Ian was off to ride the Phoenix, one of the oldest wooden rollercoasters in the United States, housed at Knoebel’s Amusement Park in central Pennsylvania. In the weeks before his ride, he won me over by arguing that he was the only 10-year-old boy he knew who had never been to a carnival or amusement park. He daydreamed about what the rides might be like and compared notes with his friends at day care. Each night, he would come home with some new tale of wonder: a rollercoaster that turned upside down, a spinning ride whose floor dropped away, bumper cars and Ferris wheels. All of it thrilled him.
I was less thrilled, and plenty anxious — an almost chronic condition that I have come to associate with my long years of mothering people. I have five children between the ages of 18 and 22, and Ian, at 10, is my caboose. In the 22 years I’ve spent raising human beings, I seem to have learned to worry when I should not, and not worry when I should. All the confusing years of a houseful of teenagers have taught me that things — good and bad — are going to happen to them, and I have no control over most of it. Knowing this, I try to keep my anxieties at bay, but more often, they keep me in a corner, stomach in knots, possibilities crowding my thoughts.
I have long heard the stories about younger children, how weary parents let their youngest offspring enjoy more freedoms than their older siblings did. Where first children represent an experiment in parenting, successive children supposedly teach us to relax our hold, to be less protective. Somehow, this lesson passed me by, at least where Ian is concerned. I was protective enough with my older children, but often I was exhausted by the sheer number of them. They could get away with so much, because I was just getting by, happy to find myself still standing at the end of a day of taking care of them.
They allege that I am too protective of Ian, and that in doing so, I am not serving his best interests. My husband agrees. If bad news comes on the news, I turn it off. I limit what he can watch on television, refuse to let him see movies rated PG-13 or worse, and caution him against music with bad words in the lyrics. I make sure he wears a helmet when he bikes or scooters, slather him in sunblock and ply him with water when he’d rather have a soda. I do my best to shield him from the world. He is so innocent still, such a counterpoint to the years I spent entrenched with a houseful of teenagers who always knew more (or less) than I.
But it has been difficult, these last few weeks, to keep him from the knowledge of the horror that occurred in Aurora, Colo. As news of the victims poured out, and details of the shooter emerged, I was quick to shut off CNN when Ian came in the room. It is true that awful things happen the world over, every day. War, famine, sheer cruelty and violence abound, and my trying to keep Ian from the news is like fighting gravity. There is no escaping it. Even so, I myself was simply unprepared to try to explain such random violence to him. In my mind’s eye, I could see the young children and adults in that theater, trying desperately to escape and to protect each other. There just seemed to be no good way to discuss it with Ian and so, like an ostrich, I buried my head. He heard about it anyway, bits of conversation while we stood in a line for lunch, a headline on a grocery store tabloid, news radio that I could not switch off quickly enough. And then he was left to piece it together, without the benefit of my helping him to do so.
All of this swirled through my mind at the amusement park in Pennsylvania, as he boarded the rickety rollercoaster and waved goodbye to me. I stood on the pavement below, too afraid to try it myself. But I was, in the end, more afraid not to let him do something he so badly wanted to try. So I let him go. I could see the metaphor of it all: His life as the rollercoaster. The twists and turns that would take him from my view. The easy, level moments when he might swing by for a second and wave. And his excitement fueling him to ride again and again and again.
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