Sunday, June 26, 2016

Roller Coasters and Redemption

Ethan sails under a bridge during our "BOAT riiiide!"

Fifteen summers ago Dan and I took a vacation out to Chicago and Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio. It was July 2001. I always think of that vacation as a different world, another time, before we had kids, before the planes hit the towers and things changed in big and little ways.

On that trip I remember our biggest concern -- our chief annoyance -- was when we attempted to go on a boat tour of Chicago. A pack of teenagers climbed on behind us and immediately began talking, loudly. This was a historical tour and somewhere up front the tour operator was educating us on the story of Chicago. We couldn't hear a word. We looked to change seats but all were full. All we could hear was who was dating who, and where they'd partied last and where they were going to party that night. All of that was interspersed with several of them shrieking out "BOAT Riiiide!" at intermittent points throughout the trip.

For years after it would be a private joke between the two of us, and if I knew Dan was annoyed about something I might throw a "BOAT riiiide!" out there just to make us both laugh.

That year we also went to Cedar Point, the roller coaster capital of the world, where I somehow managed to get on one of the tallest coasters in the world and didn't die.

For years, we always figured we'd get back out to that part of the country -- and that darn it, we were going to take a boat tour and get our money's worth this time.

We're a little unconventional, in our family. Our vacations aren't everyone's cup of tea. We don't tend to stay in one place or do some kind of "resort." We have yet to get to Disney. We test everyone's limits and maybe do some things people normally wouldn't consider doing with a toddler. I will go out of my way to drive to states I haven't seen...Dan will go out of his way for any sort of oddity, novelty, or thrill ride. Our vacations tend to not be relaxing (when are they ever, with kids?) as much as adventurous, in a very suburban kind of way. We're not hiking the Himalayas...but we have explored the White Mountains and Smoky Mountains. Baltimore. Last year, Virginia. And now the Midwest.

Last year we made a discovery upon arriving at Busch Gardens amusement park -- that Anna had developed an immense fear of roller coasters. This is always a fun thing to realize once you've dropped a ton of money on a major attraction and now have a child weeping in fear at the foot of a coaster. That was an interesting day. Pounding rain and the threat of storms closed half the rides. We left the park due to a 100 percent change of thunderstorms, yet a half-hour later the sun was shining and shone for the rest of the day. It was another "BOAT riiiide!" experience.

Over time I've realized:
- There will always be things you can't plan for.
- Sometimes the most irritating or disappointing moments make for the best stories and most laughter later on.
- Take lessons from what went wrong and attempt to plan better the next time (while acknowledging that something will still not go exactly your way).

Over time we've also realized:
You can't make your child do something they are terrified to do. You can encourage them, but they need to feel safe, and they need to feel they can "opt out."

And so, fast forward to the past week. Fifteen years later, we were back at Cedar Point, three kids in tow. We'd vowed not to push Anna onto roller coasters. Ethan said he was ready to ride them all. He and Dan got in line for this ridiculous coaster that was literally giving me heart palpitations just watching the people waiting to get shot 450-feet into the air in about 5 seconds. As we waited, Anna decided to go on a small coaster. Then she wanted to ride again. Then another one. These weren't huge coaters, but she was all smiles.

Ethan and Dan came back from the line, perturbed. They had gotten to the point where they were actually sitting in car, ready to be shot up, when the ride operator had forced them all off and told them the ride was closing due to high winds. Seriously? Ethan was approaching meltdown mode.

"Ethan," Dan encouraged, "We're not going to let this ruin our day. Let's do something else fun."

So Ethan jumped onto some rides with Anna. Then we decided to go together on the Magnum, a 215-foot steel coaster I'd ridden before. Anna chickened out and backed out of the line when she saw the hill. We bit our tongues and gave her her space. Ethan saw the coaster's size and got shaky. I kept reassuring him things were fine, even as we were heading up the endless hill...and then once we plunged down I started screaming. I screamed and screamed and didn't stop until the ride stopped. People behind and in front of me asked if I was okay. I realized I'd been having some kind of primal experience where I barely remembered who I was, nevermind that I had a child sitting next to me who had already been apprehensive. I also realized that it had been way too long since I'd been on a huge coaster and that maybe, just maybe, I was getting a little old for this.

After that experience, Ethan didn't want to go on anymore huge coasters. I felt guilty. I hadn't modeled calm. I'd freaked out. I'd forgotten I was a parent, seriously. After I'd done so well on the plane (I'm not the biggest fan of flying) I'd lost it on the coaster.

Take lessons from what went wrong and try to do better next time.

Just as we weren't going to push Anna on coasters, we couldn't push Ethan. Even if we'd paid way too much money on a pass for him and Dan to skip the lines. Anna, in the meantime, was open to riding more coasters, as long as they weren't huge. This, from the girl who had said all she wanted for her birthday that week was for no one to make her go on roller coasters.

Sometimes our kids surprise us...either in a good way or a bad way...but they always surprise us, don't they?

We left the park dirty, sweaty, tired, and satisfied. The day had not been perfect -- several coasters remained closed due to wind, the food was too overpriced to eat, and we'd still missed a ton of rides over the 8+ hours -- but that was okay. We'd tried. We'd made adjustments. We'd tried to be sensitive to each others' needs. That was the most important thing.

Five days later we were back at Six Flags at home (not our choice, so close to our other trip, but a company event). Ethan, Anna and I stood in line for the Thunderbolt, a small wooden coaster I remembered riding when I was Anna's age. It looked exactly the same. I could see my tween self standing in line. As we boarded the ride, I promised Ethan I wouldn't scream. Instead, any time he got nervous and looked at me, I'd smile. Just like on the plane. Just like I realized I had to do, because I'd let him see footage of a plane crash once and it freaked him out.

Take lessons from what went wrong and try to do better next time.

Back in Chicago, our first day there, we'd decided to attempt the boat ride once again. It was time to right history. We were going to soldier through this thing, darn it, and learn about the city once and for all. We got on the boat and I scoured our area for obnoxious loud people. None. Then I looked around me. We had three kids with us this time, including a two-year-old who could care less about Chicago's architecture. Who was I kidding? There would be interruptions. I wasn't going to sit peacefully, undistracted as in the years we were first married when we'd go somewhere as a couple. I had to readjust expectations.

There will always be things you can't plan for.

But you can plan to have things not perfect, and you can plan to keep a good attitude. As we sailed under bridges and looked up a soaring buildings, I felt a sense of freedom. Yes, my child was pulling on my arm and spilling food all over the floor, but I heard about 80 percent of what was said. That was a lot better than zero. We were here, with these amazing views, awake and in a relatively good mood despite a delayed flight and getting to bed at 2 in the morning. We were doing this boat ride, finally, and this trip that other people might think was a little too overreaching.

We were winning, not at perfection, but at doing this thing called life, with all of its curve balls and all of our fears and failures. By the grace of God. By our willingness to change and alter course when necessary.

I think there will still be times when I'll randomly call out "BOAT riiiide!" and have to smile. Sometimes the most irritating or disappointing moments make for the best stories and most laughter later on. There are days I wonder what happened to those teenagers on the boat. They may be married with kids of their own now. They may have had their boat ride ruined by someone else, or by their kids. And then they learn. Then the epiphany comes when they realize it's time to grow up, and growing up isn't everything they thought it was. It's a lot easier and a lot more complicated, all at the same time.

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