Loco Parentis: Fear Factor

A few weeks back, my husband went to get his photo taken for his driver’s license renewal. He came home with a booklet: Pennsylvania Driver’s Manual. “Refresher course?” I asked snidely. “Great idea.”

“It’s so Marcy can study for her test,” Doug said.

I stared. “You’re not seriously thinking of putting that child behind the wheel of a car.”

He stared right back. “You bet I am.” He sees it as our 15-year-old daughter’s ticket to freedom. I see it as a loaded gun.

There are those of us who barge boldly through life — sledding down Chicken Hill, telling bosses to go to hell, trying out for American Idol. And then there are those of us who still use nightlights. I’m in the latter camp. I hail from a long line of wussies. My ancestors gravitated toward clean, calm, blood-free professions like library sciences. We’re so squeamish, we don’t even marry doctors. On vacations, we don’t parafoil, Jet Ski, bungee-jump or skydive. We read.

And we worry. When Marcy was a baby, I couldn’t go to sleep at night until I had tiptoed into her room to make sure she was breathing, despite the fact that her baby monitor transmitted every rustle and whimper. I did this even though half the time, tiptoeing in would wake her up and cost me hours of sleep. Doug thought this was the stupidest damned thing he’d ever seen.

The divide has only widened over time.

Doug takes Marcy and her 12-year-old brother Jake camping in the snow, and backpacking on the Appalachian Trail, and on the SkyBike at the Franklin Institute. He goes with them on roller coasters and go-karts and whitewater rafts.

I take them miniature golfing, and out to dinner. Where I’m not even brave enough to send a cold entrée back.

We live in an old house, and my office is in the attic. Years ago, when the kids were still small, I was sitting at my desk one night after I’d tucked them into bed. Suddenly, something swooped past my head. I whirled around and saw it again: a bat, black and baleful, with its scrunched-up Freddie Mitchell face and skin-on-bone wings.

I did what came naturally: screamed for Doug and ran down two flights of stairs to the first-floor bathroom to lock myself in. Terrified as I was, I paused in my escape to shut the doors to the kids’ rooms. I did this because I had once read in Parents magazine that a bat’s bite is so gentle, it won’t even wake a sleeping child. I was terrified of the bat, but I was more terrified my kids would get rabies and I’d never know it and they’d die.

This was my first inkling that being a mother might be inching me away from utter cowardice.

The occasions on which to prove my mettle piled up, fast and heavy. On Brownie camping trips, it was up to me to clear the tents of spiders. (“It’s just a daddy longlegs, you sillies.”) I had to dig grit out of bloodied knees and elbows, fish for splinters, feign calm when noses broke and teeth chipped and heads got hit with baseball bats. (It started with a piñata, if you must know.) I had to swallow my hurt when my kids were overlooked for birthday parties, called names, teased for being peculiar, spurned by love interests, so that I could tend to their wounds. And I had to set an example when it came to turning the other cheek, doing unto others, and standing up for what you believe.

Just the same, I knew I wasn’t really being brave. I was an imposter, valiant from the perspective of a bunch of eight-year-olds who still believed in Santa. Sooner or later, I, too, would be exposed as a fraud.

The windows in my station wagon operate electronically. Whenever I drive across a bridge over a body of water, I worry about what might happen should the car plunge over the railing and into the drink. Will the windows short-circuit as soon as we hit, preventing us from escaping? Or will there still be some juice left as we slowly sink? If the windows are a little bit open, will we sink faster or slower than if they’re closed? Can I kick out a window if I have to? Will it be easier to do in heels or in sneakers? How will I get the kids out the window? Can I even fit through the window? By then, I’m usually across the bridge.

After the tsunami in December, I read about a mother who was caught in the water, holding onto her two young sons. She clung to them for as long as she could; then, her strength failing, she faced the decision William Styron posited in Sophie’s Choice—a book I never read, followed by a movie I never saw, because I couldn’t bear to contemplate the prospect it laid out. How would I ever make such a judgment—to hold onto one child and release the other into certain death? But Australian Jillian Searle, gripping two-year-old Blake and five-year-old Lachie, gritted her teeth and assessed the situation. “I knew that if I held onto both, we would all die,” she said. She figured Lachie was older, and more likely to make it without her. So she let him go.

On an evening when Doug is working, Marcy and Jake and I are sitting watching TV when something sleek and black swoops into the living room. “Bat!” Marcy cries. Freddie Mitchell’s back. We rise up as one and run screaming in the opposite direction, toward the back door, which we slam shut behind us. Then we stand on the patio, hyperventilating in the warm night air. I glance around, wondering which neighbor might be enlisted to rid us of our invader. But Ken isn’t home, and Jim has just had back surgery, and Dennis’s car isn’t in his driveway. Doug won’t be back for hours.

“What do we do now?” Jake wants to know. And Marcy, so daring on those Appalachian hikes, is whimpering: “I’m not going back in. I’m not going back in.”

We have two choices. We can do something about the bat, or we can sit on the patio swing in the spring air, sans the TV and the computer and the just-poured glass of merlot I’ve left beside the sofa, and share a long stretch of special closeness with each other.

“We have to get that bat out of there,” I tell the kids.

I lead them around to the front screen door, through which we can see the bat frantically circling the living room. I try to think of bat lore, but all I can remember are those painless bites. “Let’s open the door,” I whisper, and do so, motioning the kids to flatten themselves against the house behind me. The bat flaps around and around beneath the ceiling fan, coming closer to the doorway, but never close enough.

“They operate on radar,” Jake says helpfully. “And they’re afraid of light.”
Of course. The porch light is on, and so is the reading lamp just inside the front door. No way the bat is going to fly out through that blinding brightness. Somebody has to turn out the lights.

I look at Jake. “Do you think you could … ” Then I stop. Because bats do have rabies, especially bats that fly into people’s houses, and Jake knows that—he knows a lot of stuff like that—and I can see in his eyes that he doesn’t want to stick his arm inside the door to flick those two switches. He will if I ask him to. But he’d rather I didn’t ask.

“Well, I’m not doing it,” Marcy says.

I reach deep, try to calm my pounding heart. I pump my arms a few times on the porch, like I’m about to shoot a foul shot. Then I thrust my hand in through the doorway, fumble for the switches, shove them down, and leap back as though I’ve touched fire. There is a moment of silence as we watch the doorway, breathlessly. Then the bat sails out into the night. We tumble over one another to get back inside and slam the door shut. And we share high-fives, grinning like fools.

“You were brave, Mom,” Jake says.

My children have made me braver than I am. They have rewired my lily-­livered neurological pathways with their steady expectations that I will fix it, solve it, kiss it and make it better, be the grown-up when I would much prefer to collapse into helpless fluster. This has gone on so long now that I sometimes think I could face down anything, lift a station wagon with my two hands, so long as it was for their sake.

After his mother let go, five-year-old Lachie Searle rode the tsunami wave, caught hold of a door handle, clung to it for hours while the waters receded, and then waded away from death, to be reunited, eventually, with his mother and brother. He told his father, “I cried for Mum for a long time and then I was quiet.”

Even now, I pause in the night in the hallway outside Marcy’s bedroom. I listen for her breath.

And Doug wants to teach her to drive. Well, I’ll do my best to laugh and clap and wave as I watch her pull away from the curb.

Funny thing is, it never was about the spiders and the splinters and the bats. It was about the darkness, though. About darkness, and distance, and loss, and the courage to let go.

You keep on going through the motions, pretending to be brave to fool them, and one day it’s there, and you are brave, just in time for you to release their hands, eldest first, and let them slip into the tsunami.