I hear them from in the kitchen, their voices traveling from one side of the house to the other, and I know in a few seconds they will pass through my view from the window. My six-year-old runs with the wind; fast and agile, Katherine flies up the steep grade of our tiered yard and leaps back down the slope over the protruding tree roots without slowing her pace, calling over her shoulder, "Come on! Let's ride bikes!" Clara lags behind, her three-year-old legs sturdy and strong, but not yet fast.
I head outside with the baby and wander around the yard to keep an eye on them while they ride up and down the street. Michael, the 10-year-old across the street, has set up his new jump and is practicing tricks on his bike. My girls watch in fascination. Katherine cautiously takes a turn riding slowly up over the ramp and bumping down on the other side. Clara contents herself to ride around it in circles.
I busy myself picking dandelions and forget-me-nots, feigning oblivion so as not to intrude on their play. I circle up around the back of the house. As I wander back down the other side I hear Michael call out, "Let's race up the hill and back down - whoever gets there first wins!"
For a moment I hesitate, suspended between my instinct to call out "No! No races - Clara is too young, SLOW DOWN!" and my desire to allow her space to figure it out on her own. I look up the steep hill, covered with patches of loose gravel, and the scene unfolds in my imagination: Michael skillfully races down the hill, Katherine close behind, anxious to keep up, maybe even win. Clara, who has not fully mastered her back-pedal brakes, speeds out of control, barely keeping her balance on the tiny, blue two-wheeler. I can see her fear as she looses control, handle bars shaking as she skids across the gravel. She'll fall off, break her arm, need stitches… I won't be able to stop her in time.
But despite the anxiety-driven vision rushing before my eyes, I can't bring myself to call out my warning. From the depths of my own childhood, memories of running free with neighborhood kids silence me. We rode bikes as fast as we could pedal, we did tricks on roller-skates, we forged secret passageways through neighbors' yards, we climbed high in trees where we held tree-house meetings. I broke my arm once, my sister got stitches. But during those long hours after school, and on summer evenings when we played until dark, we were free to figure it out, and it was magical.
I hold onto that cherished time in life, and in a display of casualness, I lean down to help the baby blow the seeds off a dandelion. The white flakes swirl around me as I watch the bike race out of the corner of my eye. Michael and Katherine come speeding down the hill, Clara not far behind, a look of fear on her face as she struggles to control the shaking handlebars. She skids on the gravel, tipping dangerously, unable to brake. Her feet shoot off the pedals and drag on the ground until she wobbles to a stop. She doesn’t fall.
Michael calls out the next race and all three head back up the hill again, as fast as they can pedal. I turn away and look for more dandelions, deciding that perhaps I don't need to watch them so closely.