Hey Dad, look at me!


Father teaches his young son to ride a bicycle
Father teaches his young son to ride a bicycle

I was told this one by one of the fathers in a Parish where I used to work - I’ll call him Tom.
He told me that many times in his life, his own father had told him that one of the happiest days of his entire life had been the day he taught Tom to ride a bicycle. A small thing perhaps, but to Tom’s Dad, it symbolised everything that he had hoped to pass on to Tom in wisdom and wealth. It was a symbol - a brief encapsulating vignette - of everything fatherhood had meant to him.

Tom loved and admired his father and even forgave him some of his mistakes. And as he grew older and himself got married, he began to look forward to the day when he too would teach his young son to ride a bike. It was almost the first thing that came to his mind when his son Alex was born and a frequently recurring thought in the subsequent years of Alex’s infant life. From the age of four, Tom found in himself a growing impatience for his son to grow old enough that Tom could finally teach him to ride a bicycle and so close a small but symbolically important circle of life.

Finally, on his son’s sixth Christmas day, the new bicycle was unwrapped with great ceremony. And, with great patience, Father and son waited till after Church, after Christmas dinner (Mother insisted!) and even after the Queen’s Speech (Granny insisted!) before going out to the park. And there, over the next hour and a half, the boy learned that riding a bicycle is a lot more difficult than it looks; and the man learned that teaching a child to ride a bicycle is exactly as difficult as it looks.

At the end of that time, Tom’s son was distraught - covered in grass stains, bumps, scratches and bruises and crying freely; Tom himself covered with shame, frustration and confusion and also close to tears. He was bitterly disappointed. This wasn’t at all the way his father had described it. The two of them trailed home, despondent and defeated, Tom pushing the now unwanted bike and pulling along his unwilling, unhappy, bewildered son.

Tom doesn’t give in easily; his son takes after him. Every Sunday afternoon following, Tom and Alex went out to learn to ride the bike. It took months - three months of bruised elbows, cut knees and (in Alex’s phrase) “pints of tears”. But Tom kept him at it because - well he was never quite sure - but he thought he could see improvement with every session. 

Finally, one Sunday afternoon, on the broad walk right in front of Kensington palace, Alex got the bike going wobbling a bit from side to side, but with neither of the stabiliser wheels actually touching the ground. He got perhaps fifty yards before turning round and shouting back, “hey Dad, look at me!”. And then, of course, he fell off again. Tom says that in that instant, even as he ran to pick up his boy, he knew for the first time, exactly what his father had been talking about.

Distance lends enchantment; the remembered past is nearly always summer. The memory that abides is the triumph, achievement, joy and pride. The scrapes, bumps and bruises fade. Even pints of tears eventually evaporate. It is a struggle to bring up children in the way we believe to be right, according to the traditions and Faith of our Fathers. But it is never less than worthwhile.

One of the great joys of life is the knowledge that who we are, how we have lived, what we have achieved does not die with us - it does not even go to heaven with us. It is passed on to the next generation. It is the hope of all of those who are given the sacred responsibility of parenthood that one day they will  be given the gift of seeing their child making a way in the world, but remembering to turn and shout ‘Hey Dad, look at me!”

Paul O'Reilly SJ