By Aaron E. Black
“But you promised!” I stare up at the huge twisted sculpture of engineering ingenuity, vaguely wishing my son Adam was talking to somebody else. He loves roller coasters. I mean, LOVES them. He spouts off roller coaster statistics like Phil Rizzuto talked baseball.
This one goes so fast, is so tall, has so many loops, and won this or that award. Adam is 13-years-old today. For his birthday present, we drove several hundred miles to this large, Midwestern amusement park. And now here we are, just the two of us with hot asphalt, bird shit, sunscreen, adolescent screams, steamy thick air, damp money, the smell of fried food, and metal. Lots and lots of metal.
Yes, I promised.
I understand the roller coaster’s appeal, intellectually at least. It creates an illusion of risk taking, with a curious blend of fear and excitement. While I see the attraction, I’ve never really appreciated the roller coaster as a metaphor. It’s true that, like a roller coaster, life has its “ups” and “downs” (though Buddhists have something cautionary to say about that) but this is a superficial likeness at best. The roller coaster, unlike life, is controlled and predict- able; it delivers to the rider a sense of unearned bravery. Once strapped into the seat, the machine takes over. There are no choices to be made. No ambiguities to interpret. What could be less lifelike? Some people try to live this way, I suppose. Passively. For me, passivity is irritating and boring. I guess I prefer a personally determined narrative.
“Okay,” I reply, and immediately Adam makes for the entrance, with its long, creeping line of anxious, overheated riders.
As my body moves to follow, I have thoughts about the potential physical effects of the ride. I wonder if I will feel sick to my stomach. Could I pass out? Did I remember to take my blood pressure medication? How pathetic is it that I am even wondering about such things? Will Adam think less of me if I’m physically unable to handle the ride? He seems totally fine with the ride, trusting the adults who built it. But I know better. Is this a turning point in our relationship, where my age starts to yield to the growing strength of his youth?
As we wait, a unique, frustrating monotony sets in. The whooshing sounds of the car on the tracks, coupled with the rider’s screams, the pulsating heat rising from the asphalt, and the chronic desire for water, all give me the feeling of participating in some strange athletic event where the only victory is endurance itself. We are just standing, after all. Yet anxious anticipation in this sort of hyper-organized way leaves me depleted, craving shade, and fantasizing about soap and water. And air conditioning. Periodically, Adam and I compete for my cell phone. I’m looking for email, news, weather, pretty much anything to distract me from my worries. He plays games. I suspect he is doing the same thing.
“Can you believe we are going to do this?” he asks.
“No, I can’t believe it. Are you sure you still want to?” I respond, hoping that this is not a rhetorical question.
“Daaaaaaaaad,” he replies with a roll of his eyes.
When he was a few years younger, I could count on him to profess interest in a roller coaster only to bail out at the last minute when confronted with the reality of actually riding it. That was perfect. I could provide an emphatic, unambiguous “YES!” to his request, knowing a reprieve would soon follow. I’d even help him find a face-saving way to back out—the wait was too long, it was time to go home, we should go eat something. Not anymore. His desires have gathered weight and direction, a trajectory, located in time and space, not just in his mind. Whereas in the past, I heard his expressions of want almost as questions more than statements, now there was clarity and certainty. Confidence even. He seems to have a firmer grip on what he wants because he is starting to know more about who, exactly, is doing the wanting. His self-possession highlights what I have always known, and sought to deny: He belongs to himself. Not to me. He never really belonged to me.
Maybe being his father is just a step in a long process of custodial relation- ships he will experience. First, parent. Then, babysitter. Grandparent. Teacher. Coach. Academic advisor. Professor. Girlfriend. Mentor. Boss. Parole officer (God forbid). Spouse. Therapist. Perhaps another spouse. In each instance, a person will have a kind of responsibility for and to him, and like me, will never possess him. If it is true that I am no more “molding” him than one “wills” the sun to rise, then is it my duty simply to teach him how to be a pliable, if not gratifying, ward of these future custodians? To help him learn how to cooperate with people who have something valuable to offer, who can help him along the way, and to teach him how to reciprocate—so that one day, when he himself is the custodian, he will know what to do?
I see that the line is closing in on the area where passengers board.
“Dad, do ya want to wait longer so we can get into the front row?” he says, his excitement palpable.
