Roller Coaster Ride

You inhale deeply as you approach the wooden archway. A voice from the speaker above you and to your right is midway through its recording: “…so ride at your own risk. Only you know your limitations.”

 

You pull the corners of your mouth into a forced smile at the child who stands beside you. She has asked you to join her on this journey. It would be pure cowardice to retreat.

 

Together, you weave through the maze of metal fencing to find your place in line. The bars are painted a dark red. Shallow scratches and deep gashes in the paint show the original steely gray underneath. You rest your palms against the horizontal bars at your waist, but pull them back as you consider all of the sticky, sweaty hands that have blazed this trail before you, pioneers in tank tops and athletic shorts.

 

You glance at your child who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with you. You notice that you are eye level now. When did she get so tall or when did you shrink? She leans her back against the bar behind her, looking carefree and relaxed. A clattering sound rumbles over your heads, followed seconds later by deafening screams, and then both sounds are gone in a rush of air.

 

You shuffle forward a few feet. Conversations circle around you. Small children whine about the wait. Mothers remind them to be patient. A girl braids her friend’s hair into a long, tight rope. You turn away when you see a young couple embrace—too much affection in such a confined space.

 

Finally, you see the loading area. You watch people—brave souls just like you—as they board the cars. You fight the urge to salute them and their bravery. The affectionate couple from before is seated and both of them look nervous.

 

“I’m a little scared,” your child says quietly. You fake enthusiasm and confidence. You tell her, “Ah, come on. It’ll be fun. I promise.”

 

The cars return with their windswept occupants, smiling broadly. You wonder if their smiles are from joy or relief or both. Either way, you are encouraged that they returned without injury.

 

Your child slides into the car and you follow her. You attempt to steady trembling hands as you buckle the thick seat belt and pull down the padded bar. The bored, teen-aged park employee walks past each pair and tugs at their restraints. Internally, you question the extent of the training that allows him to operate this giant death trap.

 

It’s too late to turn back now. The cars rumble away slowly, teasing you with their nonchalant speed. You know this is a trick. You know this ride is designed to rattle your fillings and challenge your bladder.

 

The car climbs the steep hill with a repetition of clicks. At the top of the hill, you have only the briefest moment to assess the situation. In that moment, you calculate the risks and search your memory bank for any relevant news stories of crashes and negligent park staff. Then, you fall. The rapid descent lifts you ever so slightly from your seat. Your heart races and your stomach drops.

 

You chance a look at your child next to you—her eyes shut tight and her hands thrown into the air. She smiles. You scream. You find that you are grabbing her arm, involuntarily. The fear you felt before for your safety has been transferred to fear for hers.

 

When the ride is jerked to an abrupt end, you step out of the car and onto the platform with shaky legs. “That was fun!” your child says, as she bounces up and down with the release of pent-up energy. “Wanna do it again?” You manage a weak smile in response.

 

The endless recording continues as you exit the archway: “Only you know your limitations.” You chuckle at the thought of fully knowing something as fluid as your limitations. You follow your child away from the ride, watching her long legs manage a smooth, assertive stride and you wonder where this confidence comes from.

 

Suddenly, you wake up. It was all a dream. You’re not at an amusement park, but safely in your bed. As you examine the feelings of riding those ups and downs with your child, you realize that it’s May and your child is graduating from high school. Eighteen years of being her mom, and then this. Though there are giant question marks looming overhead as big as thunderclouds which seemed to be raining down their periods in the form of hail stones, you know there are sunny days ahead, just as you know that you are the proud parent of a Class of 2020 graduate.

Birdsong

We sit on the front porch—my son and I—as we quietly wait. Our lunches sit atop two T.V. trays. We slap our arms when we feel a bug come to rest on our skin. The mosquitos are in full force after the early morning rain but we don’t complain. We only wait.

The sharp smell of bug spray mingles with the more pleasing aroma of hot dogs, our not-so-nutritious lunch that happens to be his favorite.

A book sits on my lap. It’s the book I read him twice yesterday. It tells the story of a little girl who explores her backyard. In the book she discovers friendly ladybugs and a caterpillar in a cocoon. She finds spiders spinning webs. She sees a baby bird that has fallen from a tree and the little girl’s mother replaces it in the nest, safe and sound.

The little girl describes different ways to feed birds which is why we were in the kitchen just half an hour or so ago slathering pine cones with peanut butter and rolling them in birdseed. And just half an hour or so before that we were at the store buying birdseed and a new birdfeeder.

I dragged a stepladder from the garage and set it up under a tree on uneven ground. As I wobbled slightly on the top step hanging the birdfeeder and tying the pinecones with green yarn to the branches, my son said, “Careful, Mama. Careful.”

So now we sit and there is no bird in sight. The swelling and then fading sound of cicadas vibrates all around us, possibly mocking our efforts that may have been in vain.

I look at my son. His plate is empty and he stares towards the trees expectantly. He’s rarely this still and quiet. I silently pray. “Just one bird. Please. Just one.”

Our yard is normally full of birds but it’s a hot, muggy afternoon and they stay away. In my head, I know they will come back. Big blackbirds will scare away the smaller songbirds and squirrels will eat more than their intended share. This has always been the way, but right now I want him to see the birds. I want to protect him from disappointment. In my heart, I know that he will be sad and I begin to regret setting him up for this defeat.

Most of us are wired to protect those who are younger and more vulnerable than ourselves. This is a good trait. This is humanity being humane. But there are times when we mothers go a little overboard. We scoot every obstacle out of the path and make sure there is only smooth sailing ahead. We forget how good it feels to find our own way out of a sticky situation—problem solving and conflict resolution in action—so we don’t let our children do the same.

I want to tell him all of this while also apologizing for the disappointing nature experiment. Instead, I step inside and bring out a shoebox of toys for my son to play with while we keep our front porch vigil. He shakes his head and climbs in my lap.

We watch a bee dive into a flower and two snails crawling slowly along the brick steps. A small twig falls from a bush onto a web, bouncing the spider resting in the center.

I give my son a ten-minute warning before naptime in case he wants to play. I study his face for signs of sorrow but I see none. He seems satisfied in spite of the outcome. This is encouraging. I know that there are bound to be disappointing days ahead, just as I know there will be lovely and magical moments, too.

Just before we step inside to prepare for his nap, we see a tiny, gray chickadee flying high up in the branches. We stop and sit on the step, watching to see if it will find our offerings. It flies up to the feeder, nibbles, and flies away. Then it returns to the feeder and chirps. A few more chickadees arrive, darting back and forth tentatively.

Soon, two cardinals join them and the chickadees flutter away. My son smiles up at me with bright white teeth too big for his little face and lays his head on my arm. I fight the urge to weep, partly because he will hush me for being too loud and scaring away the birds.

Eventually we go inside and he lays down for a rest. I find the record of bird calls his grandpa gave us and play it for him on his sister’s record player while he naps. I like the idea of him drifting off to sleep with birdsong echoing in his ears.

 

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