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August 31, 2015

Stronger & Braver: What I Learned from Cycling 300 Miles with My 12-Year-Old Son.

Cindy Anderson and son

I’m cold, my shoulders hurt, and my fingers are numb.

The 25-mile-an-hour wind keeps whipping past me, pushing me sideways and pulling me back.

My twelve-year-old is next to me, cycling hard.

We’re thirty miles into a 300-mile bike ride across Minnesota, participating, along with 700 other people, in an event sponsored by the national MS society. I look ahead and see a half-mile of steep hill in front of us. The black-and-gray road seems to go straight up for as far as my eyes can see.

I see a stream of cyclists, many of whom have passed us, wobbling and struggling up the hill.

We aren’t going very fast, but we’re moving.

“This is hard, Mom,” Sam says grinning, as another two cyclists pedal around us and pull ahead.

“Yup, it is. But we can do it, Sam,” I tell him. “Remember? We just need to use mindfulness. Just keep your head down, and only look a foot or two in front of you. Don’t worry about the people passing you or what lies ahead. You’re strong. You’re not even out of breath.”

I put my bike in a very easy gear, and concentrate on keeping my legs spinning. I look over at Sam. His helmet is crooked and his face is wrought with concentration, but he’s looking down instead of at me and his feet are steadily turning the pedals. I knew he was okay—that he was strong.

I think he knew he was strong too. And in this moment that seems like a miracle to me.

Sam’s infancy was very hard for him and for me. He was born crying, and he kept crying for many months, it seemed. First he had colic, then severe acid reflux, then ear infections, then asthma, then more stomachaches, then bladder challenges, then allergies, then a weakened immune system.

It seemed like he never caught a break. A month before Sam was born, my husband and I had moved and started new jobs, and balancing Sam’s health with a new job was very stressful.

I felt like I never slept, which was stressful. It felt like I never got a break either.

There were many times that I wondered what kind of life Sam would have after having such a hard infancy. I felt like I failed him. I felt like if I had only been there more, protected him more, knew more about how to help him, I could have helped him. If only I had tried harder, been smarter, or had more experience, his little body would have been healthier and stronger.

If only I had been better about taking those prenatal vitamins more consistently, or hadn’t vomited for nine months of my pregnancy, maybe he’d be okay. If only I had more support or closer relationships in our new city, maybe I wouldn’t be so clueless or so stressed about his health or the life changes we’d been through. I worried about his size. I worried about his pain. I worried that I was neglecting him somehow by not continuing to explore every possible option to make him better.

A week after our bike trip across Minnesota, my husband took Sam for his yearly physical. Sam wanted to go out for cross-country in the fall and needed his physician’s okay to participate.

“How did it go?” I texted Sam after the doctor’s appointment.

“Great,” he replied.

I stared at the text with tears in my eyes. I never thought I would see the day when Sam’s physical would result in a “great.”

Never.

A little while later, Mike texted me. “He’s at the 60th percentile for height and 70th percentile for weight.” I had to stare at those words for a while too. This boy, this child of mine who had struggled to hold down food, was now average to above average. This child who was the smallest in his class for so many years, was now healthy and growing.

This child who’d had daily stomachaches, constipation, diarrhea, reflux, screaming and crying fits over the pain in his belly, had made it through. I could imagine the kindly smile on Sam’s pediatrician’s face. He probably had no sense of the beneficence of his test results, his words, his no-nonsense confidence in Sam’s exam.

But I did. I felt it sink into my bones.

Gratitude oozed through my pores, into my soul.

The journey from Sam’s early childhood to here was not an easy one. It wasn’t a linear path from point A to point B. It was circular, up and down, a winding road demanding persistence, bravery, and gumption, not unlike this bike ride across Minnesota. It was painful, frightening, debilitating, and devastating for Sam.

And it was overwhelming and lonely for me to have the responsibility of a child with health concerns, particularly when there were no clear answers. It felt like people were passing us in their growth and development, just like they’re passing us now on this long, arduous bike ride. Other kids and parents were healthier and developing at faster rates; other parents seemed more confident and assured in their role. I’m certain that Sam often felt scared, hopeless, and frustrated too. But we kept going, one day at a time, sometimes a few minutes at a time.

The breakthrough came when I myself developed stomach problems about four years ago, when Sam was eight. At that point, my physician recommended a gluten-free diet for me. That’s where it started. “If I need this, Sam surely needs this,” I thought. Since I did the cooking, our whole family ended up gluten free. And Sam started to get better. Slowly but surely, the stomachaches stopped.

Slowly but surely, he gained weight, he grew, he was happier, and he was more confident.

Sam had always been a good biker. When he was three, he would spin those little tires quickly across the pavement, and as he got older he biked to school with his friends, accompanied by a parent. But I was surprised when, a year ago, Sam asked me to accompany him on this long bike trip. “Okay,” I told him. “But we have to start training now.”

And train we did. We found a small bike gym with a trainer that worked with us. I saw Sam’s confidence in his physical strength grow. He was often the only kid in the gym, but the patrons were kind and supportive to him. Everyone seemed to know his name. It seemed that as the year went on, his confidence continued to grow and his illness continued to decrease its hold on him.

Now it’s the last day of the bike ride, and we’re approaching the end. “How much longer do we have, mom?” Sam asks.

“I think five more miles or so,” I reply. But all of a sudden, we see a big red blow-up sign that reads, “Finish.” Sam’s dad Mike and his brother Jonah are there, clapping and yelling. Lots of people are there with them, taking pictures. A little boy announces us as we near the finish line.

Everyone is excited and happy. I’m a little taken aback by the fanfare.

“We did it, Mom. It’s the end!” Sam yells excitedly.

“We did. We did!” I yell back. “You go first, Sam, “ I say.

“No, Mom. We did this together. We finished together.”

So we ride across the finish line, side by side. Having met the challenge. Stronger and braver, moment by moment.

Together.

This won’t be the end of biking for Sam, nor will it be the end of his stomach issues. But we’ve reached a critical point, a point that marks Sam’s determination, strength, grit, perseverance, and health.

Whatever comes next, this is a moment to celebrate and to savor for all time.

Cindy Anderson son

 

 

Author: Cindy Nichols Anderson

Editor: Renée Picard

Photos: author’s own 

 

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Cindy Anderson

Cindy Nichols Anderson, Ph.D., ABPP, is a Clinical Child Psychologist who owns and manages a psychology practice in Coralville, Iowa. She regularly writes on issues related to mental health on her blog, the Hope Springs Behavioral Consultants Well-Being Blog, and has also authored professional journal publications. She lives at home with her two children, her spouse, two dogs and a turtle.