“Sure,” I respond. “We’ve waited this long, right? What are a few more minutes to get the front row?”
We are now finally in the shade near the track itself. I watch people shifting back and forth, some sitting on the railing, as they wait their turn.
“Are you nervous?” he whispers. “Yes,” I reply.
“Me too,” he says, and adds, “But I bet it is going to be awesome!”
I smile. “I’m sure you are right.” I wrap my sweaty arm around his neck.
We used to joke, when he was younger, that whatever occupied his mind would soon be coming out of his mouth. It was as if he had no private emotional world. Remarkably, he didn’t start talking until just after his second birthday. Well, that’s not exactly true. From about 16 months to his second birthday, he invariably responded the same way to the following question: “Adam, what’s your name?” “Elmo,” he would reply. It wasn’t clear if he was joking. No amount of cajoling could get him to say his real name. Elmo was his only response, his only word, for a long time. Soon after he turned two, the words started coming faster and faster, until he was about the most talkative child I had ever met. He would tell me absolutely everything. What he did on the bus. Who said what to whom at school. Which professional football team he was planning to play for someday. He offered opinions about movies, dinner, and the book he was reading. Not so anymore.
Without my even knowing it, a barrier had been erected, some psychological curtain had been drawn. In the last year, Adam’s internal life had become more difficult to know, as if he was claiming himself for himself. Now, there are mysterious, unfamiliar rules about how I gain access to this private place. Simply asking questions doesn’t work anymore. I remember once, when he was little, like three or four, he climbed into bed with us at 3:00 a.m. during a thunderstorm. As always, despite the hour, he was interested in talking. He told me he was scared of thunder and lightning, but that he wasn’t frightened anymore, being in our bed, head resting on my shoulder. I asked why he wasn’t afraid, and he said, “cause you make the thunder go away, Daddy.” That was the kind of access and influence I used to have. I could make thunder go away, even as it boomed all around us. Back then, I had magical powers. Now, I ask about what happened in school, and he says, “You know, nothing special.” No, I don’t know. In helping me “not know,” he creates a space apart from me. Sometimes our separateness feels like sitting outside a medieval castle with 100 foot high stone walls and a moat. I am his magician no longer.
Finally, more than an hour after we entered the queue, we’re up. I watch him in front of me, bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet in anticipation. He cracks his knuckles.
As the tram pulls in, he turns and says, “Dad, you really might want to hold onto your sunglasses . . . .”
“It will be okay,” I say, as we step into the front of a series of connected cars, each containing four riders.
We will be in the front two seats. At his request, I go in first. The seat fits a human body exactly, like a perfectly tailored suit. A metal bar with an attached seat belt has to be pulled over my lap. As I attach the bar, I notice that I have to insert the seat belt into a locking mechanism. I panic momentarily as I struggle to get the belt to click into place. It seems too short. Or am I too big? Either way, visibly struggling is not the sort of attention I am seeking at the moment. After applying extra pres- sure, the belt snaps into place. Now, free to look around, I see the woman in the control booth. She determines when each tram begins to ascend the first, very high mountain of steel. What is she, like 18 years old at best? The other attendants appear even younger than that. I am literally placing my life into the hands of a bunch of teenagers. Excellent. Just what I was hoping for.
There is a pause of a minute or so as the attendants check and re-check to see that the riders are secured in place. “Riders ready? Okay, then. Have a great ride!” the woman in the control booth shouts into the sound system. I love that she says this. The ride is exactly the same every time, of course, but she invites the rider to consider that he might have something to do with whether or not the ride is “great” or something less than great. Right now, I’m thinking my ride will be less than great, given the sweat breaking through my T-shirt, the tension in my stomach, and my recollections of an article on the effects of terminal velocity on the human brain. Whatever I am feeling, we are now clearly going to go. The deliberations are over. We are here.
Then Adam looks over at me, his enormous brown eyes opened wide, as if inviting my mind to be more open too. He slips his left hand into mine. I notice that his hand is nearly as large as my own. Thirteen years ago, I remember holding him, wrapped in that blue and white blanket hospitals favor. His mother required extra medical attention after his birth. There was blood on the floor. The nurses let me hold him first. He was so attentive. No crying. He just stared at me, directly and purposely. I slipped my pinky into his hand, this same hand, and his fingers barely curled all the way around. His grip was strong. I talked to him about how happy I was to meet him and how I thought that the University of Michigan would make an excellent college choice. That made the nurses laugh. I wonder if the anxiety I felt then was anything like the anxiety I feel now. As I recall standing, holding him in the delivery room, I think about my initial worries about becoming a father. By the time the nurse took him and handed him to his exhausted mother, I felt this sort of inner calm settle in. “I got this,” some part of me seemed to say. And when it comes to him, that feeling never really left. I am by no means a flawless parent. But in the most important ways, that feeling of long ago was right: I got this.
