adam, though I know she could ride much faster. With every turn and each new hill–especially the hills–it seems they drift further behind. Adam doesn’t like the way it feels to lose control on the descent, the rush of wind, the mad spin of the pedals. For as long as I can remember, he has come nearly to a full stop at every crest, trying as hard as he possibly can to ease the trip down. Riley presses on, leading him, coaxing, but eventually, I lose sight of them from the middle. Suddenly I feel blind, glancing back and glaring down the way, stretching my neck. Where are they? They can’t be so far away as to be out of sight, and yet I have lost even the sound of their voices. I know they’re just beyond me, and yet it feels as though they’ve completely disappeared. I stop pedaling, coasting, waiting, looking. Ahead, I see Kevin turn, looking back at me, measuring the gulf between us. Before they reach the bend, I see him carefully pull in front of Zoe. He’s pacing her, slowing them down. And then they disappear too, and I am completely alone. In the lonely middle, everything sounds louder—tree leaves chatter like an audience of witnesses; the water smacks; the tires of my bicycle scrape against the pavement, rattling over the bridges. I look back, back, back, and still catch no sight of Riley and Adam. At least Kevin is with Zoe up there, but those two…what if Adam’s front tire nudged Riley’s back and they lay crumpled now on the path, scraped and heaving? I don’t like it and am about to turn back when Kevin appears in front, coming toward me with Zoe just behind.
“Riley and Adam have fallen way behind,” I tell him, and he nods, pedaling faster. I turn my bike, the front tire slipping just an inch into the grass, bumping back on the smooth asphalt. In one turn, two, we find our other half, patiently wheeling along, still upright, the one still quietly encouraging, the two keeping up with each other.
“Here comes Mom Jones,” Riley says, her happy voice coasting the wind, neither alarmed nor impatient, without burden or frustration. She has not once wished Adam would hurry up or that we would slow down, has not once felt it an imposition to journey with her brother. It has been enough for her to know we’re just ahead, even when she can’t see us. It’s her way to measure withness with her heart instead of her eyes.
I slow down, back-pedaling so that they have time to turn around ahead of me, sister and careful, fearful brother; the one soft and round and wispy, the other sharp and lean and angular. Their shadows blend on the pathway until they are indistinguishable. Without effort, I catch up to them; together we proceed in a cluster. When we reach the next hill, I find it an effort not to run into my son. Slow is not slow enough. I turn the handle bars back and forth, weaving and waiting, while he gathers courage and slows his own progress still more. Riley coasts down the hill, stray brassy strands twisting and curling away from her head, content to move ahead now that I’m behind them. I pump the brakes down the hill, again, again again. Each time, my bike jerks back, yearning for release. Adam and I meander, or maybe we ooze. I could walk faster than we’re moving, balanced up on these wheels, and yet, I am exceedingly happy. Happy just to be with him; happy to hear him say “Oh,” in that surprised way; happy to listen as he rebukes the insects; happy to watch the baby fine hair rising on the back of his long, suntanned neck. I don’t really care that we literally inch along, except that sometimes it’s a challenge not to crowd him. Moving along this way feels right to me–Kevin and me before and behind, our young ones moving at their own speed in the middle. We hem them in, anticipating, guarding, watching.
A verse falls fresh, though it is an ancient line, carved from a whole history of Fathering: You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me (Psalm 139:5). The Psalm is a favorite of mine–You have searched me God, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from a far. So I travel along and His Father-mind stays ever aware and everywhere, fully knowing me and you and every single child hemmed in by His love. He goes behind and before. He listens to our hearts; our voices fly to His ear on Spirit-wind. And because He’s God, He is with all of us equally, pacing the trailblazers before, and intentionally, delightfully patient behind, with the slow and the careful and the fearful. It occurs to me now, pedaling behind my son, that God very likely neither champions the fastest of us nor feels frustration with the slowest, as long as we’re all moving in the same direction, the direction He has chosen. He never leaves us, though sometimes, when we drift back or shoot ahead or feel lonely in the middle, we children find it difficult, blinded as we are, to perceive Him. And that’s when we need each other most, side-by-side and inch-by-inch, gently encouraging one another until we all see Him clearly again.