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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

I wouldn’t say bike riding is something my little brother and I had ever done together, at least not since that time 40 years ago when I beat him to school and he’d called me a poopyhead. Or, maybe it happened the other way around.

Either way, living in different cities for our entire adult lives, bike riding wasn’t really on the agenda on our rare cross-country visits. Until last summer, when he was visiting me and a free afternoon and a pair of electric bicycles presented themselves. To my surprise, he agreed to go for a long bike ride, something he sheepishly confessed would be more exercise than he’d had for the whole pandemic.

I older-sister ordered him to wear one of my extra helmets. We’re not as bouncy as we used to be, I reminded him. I’m not 50 yet, he scoffed.

It didn’t matter – age disappeared as soon as we set out. We laughed giddily at the near-forgotten sensation of zooming through the streets of our childhood, revelling in a break from the late-August heat.

Cruising aimlessly through time and space, we paused often: to breathe in the scent of blackberries overripening in the sun, to check out the apartment where he’d lived when his first daughter was born or the spot along the harbour where he once took his now-grown kids to watch boats.

And we rode fast, racing each other down the trail, Tokyo drifting around corners. We still had it, dammit. We had become kids again, just having fun for the sake of it. Returning for a few hours to our original selves, the people we were before the weight of adulthood, divorce and caring for aging parents all settled onto our anxious shoulders like a disappointingly unsoothing weighted blanket.

That evening at dinner, we marvelled at what we’d done. We hadn’t seen each other for more than a year and hadn’t hung out together, just us siblings, in years. Thanks to the simple power of a couple of bicycles, we’d reconnected, for one short afternoon of joy. People just don’t have enough fun, we agreed. We should carpe this darn diem more often.

But this is where the story turns. My brother was murdered later that week. I don’t know why.

What I do know is that, along with the big things, like finding the will to get out of bed every morning or feeling safe in a world of random, unexplained violence, bike riding was something I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to do again.

As a suddenly only child, I found that biking, along with other seemingly innocent activities like watching Star Wars, walking past our childhood house or even eating certain foods, became what I call a “grief block.” It’s something I avoid because it holds memory like water balloons hold water – round, stretched and on the verge of bursting. Therapists call it “avoidance.” They’re not wrong.

But after a shattered winter of trauma and heartbreak, it was time to get out. Exercise is good for you, they say. It’s healing, they say.

I resisted. I’d walk, I’d swim, I’d even annoy the neighbourhood with a loud game of pickle ball, but biking? I just couldn’t.

Until, in a climate of rising gas prices and temperatures, I knew I had to start biking again. I decided to make it an occasion. Something I couldn’t back out of.

In my Japanese language class, I’d learned about a tradition called hanami, where families and friends gather under the pink blossoming plum and cherry trees, to picnic in celebration of fleeting beauty, warmer weather, hints of better days to come.

I decided a hanami bike ride was the way to do it. I mapped out a likely route that would include the city’s best pink trees. I packed tasty cookies and a thermos full of green tea. My partner patiently checked my neglected bike tires and battery. He helped adjust my helmet – back from my brother’s size, to mine.

I stepped onto the pedals. Felt my knees moving up and down. My white-knuckled hands gripped the bars. My body slipped into the sensation of moving through time and space.

And just as muscle memory had restored my brother and me, for one brief afternoon, to our childhood selves, it swept me back now to that last ride together. It was as though my brother was doubling behind me, clinging to my shoulders. Inevitably, that grief block burst, worse than I could have imagined. I could barely breathe, barely see.

I stopped for refuge under the first pink flowering tree I could find, inauspiciously planted in a corner of the nearby cemetery. Wiping my eyes, I leaned on my bike and gazed up at the petals. Some were already drifting down like spring snow, settling onto the shared gravestone of a long-past family.

In that moment, I sensed the countless moments of sorrow that had been felt, right where I stood, by countless families, standing graveside, over centuries. Yes, I had become an only child. Yes, a million questions and sorrows and grief blocks still loomed. But in the vastness of eternity and human experience, I at least knew I wasn’t alone. In my head, I felt my brother’s presence. And it was saying, “C’mon, poopyhead!”

I gathered myself and dried my face. Ate a cookie. Sipped some tea. And somehow got back on my bike.

Alisa Gordaneer lives in Victoria.

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