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Keep going, Michaela!

Last week Michaela rode a bicycle, by herself, without the assistance of training wheels, without the cautious hand of a parent. This was huge.

Years ago when Michaela was first diagnosed with Down syndrome, I didn't really know what to expect. Among the complicated emotions and uncertainties, Tiffani and I wondered if she would achieve the mundane milestones associated with growing up. Riding a bike was one of them.

I'm not sure why, exactly. Bikes are functional, yes, but in a society that valorizes individualism, autonomy, and self-sufficiency, I suspect we've come to see learning to ride a bike as a sign of independence. Bike riding has meaning. Kind of like driving a car, or living on your own. These activities carry cultural meaning and tie into how our society defines personhood.

Bike riding also became an unexpected theme in my book An Ordinary Future, as I found myself writing about my experiences with my kids while bike riding. When my son Aidric was first born, I bought a new road bike, which I used to commute to campus. Once he was old enough, I started pulling him in a red trailer that was gifted to me by a colleague. When Michaela was about a year old, I started pulling both of them. Then, when Zora was a toddler, she joined us -- luckily, since the trailer only holds two kids, Aidric by that point was big enough to ride his own bike, at first with training wheels, then on his own. In this picture, Michaela and Zora are asleep in the bike trailer.

During the initial lockdown months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I took to riding with the kids to area parks and other destinations, since schools were closed and we weren't doing much else. We rode everywhere. The rides became our adventures. Our escape.

Over the last couple of years, Michaela and Zora have also started riding their own bikes, and the red trailer now gathers dust in the garage. Last summer Zora ditched training wheels, but Michaela still uses them. Initially it was difficult for Michaela, even to ride a bicycle with training wheels. Pedaling takes coordination and strength, in addition to balance. Our first rides were short distances, often at a slow pace, and usually combined with a fair amount of walking and resting. On more than one occasion, I had to call Tiffani to come pick up Michaela because she refused ride home, even though she enjoys going on bike rides.

In this picture, Michaela is riding in our driveway while wearing an toy astronaut helmet, and my lime green bike is in the background.

But we kept at it, going a little further each time, and she has gotten stronger and stronger. Sometimes I still have to "tow" her up a hill. When she asks, I reach down with one arm while we're riding and grab onto her handle bars, and we ride next to each other, both pedaling, me giving her just enough assistance to go up the hill without stopping.

This summer she has been asking to ride to her elementary school, which is over a mile from our house. Last week, I brought a small wrench with and when we arrived at her school, which has a large, flat, grassy area, I asked if I could take off her training wheels. I wanted her to try riding without them, just to see what would happen, and I figured falling in the grass would be okay. Too my astonishment, she started pedaling, and just kept going.

I was in tears. She can ride a bicycle. I scrambled to take a few pics and a video with my phone as I ran after her, and all I could think to say was "keep going."

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