By Elrena Evans
My nine-year-old son is terrified of roller coasters.
Or, more accurately, my son is terrified of many things, “roller coasters” being only one entry in a long list of terror-producing entities. Roller coasters are notable here, not because they cause anxiety, but because, despite being petrified of them, my son also loves them.
“When I grow up I’m gonna design this roller coaster!” It’s a common refrain in our household, followed by several minutes (or sometimes, agonizingly, what feels like hours) of technical descriptions, sound effects, and high-energy charades. When questioned by his siblings if he’s actually going to ride any of these roller coasters he plans to design, his answer is always the same:
“No way. But Mom will ride them for me.”
I’m a bit of a roller coaster enthusiast myself, but I’m quick to qualify that enthusiasm lest I be confused with a true Coaster Head. I’m not hot in pursuit of the biggest, baddest coasters ever, because while I like a good thrill, some rides are definitely too much for me (Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, I’m looking at you). What I’m really looking for is a ride that will take all of the worries and anxiety I live with on a daily basis, translate them into physical fear, and then fling that fear from my body as I fall from dizzying heights—leaving me blissfully, if only momentarily, completely anxiety-free.
So my son is correct in saying that I’ll ride his roller coasters for him, even if it’s not a coaster I’d choose of my own volition, and even if it leaves me weak-kneed and crying. I’ll ride his roller coasters forever, because I know what it feels like to live with anxiety, and I can’t erase the responsibility I feel for giving this genetic bequest to my son.
The week school let out for the year, my son made an announcement on the car ride home. “I have set a goal for myself this summer!” he said. There’s nothing inherently revealing in that statement; I am a goal-setting mother and have managed to spawn a succession of goal-setting children. But his actual goal nearly made me drive off the road.
“I am going to ride the Phoenix!”
I didn’t even have to try and formulate a coherent response, because his siblings were all over that.
“You what?” “But the Phoenix is a roller coaster!” “You’re scared of roller coasters! You won’t even ride half the kiddie rides!”
Listening to them react, and watching my son’s face, all I could think was: This is a bad, bad idea.
Don’t misunderstand: I am delighted that my son is setting goals for himself, and I am thrilled that he’s deliberately trying to tackle some of his greatest fears. I enthusiastically recommend this tactic as an excellent way to live. (I drive, don’t I?) But…a roller coaster? How can I gently tell my son that he might be setting his aim too high? I can’t see this ending in anything other than failure, a failure that will only serve to reinforce for him that he can’t, in fact, triumph over his anxiety in any meaningful ways.
If he had consulted me first, perhaps we could have set a goal—a better goal—together. Something more attainable. Something within his reach. But he set this goal all by himself. And thinking about that, I know I have to help him accomplish it. All of his other major achievements over anxiety (learning to swim, riding a bike) have been my goals, goals that I set for him and that I saw him through. This is his goal. That he set all by himself. Ergo, he has to succeed.
Armed with The Plan to help him, a few weeks into the summer we load up the car and drive to the amusement park. Our front tires have barely crunched over the gravel of the entrance when my son’s voice pipes up from the backseat of the minivan. “I’ve changed my goal for the summer! I’m not going to ride the Phoenix anymore.” But I am prepared for this—it is part of The Plan—and as my husband and I exchange glances I say, nonchalantly, “Let’s not decide that right now. Let’s just go and have some fun first.”
We go and have some fun. I am mentally cataloging all my various ways to reintroduce the idea of the Phoenix via The Plan when my son appears at my elbow. “Ride the Merry Mixer with me!” he says—his favorite ride in the park, and one that I hate, and that we have mutually agreed I will ride once per year.
“Okay,” I shoot back. “If then you’ll ride the Phoenix.”
What did I just say? That line wasn’t in The Plan. I have compromised my approach! I am panicking, but my son grows still for a moment, looks me right in the eye, and says “Okay.”
We ride the Merry Mixer until my insides are so scrambled I swear there are bits of intestine lodged in my ears. And then we walk over to the Phoenix.
As we draw near the line, my son is scared, but he isn’t scared like I expected him to be. He isn’t out of control, he isn’t dysregulated. His head is up and his chest is out and he is marching toward the Phoenix, ahead of me. There is something about the set of his shoulders that I recognize, something I’m vaguely, almost subliminally aware also comes from me, along with the red hair and the anxiety. It takes a moment before I can correctly identify what I see: determination. He has made up his mind he’s going to ride the Phoenix, and he’s going to do it.
