February 12, 2021 | Narrative
my dad loves to ride his bike
the intersection of guilt and love
CONTENT WARNING: Violence, car accidents, near-death experience
I took a nap that day. It was warm. The very last day of April. I had begun a relationship earlier, around 2 a.m. I was happy. Euphoric even. But that unadulterated euphoria was nipped right in the bud as darkness descended on my house. My mom was in the living room, her voice oozing panic. I ignored it for a bit. And then she texted me, “Can you locate your dad?” I opened the Find My Friends app. Location not found.
My dad loves to ride his bike. On the weekends, he would wake up around 5 a.m., eat a banana, and hop on his bike by 6:30 a.m. He would track all of his bike trips on the Strava app, competing with other cyclists to see who could go the fastest on X stretch of trail or road. It was an obsession. He was incredibly competitive about it, reporting people if he thought they cheated and even braving the cold Lake Michigan winters. My mom was never really a fan of his deep interest in cycling, but I was. It made me happy to see him so passionate about something, especially because most of his life revolved around my autistic younger brother, so I always entertained him when he showed me his “King of the Hill” records on Strava. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so happy to see him cycling.
On April 30, 2020, my dad’s bike ride took longer than usual. He must’ve left around 3 p.m., the time I started my nap, and it wasn’t until the sun set around 8 p.m. that we noticed he wasn’t home. Too late. Far too late. We couldn’t locate my dad like we usually could, and he wouldn’t pick up the phone. My mom called anyone she could, anyone that might know where my dad was. Eventually, my older brother and sister-in-law relayed to my mom an accident that had happened around 4 p.m.: a cyclist had been hit by a car and an emergency helicopter had taken them to a nearby hospital. Critical condition.
My brother picked up my mom—buried deep inside an overwhelming panic attack, barely able to talk—and drove her to the hospital. When she left, I stood there, shaking with anxiety. I hope the cyclist is Dad. But also… I looked at my younger brother, face blank, unable to comprehend the direness of the situation. What will we do without him in good health?
The cyclist was my dad. When he was doing what he loved most, a car failed to yield. Did my dad go flying? Was he wearing the cycling shoes that kept his feet fastened to the pedals? How painful was it?
Broken bones. A traumatic brain injury. Hospitalization and rehabilitation for months.
The driver never faced any serious charges.
The night after the crash, I Facetimed my new boyfriend. I drank soju as we talked, both of us radiating happiness and delight as we discussed our lives and joked about anything and everything. Absolute bliss. Laughter. Shy smiles. And then a sudden stop. He mentioned my dad, asking where he was. I don’t really remember what I replied. A simple “he isn’t here right now”? After we hung up, I went to my bedroom and stared at my ceiling. How can I be enjoying myself so much when my dad is in pain?
The guilt I felt whenever I was happy would continue for months. Not only was my dad suffering, but so was my whole family because of my younger brother. My brother isn’t just autistic; he has a developmental and speech delay and bipolar disorder. When structure falls apart in his life, so does his mood, his ability to stay calm. My dad’s absence obliterated any structure. Day after day brought a new episode. He threw CDs, books, containers of water, and whole pieces of furniture. One night, I was Facetiming my boyfriend as my aunt watched my brother downstairs, and the next moment I was breathing sharply, tears cascading down my face as my brother angrily sprayed the whole house with AXE body spray, stabbing the walls with a knife after the can ran out.
Somehow, we went to sleep that night, but not without my brother pulling my hair and biting my hand as I tried to separate him from my mom. Many similar incidents would follow. And so would my guilt whenever I retreated to my locked room and the comfort of my boyfriend’s company.
Mid-June, my dad came home—finally some hope for peace. In the backyard, he sat on the bench before coming inside. I ran outside to sit next to him, smiling nervously. But there was no peace. “Why is your mom being such a bitch?” I stared at him in shock. Soon, I sat alone on the bench, the hot June sun burning down on me.
My dad was no longer himself. He was short-tempered, demanding, obsessive, unapologetic—all a result of his traumatic brain injury. My brother didn’t take well to this, and within a matter of moments, my house became even more volatile than it was before. Countless fights between my dad and my brother, a living room bare of anything to throw other than the furniture, my mom crying, my sisters crying, me crying.
A month later, I flew out to see my boyfriend on Block Island. I went to see him to tell him I love him, but it would be a lie if I didn’t say one of my biggest motivations was getting out of the house. The predictability of his day-to-day life soothed me, but after only six short days, I had to fly back home. Everything was the same when I returned. I sobbed at the contrast between my home and the calmness of Block Island. Eventually, I left for school two weeks early, my boyfriend worriedly inviting me back to his home before we moved in.
The morning I left, my mom bought doughnuts and my older sister made eggs and avocado toast. Sunshine fluttered into our house, reflecting off the surface of the muggy pool water. I smiled as I talked to my family, waiting for my grandpa to pick me up and drive me to the airport. My smile was soon replaced by a frown of anxiety. Again, I was escaping, leaving my family behind; even as I felt happy, guilt gripped at my throat, choking me. I wished I could take them all with me.
Whenever I asked my mom how her day was, she never went into details, just words like “fine” and “decent.” But my older sister would tell me the truth, like how my younger brother shattered our glass back door. Hearing this from her only made me cry, helplessly and guiltily. A thousand miles away, I couldn’t do anything to bring peace to my home, and even if I had the chance to return, I didn’t want to. You’re really selfish, huh? was all I could think to myself. Ungrateful, a bitch, a coward.
Eventually, my brother went into a residential facility after a series of incidents and updates to his Individualized Education Program. This should’ve made me feel relieved. And it did. For a moment, a window opened, fresh air wrapped around me, and every muscle in my body relaxed for the first time since April. But, again, guilt engulfed me. As my mom went through the transition process with my brother, I couldn’t do anything to ease her anxieties, to comfort her. I couldn’t watch Korean dramas with her, drink coffee with her, or massage her back. I could only text her, I’m sorry.
My dad still loves to ride his bike. It makes me really anxious. Will he explode this time? I think the same about his temper. I never know what’s going to throw him into a mood. Will he yell because he ran out of diet soda? Will he storm up the stairs because his headphones broke? But even if he isn’t like how he was last spring, I still love him. I love sitting in the basement with him watching Shameless. I love listening to him talk about old music and play his guitar. I love my brother, too. When he came home for Christmas, he was much calmer than before, and he gave me hugs and urged me to put on his favorite anime movie. Still, even with this relative calmness in my house now, I continue to swim through a lake of guilt. Am I still escaping? Am I still being selfish, only caring for myself?
In the morning, I text my dad and mom separate good morning messages. My mom sends me a picture of the sunrise on her way to work. My dad sends me a picture of the dog sleeping next to him on the couch as he watches the morning news. I smile from a thousand miles away.