Excerpted with permission from the new book Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.Copyright © 2018 by Wendy Mitchell. All rights reserved.
BY WENDY MITCHELL
The wind is brushing my hair, the ground moving beneath me. I look to my right at the river rushing by alongside me, and the faces speeding past in the opposite direction on the path. We say hello, I wobble slightly, but this feels like freedom, like independence, more like me. It’s a similar feeling to running again, except it’s not my feet that are hitting the pavement, but the wheels of my new pink bike. Getting outside, into the fresh air, connects me to a place where dementia doesn’t exist, just space and a big sky above me.
I’d been out for a sunny walk with Sarah when we’d seen signs for a bicycle festival in Rowntree Park. We followed the river path into the park and there was a circle of colorful tents all displaying bikes for sale. We ambled round with no intention to buy and then I’d seen it, this bright pink bike propped up, an old-fashioned wicker basket strapped to the front, a brown leather seat and handlebar grips. It was perfect.
“Are you sure?” Sarah had said, but before she’d had a chance to question me, I’d paid the man and even picked out a pink bell and helmet to match. I wasn’t particularly a fan of pink, but I knew I’d never lose it, or forget which one was mine with such bright paintwork.
Today is my first proper run out on it. I’d been a bit wobbly to start with, but a few minutes down the road I’d found the rhythm of the bike and got to grips with the brakes. As the world rushes past, I remember how painful it had been to give up my driving license, but somehow this takes some of the hurt away and as I cover more ground my confidence grows. I remember how driving had become impossible, the speed of the car not giving me enough time to process, to work out what to do before a junction, but this bike moves more slowly, buys me more time for my brain to catch up. I see the junction approaching and I pull on the brakes. Everything is going well. I go to turn right, and then something happens, a disconnect. The next thing I know I’m on the tarmac, gravel biting into my flesh, stinging pain, a moment’s disorientation. I’m in a crumpled heap, bruised and confused. How did that happen? I pick myself and the bike up off the road, and look around. Thankfully it’s quiet; there are no cars. I know I’ve been lucky. I limp home, wheeling my bike at my side, going over and over what happened. There must have been a pothole in the road, something that caught the wheel and made me lose balance.
A few days later I know I need to get back in the saddle. I try again, this time more tentatively, but then I feel the breeze beneath my helmet, the world whizz by, and my confidence returns. There must have been something in the road before. The same junction approaches. I scan the tarmac, but I see nothing. I go to turn right and the same thing happens, a disconnect somewhere, faulty wiring. I pull myself up off the road. Again, I’m lucky. What is it about my brain that means I can’t turn right? It’s not just the car, but the bike too. I look at my new pink bike, the perfect paintwork now scratched from my two falls, and my heart sinks. There must be a way of outwitting this disease, of keeping this freedom.
My bike stands motionless for days while I think about it, and then it comes to me: a route to the shops and home where I only need to take left-hand turns. I can do this in one big circle. I pull on my helmet and take the handlebars of my bike, wheeling it out into the road and climbing on. As I swing my leg over the saddle, there is that moment’s hesitation, an anxiety that tries to take hold inside, but I ignore it, knowing if I pay attention to every single knot in my stomach I’ll be tied up for the rest of my life. I push away from the pavement and I’m off, that same light feeling in my ears, the world easing past, the smiles, the hellos from fellow cyclists, the nods of admiration for the outrageous color of my bike. The first turn left approaches—easy. The second, the third, all of them done. I arrive at the shops and turn left to complete my circle and make it all the way home. As I approach home, my heart is racing, blood pounding at my temples, not with anxiety but with triumph. I climb off and prop my bike up against the wall.
There will be more rides out; there will be the rose tree and two bags of compost I balance in my basket, wobbling all the way home, hoping that Gemma and Sarah don’t spot me and tell me off. There will be more of the outdoors, more freedom, independence. There will be all the journeys I take with a smile on my face, knowing I have outwitted Alzheimer’s again.