Park City, Utah, USA
by Alexis Kaufman
A father-daughter ride followed by a taste of mortality.
Pedal, brake, breathe! Dust rises to our eyes as we ride down the mountainside. The sun is just beginning to peek over the summit, spilling its warm honey over the valley. My fingers are already numb from squeezing the handlebars so much, and my legs burn as if my biking pants are lined with hot coals. “Don’t fall behind, Alexis. I know it’s hard to keep up with a pro.” My dad looks back at me with his all too familiar victory smile. I can feel my eyelids press into the back of my skull as the sight of a tight curve decorated with jagged rocks and thorny shrubbery triggers adrenaline-riddled tremors in my heart.
Dad swiftly shoots around the bend and navigates effortlessly through the earthen sea of icebergs that are sure to devastate my hull or, in this case, my front wheel tire. Sweat drips down my forehead and collects in my tear ducts. My eyes sting from the warm saline and dry wind as I lift myself a bit up off my seat. I pray that I make it through with all my limbs still attached. Maybe three, four seconds pass and success! My arms find the strength to turn the handles to the right and I shoot through the narrow trail’s turn.
My face, now, displays the same shining victory smile that my dad so generously ridiculed me with. Within another second, all the breath rushes out from my lungs as a sudden steepness overpowers me. Unfortunately, I had not noticed the sudden decline, a sheerness that somehow sneaks up in front of me and initiates my ultimate plunge. I feel my tongue jump to the back of my throat as I take a nosedive down the mountain trail. I fly over my handlebars and like a stone being released from a slingshot I rocket toward the ground. Touchdown! Actually, it is more of a splashdown, a flailing crash. My back slams into the ground as I watch my legs pass over the front of my face. The dirt flies up into the sky and washes over me like a merciless tidal wave. It is utterly humiliating. I hear the thundering laughter erupt from my dad and soon enough his amusement is distilled into tears. He finally catches his breath and manages to ask if I am okay. “Yeah. I’m swell. Thanks for the sympathy.” And then the laughter continues.
It is only about one month later that I get the call. It is mom, she is sobbing as she softly whispers into the receiver a sentence that I had to ask her to repeat just to ensure I had heard her correctly. “Dad. In the Emergency Room. Heart Attack.” The feeling of falling down the mountainside on my bike jumps back into my throat. The quakes in my heart measure at least a 9.0 on the Richter scale. I quickly grab my keys and jump into the car. Soon enough, I am hurrying down a cold hospital wing searching for Room 7.
After interrogating one of the nurses, I finally find the room, but I cannot find the courage to even touch the doorknob. A few more seconds pass and somehow my hand turns the handle and I am standing inside an icy, small, windowless room as the monotonous beep of a heart monitor fills the silence. I pull back the paper thin curtain and freeze. My dad lays still while layers of wires and tubing connect him to the various machines and IV drip. “Lifeless” is not a sufficient description for what I see when I look into his eyes. He is so pale that I can see the ribbons of cerulean flowing through his arms and hands. He says nothing when he notices me, he doesn’t have the strength. And there is no sign that this man before me, this stranger, had ever smiled.
That day as I sat beside my father in the emergency room, I realized something. I learned that those moments of competition, of fast pastime sport like mountain biking, were quickly being thrown into the past. Time was corrupting both of us, and as I grew stronger and faster and better, my father’s vigor was being leeched. What came to pass on that day was a much greater appreciation for my strong father. And a simple, soft I love you does not make up for the years of encouragement, guidance, and smiles.