My son, Josh, was turning ten. To celebrate, I took him and two of his friends to a giant theme park in the Wisconsin Dells.
I believe the theme of the park was “soul-wasting vagaries of commercialized childhood.” Or, if that wasn’t right, it might have been “the desperate pursuit of fun amid a head-splitting cacophony of visual and auditory noise.” People with peanut allergies should avoid peanuts, and people like me should definitely steer clear of amusement parks. I loved them as a child, but as an adult, they bring out my dark side: a cynical, critical, coffee-house misanthrope.
I’m not really like that anymore. Parenthood has sweetened me almost beyond recognition. Talking to my pregnant belly, singing Rogers & Hart songs to my baby, and scrunching up my face for one cherubic smile made me forget why I spent so many years of my lazy youth in coffee houses idly wondering why life seemed so meaningless, commercialized, over-scripted, and dully ironic.
This theme park was giving me flashbacks.
To begin with, birthday parties scare the hell out of me, because I know, deep down inside, despite having identified, finally, so much love and beauty in the world, that I am still not as light as air or sea foam or Styrofoam or even Wd40.
He was my only child. We were at a giant amusement park. I was a knot of anxiety. I desperately wanted my son to enjoy his big day, so I tried to assume a less troubled expression, and I trailed after him from a respectful distance, self-soothing with sour frozen yogurt that was supposed to taste something like birthday cake.
After ten minutes, Josh’s two friends glommed onto each other, vanished into the ether, and left my newly-minted ten-year old high and dry.
I searched for them for twenty minutes before I began to imagine the worst. At the front desk, I confessed that I had lost two children that were not my own.
The young woman behind the desk did not seem the least bit fazed. She took her phone out into the entryway vestibule (the only place where a person could hear themself scream). When she returned, she explained that the announcement over the system would be audible only to people who were playing electronic games.
“But what if they’re not playing electronic games?” I said.
She pretended not to hear the question.
Within half a minute, the two boys showed up.
With characteristic intensity, I explained to the boys (without raising my voice) that they must tell me where they were going at all times, unless I could actually see them. (I had turned up the intensity volume to eleven. Oh, yes, they would abide.)
From there, they took the walk of shame to the indoor pool.
For the next two-and-a-half interminable hours, my son anguished over the specter of water slides. He waited in one line for twenty minutes. Toward the top of many flights of stairs, his agitation escalated.
At the moment of truth (we were next in line), I tried to comfort him. “If it scares you,” I said, “I’ll give you five dollars.”
“What if it doesn’t scare me?”
“If you just get in the raft, I’ll give you five dollars.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
It was now our turn to step into the raft. I reached out to comfort my son. “Ten dollars? How about ten? All you have to do is get in the raft. C’mon! Get in the raft! It will be fun! ”
“I don’t want to get in the raft.”
“Alright, fifteen. Fifteen dollars.”
“I don’t want to get in the raft.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll see you at the bottom of the ride.”
Josh, on his birthday, had to turn around and walk, by himself, past all of those people, down all of those stairs. Did I mention that it was his birthday?
Water-jets propelled me in my two-person raft alone through a roiling, curling tube of high-speed, stomach-churning, kinetic disappointment. (I am a horrible parent. Horrible, horrible parent.)
“Josh, are you sad?”
“Because I didn’t get in the raft, so I didn’t get twenty dollars.” He burst into tears. “You shouldn’t bribe me with money!”
“You’re right.” And then I think, so what should I bribe you with? Video games? What is the currency?
“I just wanted you to get in the raft because I thought you would have fun.” As if I knew anything about having fun at an amusement park. “The water slides are not important, Sweetie. They’re just for fun.”
I cannot stop saying the word fun. I am about as fun as food poisoning.To be honest, I wanted him to work through his fears. I wanted him to dispense with this inconvenient anxiety. (Where did he get that from?) I wanted him to be like the other boys, who were having so much fun.
I searched my mind for inspiration. Rummaging in the darkness, I tripped over the shame of having thrown a money at the whole problem of my son’s frankly inconvenient birthday.
We had just moved…We were still unpacking…I was overwhelmed…
So, I tried to make it easier on myself with money (as a substitute for planning or creativity). And yet, the problem remained. A less expensive, less time-consuming, less exhaustive effort might have been equally unsuccessful, but at least it wouldn’t have been as costly.
So, I gave up. (What else could I do?) I gave in. I couldn’t force fun, or happiness. I couldn’t will it to happen.
“As long as we’re sad,” I said, “We may as well play water-basketball.”
“That pool is cold,” Josh said.
“You’re right,” I said. “It is cold. But we’re miserable, so what difference does it make? There aren’t any balls available, either. Too bad, so sad. Let’s just get in and suffer together.”
Josh laughed. We jumped in. His two utterly disloyal friends reappeared. And then, most unexpectedly, something heavy, with talons, silently launched itself off my shoulders, into the humid air.
This post originally appeared on Observations and Surmisals.