|Tornado-spawning cumulonimbus mammatus clouds|
We had been talking about summer and the topic of thunderstorms came up. Ethan's not a big fan of them. Neither was I, for a long, long time. I have a plethora of thunderstorm stories still bouncing around in my mind (for some reason, our little Central Mass. town seemed to get walloped more often than we ever do here). I picked the one I always recall as "The Day we Chased the Green Clouds."
Growing up in a family of weather aficionados and storm chasers meant sometimes I was dragged along on the storm chasing. This wouldn't have been so bad except that after the day a tornado hit my grandmother's town when I was six, I became petrified of storms. You could say, to coin an autism term, that I did a fair amount of perseverating on the subject. I got a cloud chart and studied the pictures of cumulonimbus clouds religiously. I kept an ear to the weather report and an eye to the sky most humid days, always ready to dive under my bed and hide if necessary. So that day when I was about eight and a bad storm started to roll in, I was in my usual panic. Meanwhile, my parents looked to the sky with eagerness. "Look at how green the clouds look over there," I remember one of them pointing out. And then -- "Let's go chase it!"
I didn't want to go. I really, really didn't want to go. I begged and pleaded, but my parents weren't having it. "You can go or stay home alone," my mom suggested. I felt as if I were in my own kind of private hell, where the only choices are both tortuous. Ride into a severe storm? Or stay all alone as it pounded the house? Finally, in tears I said I'd go.
We headed toward North Brookfield, a town just about as rinky-dink as ours, about 15 minutes away. The storm grew much worse. Rain fell in sheets making it almost impossible to see. Lighting bolts cracked all around us. The thunder was so loud I could clearly hear it in the car, and at one point I remember looking at a grove of young maple trees and seeing them bent halfway to the ground, by the wind. I was huddled in the back, sobbing, and I knew it was bad when even my dad stopped the car and said he didn't dare drive any further. Another car in front of us kept plowing ahead into the storm and I remember crying thinking they were going to die. And then as all storms do the weather began to ebb and the rain eased and we could all breathe again. Later that night we learned a funnel cloud that hadn't touched the ground had been spotted near where we'd been driving. After that storm chasing experience, my fear of thunderstorms would linger until I reached adulthood.
As soon as I finished talking, Ethan looked at me with wide eyes. His bottom lip was trembling and I could tell he was fighting tears.
"You know the worst part?" he asked. "The worst part was when they asked you to stay home alone." And boom -- just like that -- he had nailed it. That had been the worst part, as a child. That sense of powerlessness. That feeling that I had to do something awfully scary because the alternative was even scarier.
"If you were home alone the tornado would have destroyed you and your house," he said. I reiterated that no tornado actually touched down, but that flew over his head. "I didn't want you to have to stay all alone," he said sadly, forgoing proper verb tenses in his misery.
"I know, I know," I answered, starting to see that we had a problem. "But it's okay now, Ethe. Nothing bad happened. I'm not afraid of storms. I like storms."
"We need to go to that town," he said. For a moment I was pleasantly surprised. I thought of driving the kids through my old stomping grounds (we'd tried this before), past the elementary school and the library and the old railroad tracks, and them actually caring.
"I need to see where that green cloud was," he clarified. I tried to explain the green cloud was long gone. No matter.
The next morning, he asked again. Ethan has it set in his mind now. We need to drive an hour and ten minutes into Massachusetts so he can see where the green cloud hovered over the hills. And we're going to be talking a lot more about this. He's already asked to hear the story again, and I want to hit myself for filling his mind with something scary.
But this is the clincher: in the midst of all of this I was suddenly reminded of the day last summer when the kids and I sat on the backyard grass listening to thunder in the distance and watching some really big thunderheads to our north.
"The bad storms ALWAYS miss us!" Anna complained, wanting to see something exciting in the skies.
"Well...let's go chase it!" I said suddenly. "Yea!" she agreed, jumping up. In a few seconds' time we were rushing over to the car, while Ethan trailed behind. "Please," he began pleading. "I don't want to go." His entire body was tense.
"C'mon Ethe, it'll be fun," I urged, hurrying him into the back seat. "Mama, I want to stay at home," he was saying again and again, fighting tears. And somehow, in that moment, I had chosen to ignore the memory of that terrifying afternoon 30 years ago. I had become my parents.
When I think about it now, it's hard to not let the guilt slither in. Especially when I recall the rest of the afternoon, about our driving into a hailstorm while Ethan covered his eyes and ears in the backseat.
But then I wonder if, in my foolishness, like my parents' foolishness before me, I might have given him the same thing I received -- a story to tell. An adventure. An opportunity to face his greatest fear, and come out on the other side. Maybe there's some good that can come from a parent's misplaced enthusiasm; from a dose of immaturity. At the same time, I feel the sting of regret that I placed my son in a similar situation, the one difficult for any child to bear: one of fear and powerlessness.
During Ethan's bedtime prayers tonight I heard: "And thank you God that we are warm and cozy in our house and safe from tornados." Someday we'll go check out North Brookfield, Ethan's land of the green clouds. He'll see that it's not such a scary place. And I'll figure out how to balance a quest for adventure while ensuring my kids feel safe. This is what parenting's all about: try, fail, repeat, fail less badly, try again. And always look for silver linings in those green clouds.