I don't remember if there were sirens, but I do remember the color of the sky. Just as country kids learn to instinctively turn into a skid driving on a dirt road, there's a particular shade of olive green that means only one thing–get to shelter and get there quick. With my little brother on her hip, my mother grabbed my hand and jogged the three of us out into the hot, twilight wind, to a neighboring uncle's basement.My cousins were already downstairs, and I was puzzled to see that they were sobbing and scared. I left them to it, and quietly crept back up the basement stairs to the backdoor where my uncle was standing, eagle-eyed for a funnel. We were close enough to get back to safety quickly if there was a tornado sighting, but, in the meantime, I could hardly breathe for the excitement. My mom called up the stairs, anxious, but not mad.
“What are you doing up there?”
“Mommy, I'm just watching.”
Bookish and overly imaginative, I was never the fastest or the most coordinated child; I was a complete klutz, in fact. But when it came to my physical body? I was fearless.
I'd jump from a twenty foot hay loft, and laugh when I hit the ground rolling. I'd swim out into a lake at night by myself to listen to the bats fly overhead. I wanted nothing more than to learn to ride a pony bareback. I got hurt sometimes, sure, but never badly. While I envied my little brother his neon arm cast, it also made me secretly smug. In the way you do when you're ten, I imagined that my unbreakable bones must be a superpower.
I had been a mother just shy of a full week when my husband suggested we go to our favorite breakfast place. The wait staff had been sweet to me during my pregnancy, and they were excited to see our new, small fellow.
I had to fight not to knock them backwards as they came by our table with mugs of hot coffee and heavy plates of food near my baby. Adrenaline pounded through my body as I prepared to spring at the slightest hint of unsteadiness. I didn't want to talk. I couldn't touch the food. All of a sudden the physical world was a terrifying place–an obstacle course of dangers. All of a sudden I had something to be afraid for.
That spring storm season, I had to stop watching the news. A particularly bad tornado hit a nearby town, and the stories of babies being ripped out of their mothers' arms would leave me choking down tears over my computer. I put our strap-on baby carrier near the door to the basement, not knowing if it would withstand a storm, but determined to lash my son to my body if I needed to. I talked through dark scenarios with my husband, and made him solemnly swear that if anything bad happened anytime, anywhere–a storm, a burglar in the night, a plane crash–he would save the baby, even if it meant leaving me to certain death.
Sometime in that postpartum haze, I realized that, while I had gained a whole new barometer for measuring love, I had lost something almost as big. Someone I hadn't even known I needed so much until she was gone. With my son's first cry, that fearless child inside of me died.
On my son's first birthday, we went to the beach. He had only been walking for a few months–steadily enough to run, but still tumbling down every few minutes. All he wanted to do was play in the ocean, and he tried to creep up to the edge of the water every chance he got. I wrapped my arms tightly around his chest as waves crashed over us. He cackled and shouted wildly, “Again! Again!”
Apparently the fearless child had been reincarnated in the form of a small, blonde boy.
And I could see that I had a choice. My fear would never go away; there was no getting around that. I will always struggle to let my son fall down. To let him jump from too high and play in the waves. But what to do with that fear–that was something I could control.
I could let it go, unchecked, and make his childhood a fearful place too. I could pull him back from every possible bit of pain; disallow any activity where there was the slightest chance of him being hurt. Or I could swallow my fear down, letting my love for him drown it out. I could bite it back, and watch him have much too wild adventures. I could smile through it, and let him revel in the precious gift of childish fearlessness for as long as possible.
There were no sirens, and the sky was safely dark grey as a big thunderstorm rolled down the hill towards our house. The branches of the twin silver maples in our back yard thrashed in the wind. With my son on my hip, we stepped out onto our back porch. His eyes were wide with excitement as he asked, “What's going on, mama?”