Reading Time: ~8 minutes
"Wheels" originally appeared in Issue 13 of Tahoma Literary Review. There are a lot of weighty themes to unpack in this essay, and yet it begins with a breezy bike ride. I marvel at Richard Hoffman's ability to convey genuine wonder, and such love for his grandson and his brothers, while weaving in both past tragedy and current peril. It's no wonder that the work was listed in Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2018, as selected by Robert Atwan in Best American Essays 2019.
Just across the street from our house, you pick up the bike path to the suburbs west of the city, and my grandson and I often ride on it for about a mile and a half to a café in the next town where we rest with a cold drink and a snack before heading back the other way. It’s just about the right distance for an eight-year-old and an old man. Halfway, there is a little park by a pond where we have sometimes fished, where we often stop to sit and talk, or to watch parents and small children throw torn bread to the ducks and Canada geese just as we used to do, back before D became what he calls one of the big kids. Some days we stop there for a long time and just sit by the water, but on this day he’s anxious to get back on his bike, not because he has anywhere else to be, but because he has just too much energy coursing through him today to sit on a rock and take turns throwing pebbles with his grandfather.
It may seem strange for a man in his sixties to admire an eight-year- old boy, but I do. He is a hunter-gatherer of experiences, understandings, meanings, with a kind of curiosity and an attendant integrative power that is, in fact, his careful though unscripted assembly of himself, a continual choosing that makes him more and more a person. I suppose all children who are healthy and protected, and therefore free, are engaged in this process. In any case, I admire the way he has taken what he needs from us, from his parents and grandparents, his friends, his teachers, from the sea-creatures and other animals he loves to read about, from the clouds and stars, from the strangers he’s watched and the places he’s been. The world is krill to him and as it passes through his mind he extracts its nourishment and grows strong. It may be that other family members, those he does not know because they died before he was born, left him the principles on which he bases his instant to instant decisions about what to take in and what to disregard; in this respect he honors my parents and grandparents and his entire lineage, Black and white, Jamaican and European.
Here I have to unfool myself about what matters and what doesn’t: no one in this country can ignore the fact that there is a force-field of white fearfulness into which my grandson moves ever more deeply the older he gets, and I can’t fool myself that we, on both sides of his family, will be able to spare him very much of that, for all our love. Even in our city — Cambridge, Massachusetts, supposed bastion of progressive values — I can recall white parents on occasion directing their little playground rats away from him until I speak to him; then they would flash me a wan smile meant, I guess, to deny their motive. Or maybe it expresses their chagrin at not having noticed that the boy was with me, the white guy who presumably makes it all right for this Black boy to be there.
We slot our bikes into the rack and hang our helmets on the handlebars. The café is crowded and there’s a line to the counter. At a table nearby, a teenage boy in a wheelchair is being fed through a straw by a woman who looks to be his mother. I recognize the round face, the narrow shoulders, the lolling head of someone with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the disease that killed my brothers, Bobby and Mike. The boy raises a hand and it flops to the side of the chair. His mother replaces it on his tray. The way he struggles to lift his head to look back and up at his mother behind his wheelchair twists something loose inside me, a memory: pushing my brother’s wheelchair, attending him, coming around front when I note him struggling to turn to me. The boy’s mother comes around and kneels in front of him, and I feel my brother Bobby’s presence as I have not for a long time.
We grew up together, a year apart, sometimes mistaken for twins, and it wasn’t until he was just about D’s age that his illness began to separate us, when he couldn’t keep up, when more and more often he fell behind or simply fell. In a way, Bobby has remained with me through the decades since his death, most often as a vague pull, a neces- sity to describe or explain things, a habit I developed as I rode my bicycle farther and farther from home, returning to him in his wheel- chair with whatever stories, observations, experiences I’d gathered. Still, there are certain times when he feels present to me, when he is even after all these years right here with me, as if I am once again pushing his chair, and I almost want to bend forward to hear him.
D is staring at the boy. I distract him with a shoulder squeeze, “Hey, focus now. What do you want to eat?” He can’t help himself, he turns to look back at the boy. Then he turns to me and, mimicking the boy’s movements, asks in a whisper, “What’s wrong with that kid?”
I’m surprised by the wave of anger that washes over me then. I suppose it is a kind of memory, this emotion. I used to get furious at people who stared at my brother as if he was not my brother whose muscles were betraying him but something altogether different, as if he was something wrong — sometimes I’d snap at them, “Take a picture!” And then it really is as if my brother is right there with me. “Easy,” he says, just as he used to. I was always more upset by people’s stares than he was. Easy. And then more often than not he would say hello to the person who’d been staring at him, requiring a response from them, turning himself from object to subject. Still, I can’t entirely get the edge off my voice when I say to D, “Don’t do that. He might think you’re making fun of him.”
“But I wasn’t,” D insists in a loud whisper, “I wasn’t making fun of him!”
