June 2011

The Swings

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We venture to the amusement park on a blustery December evening. Wool scarves around our necks, mittens for our hands. I am getting older, my circulation not what it was, and in my numb fingers, a hint of the deeper cold to come. Christmas carols play. What the music lacks in acoustics, it atones for in pervasiveness, our journey accompanied by a seamless, cheery soundtrack. Around us, a wonderland of lights, and I consider the sweat and strain that built this dreamy scene. Crowded tonight. Steam rises from every mouth, a thin haze overhead. Hand in hand, my boy and I navigate the park’s looping midway. He’s quiet this evening, our day made long by morning’s 7:00 am hockey game and our afternoon’s woodland hike. But I am a fretful parent, prone to projection, and I fear my son’s reticence has deeper roots.

“Dad,” he huffs when we pause to apply another dose of lip balm.

“Thanks,” I say.

He grimaces but he doesn’t flinch as I rub on a final layer. “Thanks for what?”

“For staying still.” He chaps so easily, a genetic gift from his fair-skinned father. He tells me I worry too much. He’s just turned eight, and sometimes he seems adrift in the widening sea of independence. He holds my hand one moment and pushes me away the next. He will curl into me to read a book but squirm when I pull his cap over his ears. He is still a child, but childhood’s self-centered cocoon is fading as he comes to understand the humbling relation that exists between an individual and the world at large. A breeze hits us, a shiver down my spine. The branches bone-clatter in a tree of gumdrop lights. The lights sway. A shimmer passes across my son’s unsmiling lips. “Are you done yet?” he asks.

I slide the balm back into my pocket. The crowds pass, a tide of strangers, most with children in tow. In the air, the scents of cocoa and cinnamon. Another family pauses beneath our tree. The mother tucks a blanket around her strollered infant. Two sisters, both younger than my son, laugh as they exchange a single glove, each left with a mismatched set. My boy studies them. Is he simply tired? Bored? Or do I detect a sense of longing in his quiet eyes? Such an emotion is easy for an adult to spot, but I ache to see it on the face of the child I love.

The only child. I have been reassured by recent studies citing the adjustment and emotional stability of only children. Our son enjoys our undivided attention. We listen to his stories. We patiently answer his many questions. We are his partners when he wants to draw or build Legos. Without the schedule-juggling of larger families, one of us is always there to pick him up at the bus stop or to cheer at his hockey games. He does not know it, but he is our miracle, the answered prayer to our own years of longing. I would die for him, yet I am powerless to share his world as a sibling would, my hands too big to exchange gloves on an icy night.

“What’s next?” I ask, and my bruised spirit lifts with his budding smile.

“The swings maybe?”

I sigh. Ten years ago, a vertigo attack landed me in the hospital, a night of vomiting and intravenous liquids that announced the end of my whirligig days, a verdict I’ve since challenged at foolhardy intervals. My most recent bout of poor judgment—last summer’s debacle on the Frontier Flier, a tethered spaceship ride. Emboldened by the evening’s conquering of roller coasters and the mammoth yet tame Ferris wheel, I joined my son for what we agreed would be our final ride. My wife urged me to reconsider, but I was assured by the absolute rightness of my decision, a type of moral imperative I believed would trump the ride’s dizzying physics. The line inched forward, and how happy I was to be my son’s partner, his coconspirator in the night’s last thrill. The ride lifted its octopus arms and launched its spaceships in a clattering orbit. The more I watched, the more I became convinced all would be OK. When our turn came, I followed my boy to the ride’s waiting carriage. When we left the ground, I gazed upon my suddenly distant wife, taken back by how small she appeared.

Bravado is a fool’s armor, and with our increasing velocity, my confidence disintegrated. Embedded in the spinning motion lurked a visceral echo of my vertigo, not just its whirling disorientation but its deeper fears of helplessness and humiliation. A visual anchor, that’s what I needed, and I attempted to focus on the center’s twisting pillar. This last-ditch strategy was sabotaged by my son’s rudder jerks, and the nose of our craft twisted rudely from earth to sky and back again. I closed my eyes and breathed deep. Sickness filled me, and I struggled to steady the vile current that roiled between my ears. Finally the ride slowed to a stop. Pale and woozy, I navigated the slanting macadam. My wife guided me to a bench where I sat, my head hung like a pummeled boxer, until my senses abandoned their accordion wheezings.

“I can’t go on the swings,” I say. “But I’ll take you.”

The ride is loading when we arrive. There is no line. “Can I go?” he asks, and with my nod, he bolts off, zigzagging through the chrome chutes and into the lit space beneath the swings. The ride dates back to the park’s beginnings. The center consists of a thick stem topped by a mushroom cap, all of it painted in intricate vaudevillian motifs. My boy circles the swings, studying, judging, until he selects the one that speaks to him. Near him, a trio of rowdy older boys. The boys spin in their seats, the long chains above them twisting and untangling. The boys kick each other. They grab each other’s swings and push off, behaviors continued despite the scolding of the ride operator who hustles by in his lap-belt securing rounds.

The operator signals the booth. The ride’s center rises, a resurrection of high-pitched hydraulics. My son’s tiptoeing boots abandon the earth. The turning begins and ramps into a swift velocity. The swings stretch out, the chained seats like petals of a mechanical flower. The riders scream. In a perfect world, I would be beside my boy, but the swings’ gyrations leave me grateful for my decision to remain behind.

The swings zip past, faster still. The riders fly out at ever-steeper angles. I study the blur of jackets and shoes until I spot my son. He clutches the chains, his feet tucked beneath him, his hood blown from his head. Round and round he goes, and if I take my eyes off him, he melts into the dizzying procession, lost until I recognize his camouflage coat. I wave but between my position at the lights’ fringe and his speed, I doubt he sees me. I recall a similar ride from my childhood, the world a happy blur, my sneakered feet flying over tent tops and concession stands. There’s a deceptive science at play, the center’s revolutions tamer than the swings’ zooming speed, an imbalance echoed with the apparent acceleration of my son’s swing as he orbits above me.

In time, the turning slows. The swings ease down. Chains rattle as the riders raise their lap bars. I wait by the exit. My son reaches me, his cheeks flushed. “Can I go again?”

I pull up his hood. “You can go as many times as you’d like.”

He joins the hustling tide that circles back to the ride’s entrance. He steps into the light, beginning again the selection process that is his alone. He pulls down and secures the lap bar. With a twist, he turns my way, offering a wave and a smile. I wave back, a gesture meant to let him know I will be here, waiting until he is ready to call it a night.