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The children orbited around Neanderdad.  They made small circles, large circles, ovals, figure-eights and paraboloids.   They rode clear across the giant expanse of tarmac that covered the playground of the local middle school, then swung back toward him pedaling furiously, as if to charge him.  In every case, as they drew near, the would swerve at the last moment, missing him.  Then they would laugh and call out to him.

“Watch this, Dad!” they would say.  “Watch this!”  And then they’d do it again.

And Neanderdad would watch.  He would force out enthusiastic encouragements and a smile.  He would laugh at their extraordinary bike riding skills, because they truly were extraordinary skills for children so new to them.  But inside, part of Neanderdad was brooding.

This wasn’t the first trip to the middle school that day.  There had been a trip that morning.  Many aspects of that trip had been the same as this one.  There had been two offspring.  There had been two bicycles.  There had been the same broad expanses of asphalt.  There had been not one but two attentive parents. But that was not the key difference.  What was different was that that trip was BEFORE.   The children had not known how to ride those bicycles on that trip.   This  trip was AFTER.  And that distinction made all the difference.

It was strange, Neanderdad mused bitterly, how absolute the transition from ignorance to understanding was.   Neanderdad’s people had an expression to describe this phenomenon.  Its like learning how to ride a bike.  Once you learned something, there was a magical threshold crossed.  The learnings could never be unlearned.  The learner would never be the same.  Now, his children would never be the same.  They would now always know how to ride a bike.

On that BEFORE trip, Neanderdad, his mate and their two young acolytes had struggled through an agonizing experience.   Neanderdad spent most of the time bent painfully over his offspring’s tiny, spine-cracking bicycles, trying to hold them upright and keep the payload of fragile youngsters safe.   As long as he held on, no matter how lightly, his children were fine.  But when he finally released them, the children would scream and cry and eventually crash.  Then the children would complain.

“I hate this stupid bike,” the girl would lament.

“This is too hard,” the boy would say.

There had been many crashes on the pavement.  There had been small bodies tangled in the unyielding metal frames of ungainly bicycles.  There had been scrapes and bruises and lumps.  Occasionally, there had been brief periods where the children managed to cover a short distance unspported—generally only the distance the momentum of his push could propel them.  But those were rare and always ended badly.  Through it all, Neanderdad and his mate had struggled to sell the children on the vision of the graceful, confident riding that the children now displayed.  The children stuck it out gamely for a while but eventually they wanted to quit.  In the case of the girl, Neanderdad pushed too hard with a final bout of encouragement and he was met with a shrieking, crying cacophony of raging accusations about his intentions.

“You are trying to hurt me with this bicycle Daddy.” She sobbed.  “I don’t ever want to ride a bike again.  YOU’RE TRYING TO HURT ME!!!!”

And so they had abandoned the endeavor. At least Neanderdad had thought so, anyway.  As the children recovered from their ordeal at home, he decided to take some personal time.  Neanderdad’s head had become overly shaggy, so off he had gone to get somebody to hack the bushy mess into a manageable shape.  The children, still scraped and bruised, had waved goodbye to him as they snacked serenely on their lunch.

“Try again?” Neanderdad had thrown back to them as he departed, almost rhetorically.  They had both scowled.  Neanderdad had then gone to his shearing, sure that there were many long days of bicycle practice ahead and that he would miss nothing.  When Neanderdad returned however, a cool breeze of change blew through his recently uncovered scalp.  Two manic cherubs greeted him at the door and blistered him with cheerful streams of high-energy chatter.

“We rode, daddy!” Cheered the girl.  “All the way around the middle school.  All the way!”

“All by ourselves,” added the boy, using his arm in a swooshing motion to illustrate how they had swooshed on their bikes. “We didn’t hardly fall at all.”

Thusly did Neanderdad come to realize that he had missed it.  He had missed the moment where his children had figured out how to ride their bikes.  Both of them.

“They wanted to go,” explained Neanderdad’s wife with a shrug, in response to his look of surprise.

Apparently, the children’s resilience was greater than Neanderdad had expected.  They had somehow rediscovered their enthusiasm for bicycling after he had left.  Perhaps their ambition was fortified by peanut butter sandwiches.  Perhaps neurons had organized themselves during the break to form the proper neural pathway for bicycling.  Either way, they had demanded that their mother take them back to the Middle School and there, the children had put it all together.

Neanderdad had, for want of shorter hair, missed this great transformation from wobbly child to confident daredevil.  It was an iconic childhood moment.  It was a one way door.  It was change of state.  And Neanderdad had missed it.  Almost instantly, Neanderdad fell into deep despair.

“Lets go again,” said the boy.

“We want to show you, Daddy,” said the girl.

So Neanderdad packed up the minivan with bicycles and offspring and drove down to the Middle School.  There, the children promptly mounted their bicycles and began to ride.  And how they could ride!  The contrast between the crying, crashing children of the morning trip and these wheeling, whirling dervishes was astounding.  But as Neanderdad watched them ride by, he mourned the fact that he’d missed that magic, once-in-a-lifetime transition.  There was BEFORE and there was AFTER.  The change between the two was swift and irreversible.

“Watch this, Dad!” the girl said as she rode by and let go of the handlebars with one hand.

“Look,” the boy then yelled as he rode fast and tilted his bike in an impossibly sharp turn, causing the pedal to scrape the ground and kick up sparks.

And Neanderdad tried hard to become comfortable with AFTER.   Neanderdad waved and smiled at these feats.  He cheered at their rings and spins and spirals.   Then Neanderdad too passed from ignorance to understanding.  He now realized just how fast his children were growing, how easy it was to miss important moments, and how short his time with them was at this precious age of wonder.  Neanderdad reminded himself that he needed to appreciate these moments instead of over-thinking them.  And he needed to be there, as much as possible.  But, alas, remembering that important axiom was not like riding a bicycle.