“I know, D. I know you weren’t. Let’s order.” He steals another look at the boy, whose mother is pushing him toward the exit. A man puts down his newspaper and helps with the door. We take our chips and sodas to a table by the window.
We don’t seem to be able to leave the moment behind; it hangs between us, so I decide to tell D the story of my brother. I don’t mention my younger brother Mike, dead of the same illness, and I tell him a version of the story that I hope is suited to his eight-year-old’s understanding. If I remember correctly, it went something like this:
“That boy who was here in the wheelchair? He was sick with an illness called muscular dystrophy. I know because my brother, Bobby, had it. It makes your muscles weaker and weaker so you can’t do the things you used to be able to do, like run or ride your bike, or even walk after a while. Even the muscles that hold you up straight or help you hold up your head get weak.” D pulls his legs up so his feet are on the chair with him, his chin on his knees. “He would have been your granduncle.”
I can see that I have to explain what I mean by grand “Because I’m your grandfather, my brother would be called your granduncle.”
“Oh.” “He was really smart, especially at math. And he read lots of books. He loved watching baseball on TV and keeping score of all the games.”
“Wait,” D says. “Did he die?” And he says the word “die” as if it might mean fly to the moon or sink to the bottom of the sea.
“Yes.” I think there must be more to say, but I don’t know what it is. I busy myself with pulling apart the top of the bag of chips. “You want me to open yours? Can you get it?”
D shakes his head, taking it as a challenge, and deftly pulls open the bag along the seal. He puts a large intact chip in his mouth. “You like seafood?”
“No!” I laugh and turn away. That’s when I notice the man a couple of tables from us abruptly turn his head away. I feel sure he’s been staring at us.
When I was a boy, I used to ride my bike to the library and bring home books for Bobby, mostly biographies of athletes and books of American history. I cannot keep the chronology straight: it seems now that right about the time his wheelchair became a constant feature of Bobby’s life, right around D’s age now, my bicycle became a constant part of mine. My bike took me away from home, away from my brother, into an exhil- arating freedom. I rode my bike to the park, to the creek, to the other side of town. I rode to my friends’ houses, rode to the store for my mother, rode to the library. And into danger. Not only from cars, but from the sexual predations of adults as well. “Come here, kid. Come here. I won’t hurtcha....” Although it is true that most kids are abused by someone they know, in my own case a baseball coach, it’s also true that those threats were everywhere; besides, I rode my bike to baseball practice.
I got the bicycle. Bobby got the wheelchair.
My brother is alive in me as a habit of mind, by virtue of my collecting things to bring him, by my thinking about what would amuse or delight him. No doubt this began with those trips uptown to the library, but later my hunting and gathering took the form of selecting from my experiences of the day — the ballgame, the movie, the funny, stupid, or sometimes interesting things I heard people say as I rode my bike through the streets and alleys and parks.
When Bob died, it was as if our roles were suddenly reversed, as if, for the first time, he had bested me: I was always the one who did things that he couldn’t. It was less a competition between us, though, than a goad. One of us had to do for both of us, but that had always been me, the active one. When he died, along with my grief and my anger at the unfairness of his life, I felt that he had done something amazing. Now it seems to me a strange, perhaps perverse, morbid, and self-centered view.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” D says. “You know where it is, right?” He nods. As soon as he is around the corner to the restrooms, the man who has been watching us gets up and moves toward the mens’ room. I can almost hear Bobby again, Easy. But he doesn’t know the things I know, the things I learned, free in the world on my bicycle. I recall that the bathroom’s a one-seater and I’m relieved to see the man waiting outside, leaning against the wall. I pretend to read the notices and business cards on the community bulletin board in the hallway until D comes out. Then I go back to the table with him. I want the man to know he was noticed.
“Finish your drink,” I say, “It’s time to get going.” I drain my bottle of Orangina.
Outside, we get our bikes from the rack, fasten our helmets, start out. “It feels like rain,” I say. I can feel it in my knees, neck, and lower back.
D passes me, whooping. He tries to pop a wheelie. I pedal along in my geriatric way, feeling heavy. I’m still thinking of my brother who flew to the moon, who sank to the bottom of the sea.
“Grandpa, c’mon!” D yells back over his shoulder. He wants me to catch up.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Hoffman had this to say about his piece:
I wrote this essay because being a grandfather means, among other things, taking stock; and because the dead are never very far away; and because children who are both healthy and protected are no longer the norm, if they ever were; and because racism stubbornly abides and these days seems even to revel in its ugly delusions. It’s a challenge to try to parse any loving relationship, to contextualize it, to attempt to know it fully and in sharp focus, and the relationship to a loved grandchild is especially vulnerable to mushiness: I’m not sure I was entirely successful here.
Richard Hoffman (richardhoffman.org) is the author of seven books and is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College and an Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University.