We’ve been at Six Flags since noon on a perfect July day, but it’s dark now and we haven’t eaten in hours, the kids determined not to waste a moment when they can stroke the sky, inhale the wind, defy gravity, or test the limit of their fears.
Food in your tummy isn’t wise when roller coasters are involved, anyway.
The park closes in 30 minutes and my 12-year-old son leads us to the Gotham City section of the park, his day apparently incomplete unless he rides the Batman, a roller coaster too intense for my 9- and 10-year-old daughters. He races away and they steer me to the Mind Bender, which they rode once with an older brother.
A sign tells us that only one coaster runs the tracks now instead of two as the park nears closing time. We get in line but it’s dark and all I can see through the trees is a spin-you-upside-down-and-backwards loop, which makes my stomach clench. When my daughters note that only two fit on a seat and I’ll be on my own, I get snippy because I’m afraid. I hate to be afraid.
I haven’t been to the park in years and most of my visits involved pushing a stroller or taking little people to the carousel or the bumper cars. I can point you to an air conditioned spot to nurse a baby or change a diaper, but I can’t identify the attractions that make your heart race and your eyes clench shut.
We probably won’t make it to the front of the line before closing time, anyway. The thought comforts me briefly before it starts to nettle. The children in this line know what they’re in for, right? Grow up, girl.
At the front of the line I realize we’ll be allowed to ride and I get in the line for single riders, to be paired with a stranger. My girls will ride four cars behind me. It’s time now and I walk forward, step down into the roller coaster, and then out the other side, where I place my bag on a shelf near the exit. My nerves crackle.
When I turn around it’s my youngest daughter standing there, not the man who stood behind me in line. “Mommy, I want to ride with you!” she pleads and I see her panic. My other daughter decides not to ride. Quickly we sit and lower the metal bar across our laps.
“Mommy I’m scared, I want off.” I try to lift the bar, but it won’t budge. An employee walks towards us, checking that lap bars are snug, and I know we’ll be okay.
“She’s afraid and doesn’t want to ride, but I can’t lift the bar.” He sadly shakes his head: once we’re locked in he can’t release us. Now my daughter cries pitifully and holds me, head buried into my shoulder.
I chant aloud: “Lord, please don’t let Lily be afraid. Let her be okay. Please be with her.” I’m vaguely aware that the people in the seat ahead of us look back and whisper about the little girl who wants off the ride.
The man who was behind me in line looks at us with kind eyes and we share an unspoken connection, parent to parent: he feels my helplessness, shares it. And then we move.
My daughter clings as we climb and time stretches, achingly slow, as the gears grind. She moans, “It’s about to go really fast.” I dread the drop and the loop that follows, but that’s all I can see, blinded by the night sky. “I’m scared, too,” I whisper and hold her close, wishing I could shield her, thankful I’m beside her, fear replaced by a mother’s instinct to protect.
I look forward, eyes wide open, determined to calm my daughter and face my fear. I will not scream. She never raises her head, tucked against me as we plummet 7-stories, loop upside down not once but twice, and twist and turn through the dark. Finally we slow and I tell her it’s over and praise her bravery.
As we enter the station, the crowd erupts. For my girl. “You did it!” yells the man with the kind eyes, relieved, and I exhale.
We step on solid ground and my daughter’s arm wraps around my side, good and tight, and mine around her. She sniffles as we walk to her sister, meet her brother, make our way to the exit. Even when she calms and begins to laugh she stays close, tucked under my arm. It feels right.
I see that my girl with the big personality isn’t afraid to be small. She trusts me with her fear, trusts my ability to protect her. It’s said that a parent’s example forms a child’s view of God: do I model sacrificial, unconditional love?
I hope she learned from me, saw that my prayer for her was instinctive, but I think I learned more from her, the child:
How often do I become small in the face of fear and lean on the One who can shield me?
When Jesus walked this earth—both fully man and fully God—I believe He experienced real, human fear; He understands our hearts. But unlike me, a protector who comforts my daughter while confessing my own fear, He is a sure defense.
My girl tucks herself under my arm again when we stop to eat. At home, she asks to sleep on the chair in our bedroom, still safer in my presence than away.
Lord, teach me to hold onto you instead of trusting in my own strength. I want to love you as a child, willing to be small and humbled, not too proud to seek you.