There is no doubt that we are giving this parenting gig our best effort; however, in those moments when we realize just how badly a situation could have turned out, we shake our heads in disbelief at how we could have been so stupid. See the kids in this picture, smiling, wearing protective head gear, goggles of course. This right here is a bad decision, but we don’t know it yet. We had visited Geoff’s mom and dad in Franconia when Carver spied the adaptive downhill mountain bike. He asked Geoff if he could try it, not the first time asking, but the first time Geoff agreed to let him try having proven he can handle the squeeze breaks. And so two things are happening right now. 1. Geoff is beyond excited that his kid wants to use a piece of outdoor adaptive equipment. 2. Carver and Greta are thrilled the answer is yes this time around. Maybe it’s the spring air or the fact that both kids love bike riding that tells us this is a good decision.
Now what they don’t tell you when you marry someone with a spinal cord injury is that the spinal cord injury doesn’t change the composition of the person you marry simply because they have a spinal cord injury. For example, the thrill seeking risk taker still exists despite a spinal cord injury. Just because they can’t use part of their body doesn’t remove the urge to push its limits and find other ways to channel said thrill- seeking- risk- taking behaviors. Chances are the thrill seeking risk taker has also passed that gene onto the children you parent together. And if you are lucky enough, in my case, you end up with an entire family who is not afraid of anything; only you, as the able bodied parent, is a rule follower.
So taking it back to the driveway scenario, Carver tests out the downhiller with perfect control and breaking ability– and loves it– loves how it feels a little like driving a car might because it has four wheels– loves how it feels so low to the ground almost like a racer– loves the fast feel and and wind in his hair.
Then, the younger one wants a whirl. They switch out the ski helmet and goggles. She can’t wait to feel those same things, only her little hands can’t squeeze the breaks. Hmmmm. How can we let her try it and be safe at the same time? This is the moment we should just say, “No, we’ve changed our minds; this isn’t a good idea.” But we look into her bright eyes, filled with the same sense of adventure, and we cave. But to be “safe” I suggest a shorter, more shallow slope on the opposite side of the road on the approach to the house. Maybe because she has been riding without training wheels for a year and can ski black diamonds, we convince ourselves this is actually “safe.” Then Geoff suggests that she steer the downhiller onto the grassy part of his parents’ lawn to better slow her down. Makes perfect sense. We are in control. We cheer her on. I set her up and release my hold on her to enjoy the “Disney in Franconia” gravity– living in a mountainous place, most of our hikes are uphill so this downhill business is thrilling. I jog slowly behind her feeling a little nervous as she looks so small in scope of the equipment. And then at the very last moment when her grandparents and dad show her where to leave the gravel roadway onto the grassy side, she impulsively bangs a sharp right turn into their neighbor’s paved driveway.
This was a turn I did not expect. We were no longer in control. I wasn’t sure I could catch her as she picked up so much speed on the pavement. Geoff sat on the grass in his chair relatively helpless to aid in the situation. Greta was laughing, a sound I will never forget because she had no idea of the pain she would feel if she:
a. Hit the garage door full force
b. Hit the parked car in the driveway
c. Hit any of the row of trees
Fortunately, my sprint caught up to her about ten feet short of the garage door, my heart pounding in my chest, legs burning from not having sprinted in more than a decade perhaps. But I caught her. There was no part of her little body that was scared at any point. She thought riding down the neighbor’s paved driveway was awesome while it took me hours to stop imagining what could have been…
We made a bad choice, and we were lucky no stitches or dental work or trips to the orthopedic were required– or damage payments to the neighbor’s house. Like with all parenting moments, this clearly isn’t the last time we’ll screw up, and we’ll try to be more careful next time. We had a plan; we were in control– sort of– we thought we were. We felt like we had taken safety precautions. Then our kid changed her mind, which changed everything. This happens even more as they get older, as their independence and peer influence begins to take on more of a role in their day to day choice making. All we can hope for is that they weigh the consequences of risk taking behavior and choose wisely, especially if they are born with that gene that says, “I like scaring myself a little bit.”
And a special good luck to those of you, who, like me, married someone with that internal drive to take memory making to a whole new level. The stress of being the “Catcher in the Rye” (see note) when you co-parent with a disabled spouse requires patience, humor, and good friends to vent upon in the aftermath. Because, well, let’s face it– Geoff can do a lot of things without his legs, but he isn’t the one climbing high in the tree because someone has gone too far– and he isn’t the one jumping into the river when someone slips while fishing– and he also isn’t the one schlepping the skis and backpacks so our kids can ski out the Sherbourne Trail at Tuckerman’s Ravine. However, he is part of the reason our kids want to do these things or believe they should try, so despite the fact I wasn’t born a risk taker, I have become one through osmosis.
(Note: for those of you who haven’t read Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, the protagonist, Holden Caufield, feels a little like the character in the poem by the same name, a person who catches all these kids who are running across a field of rye because they can’t see the cliff on the far side of the field. It’s the “catcher’s” job to save them before they fall.
***I’ll be posting a blog on Friday called “Heroin in our Hometowns” following a community forum and film screening of Anonymous People at Jean’s Playhouse on Thursday, June 2 at 530 PM. Please consider joining in the conversation.