The other morning, my younger daughter Clara had her inaugural orthodontist appointment. It would be the first of many, but this one was the most challenging because it was new, because she didn’t know what was going to happen, because it was unknown. Just before we left, my older daughter came and whispered in my ear, “Clara told me that she is really scared.”
I nodded. “Okay. I’m on it.”
As we drove to her appointment, Clara was silent. Glancing in my rearview mirror, I asked, “Are you okay, Pumpkin Pie?”
Clara nodded and continued to look out the window. As we approached downtown, she asked, “Do you remember that big hill?”
Even though her comment was out of the blue, I didn’t need to ask what big hill she meant. I knew. “I do remember that big hill, Clara.”
“It was a really big hill,” she stated emphatically.
The really big hill had been smack in the middle of a family bicycling outing last summer. My husband and older daughter, both strong riders, were well ahead of us, almost out of sight. As the littlest, Clara was pedaling hard to keep up. I kept shouting words of encouragement, but as she got more and more tired, her cheerful demeanor became grim and silent.
The breaking point was when we rounded a bend and a large hill loomed ahead of us.
“Do we have to go up that big hill?” Clara asked, tears crowded her words.
We did. It was the only way to get to where we were going. “It’s okay, Clara. We’ll just take it slow. Slow but steady.”
She hunched her thin shoulders and continued to pedal. As the grade steepened I was sure we were going to have to get off our bikes and walk, but ahead of me, Clara shifted gears, and pumped her legs harder. I could hear her saying something, but I couldn’t make out the words. “What’s that, Honey?” I asked.
When I pulled up a little closer behind, I realized that she wasn’t talking to me, she was talking to herself. She was chanting over and over again, “I am doing it. I am doing it. I am doing it.”
Of course, I immediately thought of the little blue engine in the children’s book who climbed a hill while repeating, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” But I liked Clara’s version better–it packed a bigger punch. She wasn’t speculating on her possibility of success, she was marking her progress towards her goal. She was doing it. One part little engine, one part Nike ad.
And to my utter amazement, she made it to the top, wobbling crazily on the last few feet, but never getting off her bike. I cheered wildly when we crested the apex, but she didn’t crack a smile. She was that tired. But later, when we finally got back to the car, she was proud of herself. She had done it. She had conquered the big hill.
We all have our own big hills to face–job changes, relationship challenges, health issues, financial crises–times where we have to put our heads down and pedal harder. It’s easy to become a little teary and scared along the way. But how much we wobble isn’t what matters. What matters is that we are doing it. That we, like Clara, remind ourselves that we are doing it so we can find the inner strength to shift gears and pump our legs with a little more determination.
And even though we may be weary at the top, each big hill we crest becomes a touchstone of courage that can be used later in life. “I am doing it” becomes “I did that so I can do this.” With enough hills under our belts, we can trust that our legs and hearts are strong enough to take us anywhere we need to go no matter how steep the incline. A message we need to remind ourselves of often.
At a red light a few blocks from the orthodontist’s office, I turned in my seat and faced Clara. “You were amazing going up that hill. I thought for sure that we were going to have to stop and walk, but not you. You were strong and super brave and you did it!”
Clara grinned so widely that I could see all the beautiful crooked teeth we were on our way to have straightened. Clara nodded. “I’m going to do fine at my appointment, right Mom?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” I told her, watching her crest one more big hill.