White Bird

from Rita Deierlein

I was on my third coast-to-coast bicycle trip—this time starting in California, and ending in Virginia. We began as a rather disjointed group of seven. No one person was familiar with more than one or two of the others. Without friendship to unite us, we soon separated according to how fast we liked to ride.

My partner was a man with whom I shared nothing except our pace. Soon that tenuous bond broke, and most days I was alone, which suited me fine. There is safety in numbers, but even on group rides I usually found a way to spend most of the time by myself.

This day it was pouring rain and by mid-afternoon already dark. I had been riding for hours with my head down, watching nothing but the spinning tire and the wet road in front of me. Slick pavement is dangerous, and to make matters worse, there was construction going on and sometimes debris on the road.

I had no idea where my companion was. Miles ahead or miles behind, I didn’t know. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was completely alone, in dangerous conditions, in a part of the country known to be hostile to cyclists. In this area, they don’t appreciate our fancy bikes and funny clothes. Sometimes they express their displeasure by throwing beer cans and bottles at us as they whiz by in their cars.

Most of the time riding my bike, I feel a wonderful sense of freedom and self-reliance. Nothing holds me back; I can go anywhere, do anything. Now I felt a sudden anxiety. After hours of riding in the cold, wet weather, my hands and feet were numb, which would make it harder to get away if I had to flee.

The Jesuits say, “Give us a child until the age of ten and we’ll have him for life.” There must be some truth in this, because in my hour of need what I drew upon was the training I had received as a child from my devout Catholic mother.

She was fond of calling upon God. “Offer Thee, Sweet Jesus,” my mother would say. Or, when in need of help, “Come, Holy Ghost.”

Alone on my bicycle, I found myself chanting, “Come, Holy Ghost. Come, Holy Ghost. Come, Holy Ghost.” A few minutes later something white by the side of the road caught my attention. I hadn’t looked up all day. Now I glanced to the left.

Spray-painted on a big granite rock were the words “HOLY GHOST.”

“Thanks!” I said to God, the Holy Ghost, and my long-departed Catholic mother. Anxiety vanished, and I relaxed again into the pure joy of cycling.

When the ride was over, I decided to visit my sister in New Jersey before heading back to California. I could have cycled to her place, but once I reached the Atlantic Ocean, I was ready for a break. I put myself and my bike on a bus heading north.

I found two empty seats together and settled down by the window for a quiet, comfortable ride. Just before the doors closed, a big, tough-looking guy got on. The only seat left on the bus was the one next to me. Instead of two seats, now I had three-quarters of one.

Looks are deceiving. He turned out to be a real sweetheart. We had a delightful conversation all the way to his stop a few towns before mine. “I feel we are just becoming friends, and now you have to go,” I said sadly.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny figurine of a sparkling white bird. “The bird of friendship,” he said as he handed it to me.

Every good Catholic girl knows what the white dove represents. “Come, Holy Ghost,” I had said, and there It was in the center of my palm.