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A Thornbush’s Embrace

Missy Nieveen Phegley


I find much joy in riding bikes, and I frequently imagine my kids sharing my love of riding as we go on all kinds of cycling adventures. So, one day when my five-year-old asked to ride her bike, I stopped what I was doing, told her to put tennis shoes on, stepped into some flip-flops, and headed out to the garage. I wheeled Molly’s pink bike and Auggie’s tricycle to the top of the driveway and looked down the steep concrete slope. I don’t understand anything about how percentages of grades work but imagine a 45-degree angle—that’s how steep this driveway felt. And that’s also why Molly and Auggie were explicitly told over and over they were, under no circumstances, allowed to ride their bikes down the driveway.  I heave the tricycle onto my shoulder, wheels pointing up in the air. Gripping the stem on Molly’s bike and starting my descent, I attempt to keep the bike moving forward in a straight line. The kids bounce around behind me and then, as kids do, decide to race to the bottom.  I try to keep pace but the weight of the tricycle pulls me backward as I fight gravity to control the bicycle. 

“Slow down,” I yell. “Be careful! Don’t fall.” 

I regret saying “don’t fall” as soon as the words come out of my mouth; I read somewhere in a how-to-mommy article to never tell children what you don’t want them to do because they will do exactly that. 

“Be careful. Slow DOWN!”

The bottom of the drive levels out to smooth black asphalt. The lane appears flat compared to the steep drive but gradually descends toward a rocky creek. A one-lane concrete bridge extends the lane, intersecting with a county road. The kids were allowed to play all the way up to the bridge, but they were not to go out on the Big Road. Living at the end of a country lane with only five homes scattered along the sides meant my kids did not have the healthy fear of cars that city kids have. Our neighbors always slowed their cars to a walking pace, and the kids knew they should move to the shoulder when a car needed to pass by them. If Molly and Auggie were absorbed in play and forgot to move out of the way, the neighbors patiently crept along until they reached their driveway.  But the Big Road was frequently traveled by teenagers in jacked-up trucks with loud mufflers and adults who knew every curve and kink in the road by heart, all driving at race pace to get to and from wherever they were headed. Two small children would have no chance if they popped onto the road as a driver rounded the curve. 

Once I reach the lane, I realize I had forgotten Molly’s helmet. I waver between trekking back up the hill to get the helmet and just letting her ride without it. The kids were itching to get on their bikes, and even though Auggie had collided with a tree the last time they rode, I convince myself odds were against another crash. And I don’t trust these two to leave them alone for several minutes with their own transportation, one of the more unfortunate disadvantages of raising independent children.

Molly still needs training wheels, so she has a hard time getting on and off the seat.  I help her up and remind her that she doesn’t have a helmet so she needs to be extra careful. The kids pedal around a bit and then Auggie’s back wheel drops off the asphalt, tipping him and the tricycle over. I scoop him up and attend to him for a few seconds, taking my eyes off Molly. 

When I look up, she is pedaling toward the bridge. “Slow down!” I yell. “Use your brakes! You don’t have a helmet.” I am careful not to say don’t crash.

She is clearly determined to ride to the bridge, as she does not brake but continues pedaling. She picks up speed as the lane gradually slopes toward the creek and then spills out onto the Big Road. “Slow down! Use your brakes!” 

She goes faster. The pedals begin spinning too quickly for her 5-year-old legs to keep up. I start running to catch up with her, still holding Auggie, bouncing him recklessly in my arms. I don’t remember hearing Molly scream, but I can see that fear has stiffened her limbs. 

“Use your brakes! Use your brakes! Squeeze the brake on the handlebar!” I can’t remember how her brakes work. “Pedal backwards!” Her feet no longer control the pedals. 

I hesitate long enough to dump Auggie and then keep running, shortening the gap. The flip-flops slow me down so I kick them off, not feeling the bite of gravel under my feet. “Use your brakes!” I scream. She passes the mailboxes, still gaining speed. “Use your brakes!” I hear the high pitch of her crying, my own fear thumping with my feet on the asphalt. 

She doesn’t brake. She doesn’t slow down. She gets closer and closer to the bridge, and the Big Road that borders the creek. Scenes of collisions—cars, bikes, blood, screams—flash through my brain. “Jump off! Jump off your bike!” 

She has time to jump before she gets to the bridge, but she freezes. 

“Jump off! Jump off!” 

This is her favorite way to dismount, so I call on all the synapses, energy, auras, telepathy, just whatever is in my body to will her to remember this and fill her with confidence to jump. 

“Jump off! Jump off!” 

And then she is up on the bridge. She shifts on the seat and I slow for a second, confident she can escape the Big Road and the cars that fly by.  She has plenty of room on the bridge to her left side, and she usually jumps off to the left. My panic lessens. She’s going to be OK. 

She throws her weight to the right. 

I stop breathing as she disappears head first over the side of the bridge. 

The only sound I hear is my bare feet hitting the asphalt. The silence sucks all the air out of my chest. My mind sees her bloody body, arms and legs splayed out at abnormal angles. The back of my eyes burn. My throat closes. I reach the side of the bridge and can’t see her brokenness. Silence feeds my fear. I don’t hear the flowing creek water or the leaves rustling in the trees. I hear…nothing. I edge down the overgrown creek bank, pushing branches aside. 

Why isn’t she crying?!? 

I creep down a little farther, and I see a small arm reaching up to me. I take hold of her hand and as I pull her toward me, the silence disintegrates. Her shoes scrape the rocky clay as she climbs up, leaves crumple as I pull her through the brush, and the creek water is flowing again. 

I hear her ragged breathing. Thank God I hear her breathing. 

I carry her up to the lane, stand her up, and inspect her. Her head-first fall was cushioned by dense thorns that cut up her face, arms, and back, but she was whole.  As my own breathing calms, tears squeeze from my eyes. The how-to-mommy articles say to emphasize the positive in a scary situation. I tell her how brave she was and how smart she was for jumping off her bike before she got to the Big Road. I hold her close while attempting to convince myself of the same. 


Molly started high school this year. She is a confident, independent, beautiful young woman. My fears have moved beyond falling down hills or crashing bikes, bloodied knees or broken bones. Now it’s broken hearts, bad influences, and lost potential. As the silence of her occasional teenage moods fill my home, I want to scream out “Slow down!” The how-to-mommy articles shift the approach for teenagers, now advocating the importance of all those Don’t statements. Don’t have sex. Don’t drink alcohol. Don’t do drugs. Don’t get bad grades. Don’t make friends with people who will be bad influences. But I know she doesn’t want to hear it. “I have it under control, Mom,” she tells me. As she moves further away from me toward adulthood, my only hope is that if she jumps off the wrong side to avoid danger in the road ahead, she has thorn bushes to cushion her fall.


Missy Nieveen Phegley has a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition and she teaches writing at Southeast Missouri State University, where she is also the University Assessment Coordinator and the Director of Composition. She is a regular contributor to outdoor recreation and wellbeing magazines. In her spare time, she teaches yoga on land and on water (on a stand-up paddleboard), and she is an avid cyclist with a preference for single-track and gravel.


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