Last summer my stomach dropped as I watched my children make their first ascent on the classic wooden roller coaster in Arnolds Park, Iowa. I rode on it as a child and my parents and grandparents had ridden it before me. I remembered throwing my arms in the air with my sister as we screamed, trying to coax a bit more velocity into an already thrilling moment. I wanted my own children to have this sort of fun; I didn’t want to be a weird killjoy.
But I gasped, loudly, when the coaster raced down the incline. The man who had lowered the safety bar over my kids’ laps and witnessed them begging me to take a ride asked: “What’s wrong, Mama?”
I tried to shrug and smile if I were just a garden-variety dud (Ha ha! Moms! Am I right?) and not careening into a panic attack.
I’d struggled the previous summer on a family trip to the Omaha Zoo, where I’d recklessly hopped on the Skyfari, an open-air chair lift, emboldened by the senior citizens and babies in arms who’d boarded ahead of me. I’d given myself a mental pep talk: How bad could it be?
I had my answer as soon as I was parallel to the treetops, death-clawing my husband’s hand. It was both terrible and easy to imagine an unsmiling newscaster looking into the camera, her voice hushed, solemn, and adding a professional wince for flourish: A shocking accident today at the zoo …
I had heard a version of this particular newscast as a teenager watching TV in a hospital waiting room, my little sister hours into a complicated neurosurgery after being injured by a roller coaster at an amusement park in Kansas City, Mo. She fainted while waiting in line and fell into the path of the moving ride, resulting in a traumatic brain injury.
Years later, whenever I saw Facebook photos of smiling families at that park, I wondered what kind of irresponsible people would take their children to such a place. The answer, of course: People who don’t intimately know how a 13-year-old girl can skip through the entry gates on a bright summer morning, innocent of the fractured skull and ambulance and neurosurgeon and priest that the afternoon would bring.
But my sister not only fully recovered, she — incredibly, to me — loves amusement parks, specifically Disney World. Which is why she cooked up a girls’ trip to Orlando for the two of us and my 10-year-old daughter this year.
“The rides are built by structural engineers,” my sister tried to reassure me. Indeed, when her accident happened more than 30 years ago, there was no barrier between the riders and the ride. Now, at least at Disney parks, crowd management is part of the deliberate design of the entrance to each ride.
“It’s totally safe,” she argued. “We’ll have an amazing time.”
Were we tempting the darkly ironic forces of fate with an activity that was completely frivolous and privileged? Or was it the opposite: Did my sister’s accident serve as a sort of horrific insurance policy for my family that nothing bad would ever happen to us at an amusement park again?
The seduction of telling my daughter we were going to Disney World and the self-help opportunity to conquer my fears won out. I said yes.
When the plane touched down in Orlando, I was seized by a rare bout of carpe diem and promised my daughter that I would ride every single ride she wanted to go on.
My first ride? Space Mountain, which I’d dreamed of riding as an astronaut-obsessed child, and while the jolting turns didn’t do my bad neck any favors, I was actually on a roller coaster in the darkness and not hating it.
And I didn’t stop there. I rode Tower of Terror like a boss and said so, and then was duly informed by my daughter and my sister that no one had used that phrase in a very long time, and could I please never use it again? We had dinner in the pale blue castle that I’d seen on the Wonderful World of Disney TV broadcasts every Sunday night of my childhood. As my daughter was eating a build-your-own-cupcake for dessert, the fireworks started — exploding blossoms of silver and gold right behind the windows — and the look on her face was the definition of bliss.
I did have a bad moment on the iconic flying Dumbo ride where I wished to be someone else, someone who relished sailing along in the night sky with her dazzled child, not a woman with a false grin clamped on her face envisioning a team of paramedics tearing through the crowd, accompanied by screams and sirens, because one of the elephants had broken off and sent its riders crashing to the ground.
The last day of our trip we rode Expedition Everest, a roller coaster that, as the name suggests, is tall. Very tall. To me, it seemed like a grander version of the roller coaster my sister was injured on, closed down for decades now, though still my personal Voldemort: I will not say its name. As we waited in the long, serpentine line for Expedition Everest, the people in front of us raved about the view from the top of the highest artificial mountain in the world, and how excited they were to ride again!
I looked at my sister and made a surreptitious — or so I thought — vomiting motion.
“Mom! You promised, right?” My daughter took my hand and gave it an encouraging little pat. “Every single ride?’
“Of course! This is going to be a blast. I’m actually really looking forward to it.”
My sister snorted. I could have waited in that long line forever, but my purgatory of dread was short-lived. All too soon my daughter and I were pulling our lap bars down and zooming along the track. My sister was in the car ahead of us, and above the deafening roar of the roller coaster I could hear her calling out to us. Of all the incarnations of my little sister — chatty toddler, precocious little red-haired girl, recovering middle-schooler, punk-rock teenager, new mother, law school professor — here was my new favorite: a beautiful middle-aged woman shouting “Put your arms up!”
How had she come out of trauma as a highly competent adult so fearless and fun? How did we share a genetic code? I was so afraid in the air, afraid to look down from such a dramatic height, afraid that I was endangering my daughter who was laugh-screaming, almost hysterical with delight.
I hadn’t conquered my fear, not really. I would not be giving a smug thumbs-up from the cover of any self-help book in the foreseeable future. I certainly did not put my arms up, but I managed to uncurl one hand from the lap bar and slide it up my ear and splay my fingers into a quick wallflower wave.
And when I heard my sister shriek with joy as the roller coaster started zooming backward, I felt a disorienting jolt of both happiness and pure longing.
I wanted to time travel back to 1984 at the same astounding speed, to rush into my little sister’s hospital room and deliver the good news: You’ll ride again.
Mary O’Connell lives in Lawrence, Kan., and her latest novel is “Dear Reader.”
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