On a bustling service road, alongside one of Beijing’s quarter-mile wide thoroughfares, I pedaled amid pedestrians, motorcycles, motorbikes, and bicycles. Suddenly, a skinny little girl—of perhaps seven years—broke free from her family on the sidewalk and darted in front of me.
I had noticed the family and was aware of pedaling a bit more slowly. But what a helpless feeling, unable to stop before my front wheel knocked the child down.
As I toppled over behind her, the contents of the large bag in my basket spilled onto the street, quickly drawing a crowd that circled the splattered mess I had created.
The child seemed okay, except for the expression of horror on her sweet little face; she now stood folded in her mother’s arms, her almond eyes fixed on this peculiar old lady wearing a neon vest and helmet whose bicycle she had run into (which is another way of looking at who caused this collision). I too was shocked that this could happen.
I had immediately said to the child in bad Mandarin, “Ni hao ma? Wo hao. Meiyou wenti. Ni hao ma? Dui bu qi.” Are you okay? I’m fine. It’s no problem. Are you okay? I’m sorry.
Her sweet face remained frozen in sadness. No tears, no words, nothing but her downturned mouth as she stood staring at my splayed body, bike, papers, sweaters, and bag of food on the ground.
With only hand motions, the several adults in her group assured me she was fine. Two men helped return me and my bike to the upright position.
I kept repeating my Mandarin litany, assuring them I was fine too, and I continued to ask if the kid was okay. They nodded politely until an elderly man with a weathered face approached me. He bowed and in broken English said, “I am sorry, we do not speak Chinese,” at which I realized they were part of the Japanese community in this Beijing neighborhood.
As I was about to wheel away, a 12- or so year-old boy was sent over to me to offer further Japanese politeness. “I’m sorry,” he said.
In English I answered, “No problem at all. I am so sorry.”
I wondered how I could have prevented the crash. If I were to stop for every gaggle of pedestrians in Beijing, I would find myself at a permanent standstill.
I had been on my way to a café to work and had been scrambling for what to write next. A friend accuses me of being self-absorbed when I say I am grateful for an incident like this because it provides me with something to write about; but it’s true, given my passion for stories and adventure and given that both the little girl and I were apparently unharmed.
In fact, that well-mannered family may have benefitted from the accident, if it served as a lesson in caution to the girl and the other children in the group, perhaps saving them from a worse encounter someday, say with a car.
Speaking of cars, this drove home another reason not to drive. I can’t imagine how I would feel if a child ever darted out in front of my moving car instead of my bike.
It all raises the question of why a worrywart like me does not allow anxiety about safety to get in the way of cycling. Aside from the fact that I find riding in a car so much scarier than being on a bike, the pleasure I get from biking is as important to me as air. In fact the feeling of air against my face, in my lungs, on my arms is a large part of what I cannot live without.
This weekend, for example, I spent a lower-case day (one in which I didn’t have time to use the shift key) up to my ankles in sludge while rescuing everything my daughter Eliza owns from a basement storage room near the Hudson River. Afterwards, the bike ride uptown to my friends’ apartment for a comfort meal of hot and sour soup and steamed vegetable dumplings was yogic, sheerly meditative, in the way it helped me unwind as I wound a path through the belly of Manhattan.
Now that I have written about my willingness to take whatever risks biking poses, I worry that this quote will appear as irony in my obituary after my last breath occurs while doing what I love, what sustains me, rolling through space on wheels.
On the other hand this concern can also be construed as the worrywart magical thinking trick of collecting disaster scenarios to prevent them from happening to me.
One more positive thought: Happiness at my age is knowing I can have two hard falls from my bike (there had been another fall two weeks prior to this one) and no bones broken and no damage to my artificial hip, after which operation, by the way, my deal with God, if there is a God, was that even if I couldn’t walk, I’d really appreciate it if I could continue to bike.
PS I do owe it to my kids to keep myself alive (just as they owe it to me–the only thing they owe me), which is always in the forefront of my thoughts. Just sayin’.
PPS Subsequent xrays showed I had fractured my foot on a fall from my bike shortly before the China trip.
Here’s some of what I have to say about the book (accolades, however, are culled from Amazon reader reviews):
After 18 years of marriage, Susan faces her failing marriage with wry, wrenching self-awareness. She rebounds with a divorce party and then vibrantly portrays a cast of Mr. Wrongs, like one who—whenever he feels blue—swallows a pinch of his father’s ashes. As Susan ages, she misses her younger self and pictures paying her a visit. This imaginary encounter changes Susan forever.
Readers of all ages will relate to this deeply personal story, told with comical sensibility by a quirky, startlingly honest mother, daughter, and ex-wife who—à la Nora Ephron—will feel like a dear friend. Confessions of a Worrywart: Husbands, Lovers, Mothers, and Others will stay with you long after you finish reading it.
See some of my Life Goes Strong posts: