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.”



Riding Away

Riding Away

Boys on Bike ARTBy Elrena Evans

Giddy with anticipation, I trade a wad of cash in exchange for two secondhand bikes and load them into the trunk of the minivan. The baby snoozes peacefully in his car seat while my almost-four-year-old daughter bounces in excitement, even though neither of the bikes are for her. She has multiple cast-off bikes to choose from this season, and her big sister, age ten, somehow still fits her bike from the year before. But the boys, aged six and eight, are simultaneously too big and too small for any of the extra bikes we have lying around, so the ones in the trunk are for them.

When I pick him up from kindergarten at noon, my six-year-old reacts predictably. “A new bike? For me?” He can barely contain his glee and the three-quarter mile trip home is endless. Once there he falls out of the car, grabs the bike, and hops on.

“This new bike doesn’t have training wheels,” I caution him, as he waves aside this minor concern.

“Hold my seat and launch me!” he yells, and I do, and he wobbles for a bit as he speeds down the sidewalk before crashing with a bang. “Ow ow ow!” he yells, hopping up and down, before throwing his leg over the bike again. “Launch me one more time!”

I launch and he falls, I launch and he falls, throughout the afternoon. By the time we pick up his older siblings from school, he has left bits of himself all over the sidewalk and is covered in Band-Aids, but he can ride his bike.

“Guess what!” I say to my eight-year-old as he climbs in the car. “I got you a new bike!”

“Does it have training wheels?” he responds instantly.

I look at him in the rear view mirror, tall for his age and gangly, all skinny legs and limbs and the mop of red hair he gets from me.

“No, it doesn’t, Honey,” I say gently. “You don’t need training wheels, remember? You learned to ride a bike last summer.”

“I want training wheels,” he says.

“Why don’t we try it first, and then we can talk about it?”

“I want training wheels,” he says.

I take a deep breath and focus on the road before me.

Back at home, I buckle the baby into the stroller as the girls hop on their bikes, my six-year-old already long gone down the sidewalk. My eight-year-old eyes the training wheels on his little sister’s bike and looks at me significantly.

“You don’t need training wheels,” I tell him.

“But I could fall,” he says. “I could get hurt.”

“You will fall,” I tell him. “It’s part of learning to ride a bike. And you will probably get hurt. But you won’t get hurt very bad.”

With impeccable timing, my six-year-old comes careening into view and crashes, spectacularly, on the driveway in front of us. His knees are bright with blood and he calls out “Mom! The blood’s dripping all the way to the ground! I think I need a Band-Aid!” Then he surveys his legs, wipes away the dripping blood and smears his hands on the grass. “Never mind, I’m good,” he calls, as he takes off again on his bike.

“See?” my eight-year-old says.

“You won’t get hurt like that,” I say. “You won’t get hurt like your brother.”

“Why not?” he asks.

“Because you have a radically different personality,” I say, positioning the handlebars. “Hop on.”

“I want my scooter,” he says, and I relent. We parade to the end of the street and back, the kids and I, three of them speeding blurs on bikes while my son pushes his scooter, slowly, beside me and the baby in the stroller. I watch him methodically scootering beside me and I wonder if he will ever take off with his siblings, or if he is destined to spend the rest of life here beside me, tethered by his own anxiety.

This becomes our modus operandi over the next few days: three kids on bikes, one in a stroller, and one locked tightly in the grip of fear, fighting me every step of the way as I try to prise him out.

“Don’t let go of my seat!” he screams as I stand beside him on his bike. “Don’t let go!”

“Honey, I have to let go,” I tell him. “I can’t run as fast as you can ride, and besides—letting go is kind of the whole point.”

“I don’t want to do this anymore,” he says, dismounting.

I close my eyes and open them again. “I’m going to push you a little bit on this one,” I tell him. “Just like I did with swimming. Remember how scared you were to swim? And look how much you love it now.”

“But this is different,” he insists. “In a pool you can’t fall off and get hurt.”

In a pool you can drown, I think, but I know better than to say that. He is shifting rapidly from foot to foot, fidgeting with his hands, and looking like he’s about to puke.

“I just don’t want to take the risk,” he says, looking at the bike. His voice climbs an octave or two and starts to crack. “I just don’t want to take the risk!”

“Dysregulated,” the psychologists call it, a term I find particularly apt. It’s what happens when the fear is so overwhelming you lose the ability to regulate your own body. I see it in front of me and wonder if I’ve picked the wrong battle, if I’m fighting too hard, if I should just give up and let him spend the rest of his life on a scooter. But I have a hunch, and my hunch says that if we can get over this hurdle, what we will gain will far outweigh what it cost. It’s hard to play a hunch, though, when you’re betting the emotional stability of your son.

“Let’s just try it one more time,” I say the next day as I hold on to his bike. “Let’s go down to the cul-de-sac.”

“But I can’t start,” he says as we walk his bike. “I can’t stop. I can’t steer.”

“But you can ride,” I say. “You really can. All of those other things will come. I’ll start you, I’ll point you straight toward the grass, and you can fall off there where it’s nice and squishy. You’ll be okay. I promise.”

He positions himself at the edge of the cul-de-sac, where his three siblings are whizzing around on their bikes.

“Everybody get off the street!” he yells, his voice raising and cracking. “I don’t want to crash into you. Get off the street!” My throat catches as I watch his siblings immediately turn their bikes back to the sidewalk, making way for their brother. I hold on to his seat and he wants me to hold the handlebars. I hold the handlebars and he wants me to hold the seat. Finally, holding both, we run awkwardly toward the grass. He wobbles a few feet by himself before crashing, unhurt, on the accepting lawn.

“See? You did it, Buddy! You really did it!” I am hopping with excitement even though I know this isn’t the big a-ha moment, the moment he realizes he can ride a bike…it’s just the first hurdle in a series stretching farther than my eyes can see. But still: it’s one hurdle cleared. We celebrate.

Baby steps, bit by bit, day by day. Each day he can go a little farther, last a little longer before becoming “dysregulated.” We practice riding in the cul-de-sac, then switch to the scooter for our longer ride down the street. His siblings cheer him on. He suffers a few minor falls, but can be coaxed, eventually, back on the bike. I start to think we might make it, after all.

One day I’m inside nursing the baby when I see my six-year-old daredevil flying past the house on his bike, with another bike following in hot pursuit behind. It takes me a full minute—takes me until neither bike is still in sight—to realize the boy on the second bike was my son. And the realization makes me cry.

The next morning he is up and dressed and heading out the door a full forty-five minutes before we leave for school—”Going to ride my bike!” he calls back over his shoulder. That afternoon he takes the bike, not the scooter, on our trip to the end of our street.

“Boy, can you believe I used to ride a scooter instead of a bike?!” He catches up to his waiting siblings, incredulous. “A bike is so much better. Can we go on another street now?”

And here is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Here is where we realize, as my knuckles whiten around the stroller handle, that my son doesn’t arrive at his anxiety a priori, with no antecedent. Here is where we face the fact that he gets his anxiety from me. I can keep it in check, more or less—on my street, near my house—but out there? Those roads are busier. Those roads have more cars. Those roads have hills and gravely sections and construction and all sorts of danger. I have four kids on bikes and one in a stroller. I can’t protect them all, out there. Out there, they could be killed.

All the kids are clamoring to ride on. My son is looking at me expectantly. Letting go is kind of the whole point.

And we go. They are all so fast, so much faster than me with the baby in the stroller, and I am watching my eight-year-old take off on his bike, wobbling at first, and I am running so hard my heart feels like it will explode and I am praying, out loud, as my feet pound the pavement behind them, God please, please, please just don’t let him fall. Please just don’t let them get killed. Please just get us all back safely home.

And they are laughing, and I am running, and the baby is squealing with delight, and now I’m calling out to them “Slow down! Wait for me! Stop at the stop sign!” but they can’t hear me, and now I am laughing, too, because I can’t hold them back, because they are flying, I am flying, we are all flying, and we are free.

Author’s Note: Shortly after writing this piece, my four-year-old daughter (in personality, a match for my six-year-old son) took a bad fall on a street a mile from our house—a fall that left her with small scars she will most likely carry into adulthood. Watching her fall, unable to protect her, I realized I had Band-Aids of all sorts of shapes and sizes, fresh water, and ice in the basket of the stroller for just such an event. My eight-year-old had packed them for me, just in case.

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.