Captain Batten and the crew of the Rusty Crutch had never lost a sailing ship to raiding pirates. At the first sign of trouble, the Captain would shout, “First Mate! Fetch my red shirt!” Then donning the red shirt, Captain Batten would lead his crew to victory against the invading party.
The First Mate eventually grew curious and asked what was so special about the red shirt. “If I am wounded in battle,” Captain Batten explained, “the red shirt will hide the blood – so that the crew can continue to fight without fear.”
Then one day, the ship’s lookout yelled, “Captain! FIFTY pirate ships right ahead!”
The First Mate shouted, “Captain! Shall I bring your red shirt?”
Captain Batten bellowed back, “Yes! And fetch my brown pants!”
I have a secret. I’m afraid.
I’m at the park with Captain AmeriCute. He immediately heads for the highest horizontal bar, scrambling up fearlessly, swinging back and forth three feet above the ground, and then executing a leaping dismount worthy of an Olympic medalist. Brady is all smiles and giggles as he smacks into the sand. I, however, am doing my best to not lose my lunch. I point out the lower bar, the one where his toes dangle a mere inch from the ground, and explain to Brady that it would be MUCH more fun to swing from that one. We make it back to Brady’s house without any injuries, and I breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Even a fairly harmless-looking kitchen gadget can fan the flames of fear. It’s summer, and the grocery stores are filled with packages of fresh, juicy cherries. I have an olive pitter that I use to remove the pits. As Brady watches, I pretend the process is a magic trick and demonstrate with a fake accent. “Ah, look at cherry! Very delicious, but has hard pit inside! Not good for little boys to eat!” I’m kinda going for Sesame Street’s The Count, but it probably comes out more Gru from Despicable Me. It’s all fun and games until Brady wants to try it. (The olive pitter, not the accent). I’m afraid the steel pin will crush one of his tiny fingers. But I’m also afraid of making him think he can’t do stuff on his own. He grabs the pitter and tries to use it, but it turns out that he can’t quite apply enough force to make it work. I breathe another sigh of relief.
OK, so maybe I’m slightly neurotic. But it’s not like my fears are completely unjustified.
I put off my first solo babysitting stint with Brady for quite a while. Part of it was wanting to avoid diaper changing duty. But there was a much bigger issue. What if he did something dangerous because I wasn’t looking for one second? Like sticking his finger in an electric socket? Or opening the knife drawer? Yes, Captain AmeriCute’s house had all the traditional safety mechanisms for sockets and drawers. (Although I’m not certain if the olive pitter had been properly secured.) But the fact that Brady’s Mommy and Daddy had paid to have their house professionally baby-proofed did little to ease my fear, as it took Brady oh, about fifteen minutes or so to figure out how to get around all the special trappings. As the baby-proofing expert left the house, I’m guessing that little Brady toddled over to the front window, watched the pickup truck pull away, narrowed his eyes, and said, “Game on, Dude.” He appears to have taken it as a personal challenge.
But back to my original story, we finally pick a day when Brady’s Mommy and Daddy would be at a restaurant just up the street. Things start off pretty well. But then Brady gets excited about something and makes a mad dash from the living room to his bedroom. In his haste, he cuts the corner into the hallway too close and smacks his forehead loudly against the wall, taking out a chunk of plaster about the size of a silver dollar.
Oooooh, Fu- I mean, Fudgsicle.
Brady looks dazed for half a second and then says, “Sorry.”
“Brady,” I say. “You don’t have to say sorry when you get hurt!”
He looks at me like I’m deliberately being slow and says, “I was saying sorry to the WALL!”
Somehow, he ends up with nothing more than a tiny red mark on his forehead, which I have to show his Mommy and Daddy when they return home, along with the missing chunk of their wall.
But that episode was a day in the park – a super safe park with no high horizontal bar – compared to our first Superhero and Sidekick outing to McDonalds.
By the time we arrive at McDonald’s, I’m already a little freaked out from my first solo attempt at the pre-school pickup process. As I stand outside the classroom door, one of the moms glares at me and says, “Can I help you?” Now, I have absolutely no problem with a parent calling out someone at a school, playground, etc. who looks like they don’t belong. But when I tell her I’m there to pick up Brady, she replies, “He’s not in there.” Fudgsicle. Am I at the wrong classroom at the wrong time, in the wrong school, while Brady sits alone and dejected in his ACTUAL classroom, wondering why no one has come to pick him up? I picture Brady with his Sad Face (the one that breaks my heart into a bazillion pieces), and make a panicked trip to the receptionist to double-check whether I’m in the right place. I find out that I was, indeed, standing in front of EXACTLY the right classroom, from which Brady emerges a few minutes later, ready for our lunch date. Maybe the mom thought that I looked extra suspicious. But I had significantly toned down my Auntie appearance to what I considered “Business Casual Auntie”. I mean, yeah, I was sporting my R2-D2 socks, but I was wearing a totally normal, non-Star Wars shirt, and I had left my collection of goofy hats, sunglasses, and fake mustaches at home.
