THE ASPHALT PATH CARVED a wide swath around the Todt Hill apartments on Staten Island, N.Y. Built as public housing in the early 1950s for young postwar families, the five buildings, each five stories high, were squeezed into one square block, accessed from the street by this path. I walked to first grade by myself down that path and called up to my mother from it when I got all A's on my report card and couldn't wait to tell her. I walked my little brother down to the playground at the bottom and once waited there with him when he stuck his head through the wrought-iron fence surrounding it and had to be rescued by firefighters.
It was also on that path where I first learned to ride a two-wheeler. My father taught me. He seemed so old to me then, but, when I learned to ride, I was 7 and he was only 31. He removed the training wheels from my little bike, made sure I was solidly on the seat and then held on to the rear fender, helping me balance as I tentatively began to pedal. I was terrified that he would let go. The ground seemed a long way down, but I really wanted to ride that bicycle.
I remember pedaling along in the sunlight on the path and looking down to see our shadow selves imitating our movements: my little shadow sitting on a shadow bike and my father's shadow, tall and straight, trotting along behind me. Sometimes the sun would shine through his thick glasses, creating a shimmery star within his shadow. From behind, his voice encouraged me to keep on pedaling, assuring me that he wouldn't let go until I could balance on my own.
I read somewhere that balancing is like being in a dream and knowing you are dreaming, but not becoming so aware that you are dreaming that you will wake up. As if in a dream, I pedaled into a part of the path that lay in the full shadow cast by one of the apartment buildings, and our own shadows disappeared. Perhaps because I was enjoying the feeling of speed and freedom, I forgot about my father holding on behind. It wasn't until I rode into the sunlight once again that I realized that his reassuring shadow on the asphalt was no longer there. For several minutes I had been pedaling on my own, perfectly balanced. I was about to stop in panic when I heard him yell, "Go on! You can do it. I'm right behind you."
Nervous at first, and then exhilarated, I took off around the path, thrilled that I had learned to ride on my own but angry that my father had abandoned me. He had promised to hold on, but unlike many other times in my life, this time he had known when to let go. That afternoon I left him behind. By the time I circled the path on my little bicycle, I forgot about my anger. Instead I reveled in my new sense of balance, my first steps in learning to fly free on my own.
My father was committed to providing for his family, but he was not an easy man to live with. He used to refer to himself as "lord of the manor"; it was his house and we had to live by his rules. He didn't like it that, as I grew older, I wanted to make my own decisions, borrow the car, date boys.
I often thought about his skill at teaching me to ride that two-wheeler during those times when he held on to me too tightly, overly protective, overly strict. I wished then that he would think about that bicycle moment and would learn to see it as I did, as a metaphor for how to parent.
Now it seems that it's my turn to learn that same lesson.
Today my father sits in his room, rapidly descending into Alzheimer's, his eyebrows knit together, our roles reversed. He is now the frightened child, and I am the adult supporting him as he struggles to find his balance. Yesterday, in a rare moment of clarity, he said to me, "I'm no good to anyone anymore."
After struggling to be free for so long, I never thought that I would be the one holding on too tightly. Once again as we begin to pedal into the shadows, I am learning that you can't hold on forever.
Barbara Kaplan Bass is associate professor of English at Towson University and director of the Maryland Writing Project.