I count out the tickets for two riders and he looks surprised. “You’re coming with me?” he asks.
Um, no, I want to say. I’m sending you to face your greatest fear alone, while I sit on the wuss bench with some cotton candy. Because that sounds like something I would do, doesn’t it? Have you missed the last nine years of your childhood?! Of course I’m coming with you!
But I don’t say that. I merely remind him that the Phoenix is one of my favorite roller coasters, and we hand over our tickets and get in line.
As we wait, my son is bouncing around, telling me all about yet another roller coaster he is going to design someday, and every other sentence or so yelling, as if a punctuation mark, “I’m scared!” When the line inches closer, he graduates to “I’m terrified!” Then, “I’M PETRIFIED!”
Yet he’s okay. I can see that he’s okay. He’s voicing his fear, but he doesn’t look like he’s going to throw up. He’s holding it together, in his own way. He’s going to be fine.
We have exactly one moment in line where his anxiety shifts from “manageable” to “maybe not so manageable,” and I think I may need The Plan, after all. But before I can launch into my attack, a ride operator leans out over the crowd and asks “Any groups of two?” And just like that, our twosome is whisked to the very front of the line. We’re next. We’re doing it. We are going to ride the Phoenix.
Our acceleration through the line has landed us next to another group of two, a girl about my son’s age who is openly crying, and a father who seems, at first, uninterested in her tears. But as I watch closely, I start to wonder if the father isn’t, in fact, running his own version of The Plan, providing exactly what he knows his child needs, even though it might not look like what someone else would label “good parenting.” I am filled with empathy for duo beside us, and at one point—while my son’s screams of “I’M PETRIFIED!” echo through the loading station—I grin at the girl.
“It’s going to be okay, you know,” I tell her. And she grins back, through her tears. She does know it’s going to be okay. We are all going to be just fine.
And then the coaster is here and we are climbing in, I am handing over our hats, and the lap bar is coming down. As the car begins to tick-tick-tick up the ascent my son starts screaming “Wait, stop, I changed my mind!” and trying to wriggle out from under the restraint. Because the shared lap bar is sized to me, I have no doubt he could slither his skinny frame out from under it and escape, but I quickly put one hand on his shoulder and grab his hand with my other.
“Do you want to hold the lap bar, or my hand?” I ask him, and this question brings him back to me, he yells “Both!” as we crest the top of the hill and hang, for a moment, suspended in midair.
And then we are falling, faster and faster and faster, and all of my anxiety is leaving my brain—breast cancer, bankruptcy, failing as a parent—and it’s swooping to my stomach and then, as we achieve true weightlessness for a fraction of a second and my stomach flips over, it’s gone. We’re careening around a curve and I’m holding my son’s hand, and he is screaming, and I am screaming, but we’re screaming because we’re okay, we’re doing it, we’re conquering our fear. We’re riding the Phoenix.
When the coaster car finally pulls to a stop my son starts yelling, impossibly even louder than before, “I DID IT! I RODE THE PHOENIX!” We disembark, not to the emotional meltdown I had prepared for, but instead to exuberant joy. He is running up to complete strangers in the park yelling “I RODE THE PHOENIX!” and they congratulate him, because how can they not? His hair is so red, his voice is so loud, his joy is so real. I see the crying girl skipping along beside her father and I see that she, too, is reveling in her own joy—we decided to do this scary thing, and we did it.
And if we rode the Phoenix, what other scary things might we now conquer?
The world is ours. It’s summer, my son has met and achieved the very first big goal he set, and he didn’t even need The Plan I created to help him. All he needed was to decide he was going to do it. The coming years unfold before my imagination in rapid succession, all the goals he will someday make, and all the goals he will someday achieve. He is going to ride the roller coasters life brings him all on his very own. He can do it: I know that now, and more importantly, he knows that now. We are basking in the freedom that knowledge brings as he runs up to anyone in the park who will listen and yells, “HEY! I JUST RODE THE PHOENIX!”
Author’s Note: A few days after we conquered the Phoenix, I asked my son if he wanted to take the deep water swim test at the pool. “MOM,” he replied. “I rode the PHOENIX. That was BIG. I am not setting any more goals for this summer!” Five weeks later, he announced one evening that he did want to try for the deep water swim band, after all. He passed on the first try.
Elrena Evans is co-editor of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life, and the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and five children.
Read the prequel to this essay “Riding Away.”