Anyway, things start looking up a bit when I manage to get Captain AmeriCute buckled into the booster seat in my car without having to call 911 (or Brady’s Mommy). We arrive at McDonald’s, and Brady orders a Happy Meal with Chicken McNuggets. I look up, scan the menu options, and ask the cashier, “Do you still have those yogurt parfaits?” She says yes, and I reply, “I’d like one of those.” The whole exchange takes less than nine seconds. (Yes, out of curiosity, I timed it later).
I look back down. Brady is GONE. I frantically ask if anyone saw where he went. A couple of construction workers point to the play area. (Looking back, I’m not sure if they were messing with me or if they just assumed that’s where a young child would go). I throw a $20 on the counter and hustle to the play area. No sign of Captain AmeriCute. I yell his name. No response. Panic sets in. Next, I sprint to the restrooms. My sister had told me that she takes Brady into the Women’s room, so I try there first and look under all the stalls. No Brady. My lungs won’t fill with air. I move on to the Men’s restroom and am just raising my fist to pound on the door, when Captain AmeriCute walks out, like everything is perfectly normal. I say, “Brady! I couldn’t find you!! Did you leave to go to the restroom all by yourself?” He looks up brightly and says, “No! Someone was next to me!”
Fudgsicle. Fudgsicle. Fudgsicle.
I’ve just left Captain AmeriCute in a public restroom with a stranger. Fortunately, it turned out OK. (Insert your favorite joke here about the North Carolina state legislature). I guess that when nature places an urgent collect call, you have to accept the charges, but as I let out a big sigh of relief, I could feel several strands of shoulder-length, formerly brunette hair turning stark white.
(Side note: There are those who have been critical of the mom in the Cincinnati Zoo incident, but I figure I can’t throw the first stone. I mean, I only had ONE kid to watch. In a fairly small, enclosed space. But I still lost him.)
And now Brady is asking to do a sleepover at Auntie Kimberly’s. Gaaaaa! What if he has a medical emergency? What if he gets outside while I’m sleeping? What if one of my bookshelves comes crashing to the ground on top of him because I failed to follow the instructions in the IKEA manual that say to screw them into the wall? (OK, they weren’t “instructions” in the normal sense of the term, as that implies there were actual words. It was more a drawing of a screw, an arrow pointing towards the wall, and a sketch of an androgynous individual cowering in front of a tipping bookshelf).
So for now, I’ve put Captain AmeriCute off by saying that I don’t have an extra bed. Technically, I do have a sleeper sofa in my office, but it was purchased in the early 1990s, and the mattress is probably made out of asbestos. (Fudgsicle! Add asbestos poisoning to my list of potential calamities).
Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one with this borderline irrational fear. I mean, there are plenty of people who aren’t even responsible enough to be Pet Rock Parents, and yet they somehow manage to procreate and keep their tiny humans alive into adulthood without any major catastrophes.
Maybe the fear thing is genetic. My mom (Brady’s “Gra”) and sister (Brady’s Mommy) recently had this text exchange, which was initiated when Captain AmeriCute discovered a loose tooth. At least Gra stopped short of suggesting that the 911 call would be a good idea.
But my parents weren’t always afraid. When I was a baby, they drove across the country while I crawled around in my playpen, which they had wedged into the back seat of their car. Fortunately, it ended well. Years later, though, when my sister was a baby, they sat her on the hood of a parked car during a neighborhood gathering. That one did NOT end so well. However, fortunately, she seems to have suffered no lasting ill effects from sliding off the car and having her tiny head smack into the concrete driveway.
And now that I think about it, I wasn’t always this afraid, either.
When I was in junior high and high school, I did tons of babysitting, as it helped pay for my music and book habits. I sometimes had three or four youngsters at once. I was a highly requested babysitter, known for bringing over my LP collection (rocking classics from Styx, Queen, and Foreigner), as well as for giving awesome airplane rides. If you aren’t familiar with an airplane ride, it involves picking up a kid by their hands, feet, or some combination thereof, and spinning around in a tight circle while the youngster flies through the air until you both want to hurl. For obvious reasons, I suspect that airplane rides have fallen out of vogue. But back then, I had no fear of getting dizzy and dropping one of my small charges. Or accidentally dislocating a pint-sized shoulder. Or losing my grip, and sending my tiny human twin engine careening into a television console. (Or an unsecured bookshelf).
But as the years have passed, the fear has somehow crept in. Maybe it’s because the world has actually become scarier. Or maybe the world was always a scary place – but our ability to access news anytime, anywhere has made us more aware of the infinite possibilities of Bad Things that could befall us. Once my babysitting days were over, I went to college and relocated to the Southeastern U.S. to start a career. My dad happened to be attending a work conference in Tampa, FL – so I hopped a quick flight to meet him. But as a heavy user of the fairly new CNN (you could watch news ALL DAY!), I was well aware of a string of tourist shootings in Florida, which had prompted a rash of panic. Rental car companies scrambled to remove identifying stickers from their vehicles and gave numerous warnings to visitors to not leave anything in the car that could identify the vehicle as a TouristMobile. You know, stuff like maps. (The old-fashioned paper kind that NEVER folded perfectly back into their original form). And Disney World passes. And bags with overpriced merchandise stating, “My best friend went to Florida and all I got was this stupid t-shirt/sweatshirt/mug.”
