Riding the Phoenix

Riding the Phoenix

vector illustration of silhouette of amusment park

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.”



Lessons on a Pirate Ship

Lessons on a Pirate Ship

APACHE JUNCTION, ARIZONA - MARCH 14: The Arizona Renaissance Festival on March 14, 2015, near Apache Junction, Arizona. A pirate ship ride thrills visitors at the 27th Annual Arizona Renaissance Festival held near Phoenix.

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.