We’re moving now, slowly at first. Directly ahead is the moving chain that will drag our car up to a peak, he tells me, of 390 feet. Then we will travel, literally, straight down, reaching 90 mph, and into the first loop. That is taller than a foot- ball field is long. I feel his hand grip mine with greater force. I squeeze back. The ride sits alongside a beautiful, large lake to my left. A short distance from us, I see what appears to be a father and son fishing, their boat bobbing gently on the greenish water. Maybe I should have encouraged Boy Scouts? Then, he and I could be fishing and talking and fishing some more. A quiet lunch floating on the water doing manly things with my son. That sounds MUCH better than this. As we ascend, the most soothing thought I have is – there’s nothing to do now – just go with it. As the car reaches the arch, Adam pulls away his hand suddenly, knowing that it is better to grasp the safety bar in front of him than it is to hold onto me.
When we let go of each other I realize that we won’t really have this ride together. The woman in the control booth was right. He will have his ride, and I will have mine, sitting side-by-side. Everything technically will be the same for both of us, certainly, but we will each have the ride that we have. No matter how much I love him. No matter that I would give my life for his. There is nothing I can do to help him, to alter or change him, to “fix it” if he has a problem. If his seat belt fails. If the car leaves the track. There is nothing I can do. At all. I am completely helpless in this moment when it comes to him. When it comes to nearly everything actually. I can hold onto my sunglasses. That I can do. And I can grab the safety bar. My ride will be my ride. His ride will be his ride.
The whole thing takes about 120 seconds. It’s remarkable. The initial drop hurtles completely straight down at the ground below. Being in the first car gives us a particularly intense feeling that we are about to kiss concrete at a very high rate of speed. But we don’t. The feeling of falling, of being suspended like an astronaut in zero gravity, is exhilarating. After the first loop, I get those black dots in front of my eyes, but it lasts only a few seconds and then they disappear like the sea gulls circling the track overhead. The rest of the ride is brilliant. It ends with a long, sideways loop to the right, before settling down on magnetic brakes just before the passenger loading area.
I hear his laughter before I see his face.
“THAT! WAS! AWESOME!!!” he keeps shouting.
He is giggling and rocking back and forth, just like the toddler that I would lift and pretend to drop, only to slow his fall almost immediately. Uncontrolled, unselfconscious, piercing joy. Over and over again we would do this, until my arms hurt. I turn and take in his radiant, flushed face. I see that the bangs of his hair have been blown skyward by the rushing air, like some kind, powerful hand was caressing his forehead for the last two minutes.
As we climb out of the tram, I rethink my criticism of the roller coaster metaphor. I was wrong. It’s perfect actually. The ride with Adam represents what is unpredictable; it captures the joy, fear, and helplessness of being his father. Riding next to this boy whom I love so much, reminds me that the only thing I can do is be by his side. That’s it. Everything else is merely wishful thinking. I can just be with him. I hope he feels that I am.
As we make our way down the long, meandering exit ramp, he says over his shoulder, “Dad, can we please do that again? The line looks a lot shorter now.”
I stare skeptically at the completely filled maze in which we were just standing for what seemed like for- ever. The line starts at least 30 yards beyond where we entered the last time. Incredibly, the day has become even hotter and muggier.
“Absolutely,” I say. “Absolutely.”
Author’s Note: Being an attentive parent sometimes means engaging in a noxious activity just to be with your child. But to really “be” with your child, you have to find a way to enjoy it with them. This story evolved from my attempt to find the beauty in the relation- ship with my son, while doing something that I find anything but beautiful.
Aaron Black, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice. His work as a psychotherapist is rooted in the attachment theory, which holds that emotional contact with others is the building block for all human development. He has published numerous professional articles; however, this is his first published essay. He lives in Pittsford, New York with his wife Lara, and sons Adam and Noah.
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