Before the conference starts, we take a day to visit to Clearwater Beach. My dad is driving our rental car. A vehicle filled with young men pulls up alongside us, and the one riding shotgun makes the universal “roll down your window” gesture. (Well, back then, it was the universal gesture. I guess now you would mimic pushing a button).
My dad rolls down the window, and before I have time to blurt out, “Have you LOST YOUR FREAKING MIND?” he says to the young man, “Can I help you?” The kid looks my dad right in the eye and says: “You left your blinker on, sir.”
Dang. Shoulda packed the brown swimsuit.
Many years later, as the date draws closer for my Bucket List trip to Wimbledon, Swine Flu is all over the news and is officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization just days before my departure. My first night in London, I have tickets to see We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre. Before the performance starts, I realize I’m hot. Really hot. Burning hot. I break out in a sweat. Oh, no! I have Swine Flu! Gaaaaa! Then I notice that everyone else in the theater is fanning themselves with their programs. And that those who had purchased small tubs of Häagen-Dazs ice cream at the concession stand now appear to be eating milk with a spoon. Whoops, my bad! I didn’t have Swine Flu, I was just sitting in a venue with no air conditioning in a city that was experiencing record-breaking heat.
Dang. Shoulda packed the brown trousers.
On the positive side, this type of dire news coverage can prompt people to take important safety precautions in the face of real danger. But on the other hand, it can turn what should be a tiny spark of caution into a five-alarm fear fire. A polite roadway encounter becomes a potential meeting with deranged criminals. A lack of A/C in a crowded theater becomes a deadly virus. And perhaps compounding the issue is that the advent of smartphones has brought every single tragedy in every single neighborhood all over the world right into our own living rooms. Of course, there are some tragedies with far-reaching implications that we NEED to bear witness to – but these days, it seems like every single news story is a twig, log, or canister of gasoline that feeds my own personal fire of fear.
So now in addition to my specific fears about playground equipment, olive pitters, light sockets, fast-food restaurants, and improperly installed bookshelves, I can now add to this list a number of additional items including, but not limited to: the Zika virus, deranged individuals with easy access to guns, random animal attacks, and people who text and drive. (If smartphones were really so smart, they would say, “Put me down and watch the road, you moron,” if you attempted to use them while travelling more than three miles per hour.)
But regardless of whether the world was scary all along – or whether we are now more acutely aware that it’s scary – the fact that Captain AmeriCute is growing up in this kind of environment makes me not only afraid, but also sad. Remember when we walked to school by ourselves? Remember when instead of strategically scheduled “play dates”, we just rode our bikes down the street and asked if Susie could come out and play? If Susie was there, we’d play for a few hours, probably until dinnertime. If Susie was currently grounded for, say, throwing her Magic 8 Ball through the garage window (“outlook not so good”), we would come back later.
Brady (like most kids today) exists in a much more sheltered, protected bubble. So yet another fear that I can add to the list is that his sense of security will be shattered when he starts paying more attention to the news than his Star Wars figurines. He’ll learn that lives can change in an instant – whether due to violence, natural disasters, or freak accidents. He’ll have some tough questions that will be even tougher to answer. I guess when that day comes, I’ll have to dig out this lovely resource from the late Fred Rogers.
With such a plethora of threats (the real, the imagined, and the ridiculously exaggerated) lurking around every corner, part of me wouldn’t mind so much if Captain AmeriCute stayed home all day wearing bubble wrap jammies and a bicycle helmet, watching DVDs of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
But as Dory said in Finding Nemo, “Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.” Dory might have short-term memory issues, but she’s still pretty darn insightful.
Every single day, I feel grateful that this amazing little guy came into my life. And I don’t want anything to happen to him. I don’t want him to get hurt. I don’t want him to experience disappointment. But I don’t want nothing to ever happen to him, either. I want Captain AmeriCute to tackle new challenges. To meet new people. To shoot for the stars and leap from the highest monkey bar. But how can he fight without fear if he knows that I am afraid?
Just after the horrific shootings at the Pulse nightclub, a friend from Orlando posted some beautiful lines on social media from British author C.S. Lewis about the fear of living in the atomic age:
“If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”
I’m still afraid. But I’ll put on my red shirt so that Brady can live, love, play, and fight without fear. We’ll read. We’ll listen to music. We’ll go to the playground. We’ll go back to McDonalds.
And maybe someday, we’ll even have a sleepover.
I’ll just need someone to fetch my brown pajamas.