On Easter sixteen years ago, my younger brother got a skateboard. The board in his Easter basket had a matte black top and a colorful, graffiti-esque design of a monster on the underbelly, and he got a shining black helmet to match. Though he kept falling, my younger brother kept going, encouraged by my uncle’s words muttered around the cigarette in his mouth and the humid promise of spring in the air.
By summer, Zach knew how to skateboard well, and he did it all the time. Helmet, no helmet, whatever, riding down our gravel driveway, onto the quiet cul de sac and back again. He fell, scraped his knees, even got a chunk of his elbow out in the process one time. But he liked it, and so he rode.
I did not skateboard. I was way too scared of falling. I rode my bike next to him instead, training wheels still firmly fastened- training wheels that would be fastened until I was well into middle school.
I wonder now what, at seven years old, he was thinking about when he rode his skateboard. Maybe it’s the skateboard’s association with California that causes me to believe it’s a soothing sport, but as an object in motion among the summer’s stillness, he could have been thinking about anything- his Tech Decks, his friends, Oreo’s, looking cool to impress a neighborhood kid.
I know what I was thinking when I rode my bike next to him. The trees around the cul de sac and the breeze against my cheeks, a warm summer day’s hug around my waist buzzed with energy. But the fear of falling off my bike or, God forbid, running into Zach kept me in survival mode. I oscillated between two thoughts: “This is nice” and “Don’t die.”
“This is nice.” I’m present and enjoying my life. I’m looking at my dad’s adorable smile or listening to my mom laugh and I love them. My face is buried in my boyfriend’s neck (why do men’s necks always smell so delicious?) and I’m so grateful he’s alive. Thank you, Universe, for crossing my paths with this little muskrat swimming around the pond in our backyard, and for blessing me with eyesight to watch him flip around in the water. This is nice. Thank you.
“Don’t die.” I’m thinking ahead to protect myself and I’m stressed. I can’t do this presentation at work, it feels like too much and I don’t know if I can do this every Monday forever. I don’t want my older brother to move out because we’ve always been a family of 5 and I’m scared of what this means. My dog Max is old and sick and whining all the time and we have to put him down. I’m looking at my dad and my mom and my boyfriend and someday they’ll be gone. I’m looking at my dogs and they’ll be gone too. Don’t die. Please, don’t die.
These have always been my two modes of thinking. I’ve somehow learned to cut the pleasure I feel at the expansiveness of life in half or worse, whittle it down to 5% so as not to feel the pain of death or change. I cuddle up with my dog Molly and feel my heart almost burst with love for her, and then a voice curls around my ear and kindly lets me know she’ll be gone soon, just like my late dog Maxy that we had to put down. Don’t feel that big expansion of love- it’ll only hurt more when she’s gone. Don’t open your heart too much- it’ll break into pieces when you lose her. Don’t feel too much. Don’t die.
I never learned to skateboard because I didn’t want to fall. I almost didn’t learn to drive stick because I didn’t want to fail. Experience we gain as we grow older teaches us caution. Our “don’t die” voice becomes stronger, if we let it. But what makes life interesting and vibrant is the courage to know that something will end someday, and still enjoy it in the present. To look at ourselves or our loved ones through two eyes, one eye holding the image of death and change, and the other simply absorbing the beauty of what is now. This holding of naivety and realism is what allows us to exist in Isness.
I still live in my childhood bedroom, sleep in my childhood bed. I look around at the walls that know me and the dresser that’s held my clothes for most of my life and I become overwhelmed with the finality of it, the fact that I will move out someday and probably never come back to this moment. Once I leave there will be no more purple walls or backyard views or stuffy scent of summer and dust. No more coming down the stairs to French toast or talking with my dad on the back patio after a long Tuesday at work. I’ll leave behind the closet that held all iterations of colorful clothes, the mirror that absorbed both disgust and awe and the purple butterfly chair that’s held my frame forever. But I can’t let that stop me from dreaming about what it will be like to start a home of my own. I can’t let that stop me from loving this house, these people, with everything I have.
I stroke Molly’s fur and notice she’s got fine black hairs in her coat that I’ve never seen before. I marvel at her brown-black eyes and her little tail wagging, her sassy walk when she has to go into her crate at night. I roughhouse with my other dog, Cooper, and stare into his almond-shaped eyes, so much like a human’s I feel I’m looking into the eyes of an old friend. I watch his stubby front legs and long back legs somehow coordinate together in a miracle of movement that only he could pull off. It guts me to know that in a matter of seven years they will be old, and sick, and their eyes will roll back and their small tongues will hang out of their mouths in death just like Max. But I can’t let that stop me from being with them on this couch, in this lifetime. I can’t let that stop me from loving them with everything I have.
I look at my younger brother sometimes when he’s just sitting at his desk playing video games and know in an instant that I would give my life to protect him, that in his big sister’s eyes he’s still so young and hilarious and soft at his center that I could pick him up and hold him if he weren’t six foot four. I still see him as my first best friend, and think about the times we were so small and low to the ground that we spent our summers watching bugs in the backyard, before we knew parties or working in restaurants. I look at him and my heart aches to know that someday I’ll move out, just like my older brother, and that he’ll feel the heartbreak times two of a sibling you love moving on. Someday we won’t be so close. Someday I’ll pass and he’ll be left to pick up the pieces. But I can’t let that stop me from knocking on his door now to tell him a stupid joke, or letting him knock on mine to recount a crazy dream. I can’t let that stop me from loving him with everything I have.
I still wonder what he thinks about, now that he’s twenty two, and if he’s ever found something quite like skateboarding to calm him down. I grew out of the training wheels but now, ironically, ride a stationary bike, a Peloton, in my basement every week. When the resistance is high, the cadence is higher, and the instructor is asking me to push myself to my limits, the “don’t die” factor is strong and pulses in my mind. But I close my eyes, feel my legs burn, hear my breath rattling in my lungs, pushing me ever forward, and I feel strength at the moment of almost-death. I know it and I feel it. This is nice, to be alive.