Lessons on a Pirate Ship
By Erica Witsell
“This is the best weekend ever!” my five-year-old son Clayton proclaimed as he buckled himself into his booster seat. He proceeded to enumerate for his younger twin sisters all the glories of the fair.
“We’re going to see the animals! And the pig races! And the flying dogs! And Dad said we could have cotton candy!”
Dee Dee, caught up in his excitement, punctuated the end of each proclamation with her own little cheer: “Animals! Pig races! Dogs! Cotton candy!”
“And we’re going to ride the rides!” Clayton said. This finale, the part of the fair that for him trumped all others, was met with worried silence.
“It’s okay, Dee Dee,” I told my daughter. “You don’t have to go on the rides if you don’t want to. You can watch.”
And watch she did, quite contently, while her sister Sylvia went on the Nemo ride and Clayton and Daddy rode the caterpillar coaster. She gathered her courage for the flying dragons, and while Sylvia waved and posed like a movie star, she clutched the bar with both hands, her face frozen with worry and concentration.
After an hour of rides, we broke for lunch by the sea lion tank where the kids dutifully ate the carrot sticks and hard-boiled eggs I had smuggled in.
“If we eat this healthy stuff first,” Clayton explained to his father. “We’ll get the cotton candy.”
Soon after, with sticky hands and coated teeth, we headed for the Mooternity Ward, where a calf was born before our eyes. Its mother stared at us with wide, startled eyes as first the front hooves and then the black round nose of her calf emerged.
“Poor thing,” I muttered, more than once. The mama cow circled inside her small enclosure as if searching for somewhere else to be, away from all the staring eyes. Still, I pointed and exclaimed with the rest of the crowd, lifting my children up so they could see. You came out of your mother just like that, I told them, suddenly overcome by a desire to remind them of the births they would never remember, the miracle of their presence in a world that, mere seconds before, did not contain them.
Watching the wet calf sprawled in the hay, struggling to find its feet while the mother licked it with her thick tongue, I was struck not only by the raw intimacy of my connection to my children—their flesh was of my flesh—but by their undeniable and persistent separateness. There the little calf was, quite its own little unique being in the world, when just moments before the mother had been alone.
I squeezed Clayton’s shoulder. “Isn’t it amazing?”
“Yeah,” he agreed politely. “Can we go ride some more rides now?”
Our tickets were running out.
“One more ride each,” I said. I was growing weary of the crowds and noise, the endless temptations of food and prizes and Dee Dee’s corresponding chorus of “I want! I want!”
Clayton, on the other hand, allowed no distractions. His heart was set on one thing: he wanted to ride the pirate ship. As Clayton triumphantly measured himself against the Are you tall enough? post, his little sister Sylvia piped up.
“I want to ride with Clayton!” She was still sore that we hadn’t let her ride the teacups, so I let her check her height, too. I was certain she wouldn’t be tall enough, but the bored ride attendant dipped his head at her.
“She can ride if someone goes with her,” he said.
“I’ll go with them,” my husband volunteered, but no, I insisted I would go instead. The pirate ship was an indelible icon of the fairs of my youth. I could clearly remember climbing aboard with my best friend Mary, my chest tight with excitement, while Billy Joel’s You May Be Right blared over the speakers, beating its thrilling soundtrack in my brain.
Handing the last of our tickets, I directed my children to the center of the ship, the least scary row that Mary and I had always avoided when we could. Sylvia sat between Clayton and me; I kept my arm around her as the ride began.
It was exhilarating at first, the rush of the wind in our faces as the ship surged through the air. We screeched as we climbed higher, laughing happily.
But within moments, it all went wrong. Clayton’s face turned green; his jaw clenched.
“I don’t like it,” he said. His lips were pursed. Was he going to be sick?
“It’s too scary,” Sylvia observed matter-of-factly from beside me.
In an instant, all joy had fled. Oh, what had I done? I had willingly—intentionally—put myself into any parent’s worst nightmare. My children were terrified and there was absolutely nothing I could do. I clenched my arm tighter around Sylvia and tried to reassure Clayton.
“It will be over soon,” I promised.
He glanced at me hopefully, but I was wrong. We were climbing higher and higher, so high it was impossible not to think that in a moment the ship would break free from its finite pendulum and spin us wildly through the air.
“When?” Clayton groaned. “When will it be over? I want it to be over.” He had wrapped his arms around the bar, holding on with all his might.
I squeezed Sylvia to my side. She was very quiet.
“Just hold on, Clayton,” I said. I wanted desperately to reach for him, to pull his frightened body against mine, but I could not let go of Sylvia. She was so small it seemed to me that she could easily slip beneath the metal bar that ostensibly held us in.
“Just hold on, Clayton!” I repeated. “Look at your shoes. It will be over soon.”
But it was not over — The awful swinging went on and on. Suddenly I could stand it no longer. The ride had to be stopped, and there was only one person who could stop it.
My husband stood grinning at us from the ground, camera in hand.
“Get him off!” I screamed desperately.
I opened my mouth to call again when suddenly I felt a shift in the relentless momentum of the ship. Relief flooded me.
“It’s okay, Clayton,” I gasped. “It’s stopping.”
“Now. It’s stopping now.”
As soon as we were off the ship, I reached for Clayton, pulling him to me. We were safe! I felt hollowed-out by fear and adrenalin. I had not saved my children, but at least they were safe. I wanted to wrap my body around them; I wanted to drench them in apologies for having put them through such an ordeal.
But already Clayton was wriggling free. The green terror in his face was gone, and he grinned proudly at his dad.
“I rode the pirate ship!” he said. Already he was putting it on the list for next year’s fair.
I knelt down to hug Sylvia.
“Are you okay?” I asked. She was still so quiet. Had she been traumatized? What kind of awful parent was I, to take my three-year-old on such a ride? But my brave little girl seemed totally unfazed.
“The other boys were making happy faces because they were happy,” she explained. “But I was making a scared face because I was scared.”
And that was that. “Get him off!” my husband mimicked me, laughing, and suddenly we couldn’t stop giggling. We laughed about the pirate ship all afternoon. The next morning, it was the first thing Clayton wanted me to tell his teacher.
“Just don’t tell her how you screamed, ‘Get him off!'” he told me. “It’s too embarrassing.”
Erica Witsell the mother of three young children and a community college instructor of English as a second language. Following the birth of my twin daughters, she began a blog, On The Home Front, to capture the joys and challenges of mothering three young children while caring for a fourth.