It will be fine, I say, as if those words could push away their worries.
“Mom,” Brennan says. “Are you going to chicken out?”
Liddy crosses her arms over her turquoise swim suit and squints at me accusingly through the glare of the sun, waiting for my answer.
“No way,” I say, with a forced smile. “I’m in.”
The three of us are pressed together in the brutal heat with dozens of people — adolescent boys, mostly, dripping with sweat and chlorinated water. Sun and sunscreen are burning my eyes and, as we slowly ascend the steep wooden steps, my bare feet are steeped in some muck I’d rather not consider. I peer down over the side of the waterslide steps at the miniature people down below, and my heart is going 60 miles an hour.
When I was eight or nine years old, I took my first turn on a real roller coaster and promptly threw up. I haven’t looked back. Until this morning, that is, when Liddy woke up crying in advance of our big trip to the Cape Cod waterpark featured in The Way, Way Back. “You don’t understand,” she said. “I don’t want to go without Daddy.” I thought she just meant she’d miss John while he was stuck at work, until she talked about how, on our last trip to Water Wizz, I only rode the lazy river ride. How I read my book at the picnic table while John went on every ride with the kids, screaming and laughing alongside them.
So here I am at Pirate’s Plunge waiting for a signal from bored-looking ride operator indicating that it’s time to step forward, lie on my back and slide feet-first into the rushing water, then rocket down a fifty-foot drop.
I think about various scenarios that could get me out of this situation. A lightning storm. Vomit on the waterslide. A lost child who needs help finding his family. I search frantically for thunderclouds or a sobbing child. Nothing.
We wind closer to the top and the kids offer advice. Lie as flat as you can, Mom. Fold your arms like a mummy. Close your eyes. Hold your breath. Oh, and when you think the ride is over? There’s one more really big drop.
What am I doing? I am the mom who sits under the beach umbrella while my kids ride the waves. When camping involves a long hike into the woods with the gear on your back, I stay home. And when we had the chance to ride a flight simulator at the San Diego Maritime Museum, I sat out as my family whipped their way through 360s and Liddy screamed “Help me! I need a hairbrush!” into John’s ears.
A teenage girl takes her turn and I count — 1, 2, 3, 4 — getting to 30 before the operator at the bottom signals that she’s reached the end. I can take anything for 30 seconds, I think. Right?
I have plenty of time, while I’m standing here shaking, to think about all the occasions when I expect my kids to do something that scares them. Rolling up their sleeves for a flu shot or stepping on stage for a school performance. Or simply going to an unfamiliar place to meet new people can cause them no end of anxiety. It will be fine, I say, as if those words could push away their worries. Remember this feeling, I tell myself. Remember how it drills through you, how you’d give anything to escape.
But there’s no more time to think now. Brennan drops down with a grin and pushes himself off the side for extra speed. Then Liddy gets the signal and throws me a last pleading look — Do it! — before she drops down, face scrunched, and disappears. And then I am getting an unenthusiastic “thumbs up” from the bored ride operator and I crouch down, knees shaking, in my skirted mom-suit.
And then, I am flying, catching air. Freezing-cold bursts of air and water and I am terrified and thrilled and mostly, mostly terrified. My butt slams down on the base of the ride, and it’s done.
“Yeeaaaahhhhh!” I hear them before I see them, bobbing up and down as they cheer and laugh, both with me and at me. “Mommy, you really did it!”
I stand up shakily, gasping, with my suit twisted in all the wrong places. I catch my breath and wave at them. And I smile, knowing I’ve earned the right to watch from the sidelines next time. And feeling certain that, when they face their next time, whatever it is, they will have earned a pass, too.
Photo: Megan Dempsey