It has been a really brutal winter for those of us stuck in this seemingly endless polar vortex that led to an absurd amount of snow days, freakishly frigid temperatures and entire city shutdowns. At the beginning of the week, however, we had actual spring-like weather. I wore a skirt. And flats. Then Wednesday, bitter about its middle-of-the-week status, brought a thirty-degree temperature drop and more snow. But for those two days, I felt more alive than I have in months. Everyone else seemed to be feeling the same way. When I pulled up at one of our most popular toddler parks, it was buzzing with parents and kids hyped up on sunshine. I seriously thought (hoped?) that we might all break out in song and dance, flashmob style, to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” I’m sad to report that nothing of the sort materialized, but I danced a little in the parking lot until my son—only two but already embarrassed by my shenanigans—told me to cut it out.
For me, at almost 33 years old, the transition from the hard freeze of winter to the soft warmth of spring is a welcome but expected shift; I survived the winter because I knew that it would eventually end (we’re not quite beyond the wall, yet). I hadn’t considered, however, what my son thought about the perpetual state of cold. When I stopped to think about it, I realized that last spring was half his lifetime ago. The days when we frolicked half-clothed from sunrise to sundown, when shoes were optional and new grass tickled our bare legs, when milk-drunk was still a thing—those days are nothing more than some hazy baby heyday to him. I first realized this as we got out of the car and he stopped in his tracks to stare at a group of college-aged boys across the grass. Engaged in all manner of muscular feats, they were, wait for it…shirtless. It’s no secret to those of you who know us, that my son is a never nude. He requires head-to-toe clothing nearly all of the time. So seeing a group of half-clothed guys was akin to, I dunno, a unicorn sighting or something else of equally mythic proportions. “Mommy!” he exclaimed as he stood there squinting in his sunglasses, “those big boys are naked! I see his’s [sic] belly buttons!” I explained, of course, that they weren’t naked, merely shirtless. “Huh…” he responded, part-assenting, part-incredulous and part-awakening to this new “nudist” movement before him. As we walked over to the playground he kept glancing backwards, as if to make sure that those guys were still there in all their lean, vaguely threatening, bare belly-buttoned glory.
During these past few months since my mom’s death, I’ve felt similarly shocked and scandalized by all of the things that her passing has laid bare—particularly, my mortality. I can’t take my eyes off of it. I feel like I’m perpetually looking over my shoulder for all the ways that I might die. Quietly growing cancer. Sudden cerebral hemorrhage. Car crash. Plane crash. Train wreck. Heart attack. Victim of random violence. Shark attack. I guess those last two are somewhat redundant, but you get the picture. I’ve always been a worrier, but I’ve never really had this kind of palpable anxiety about my death. Clearly, death has always been on the horizon for me. (Unless, of course, vampires really do “come out of the coffin”; I’ll gladly sign up for that blood drive in exchange for immortality. Zombie apocalypses can suck it, though. No thank you to rotting flesh and brains on the menu for eternity.) However, I never felt that it was imminent in the way that I do now. I understand how people end up as shut-ins, too terrified to open the door to incalculable variables, to unforeseen dangers and to those encounters that sideswipe us, leaving us wounded on the side of the road. Luckily for me, I have this beautiful kid who needs to be walked and watered daily (and sometimes I feed him, too!). So I’m forced to go about the practice of living while I continue to fret about dying. It’s a practice that I’ve found surprisingly invigorating. Seriously, try it. Get some major death anxiety and then go about your daily life. It’s better than BASE jumping.
When we finally made it from the parking lot to the playground, he ran straight to the swings and asked to be lifted up. I rolled my eyes on the inside and said, “wouldn’t you rather go down the slides?” Last year, he hated swinging. He’d sit in the swing for about 45 seconds before asking to get down. And then up again. And then down. It was maddening. He’s always been opinionated and independent, but I wouldn’t call him a risk taker, and there was something too risky about the swing for him. I could tell that he desperately wanted to enjoy it, but he just couldn’t give himself over to it. I’ll admit that some days, lazy, exhausted and/or ambivalent, I wanted him to love swinging so that I could just stand in that hypnotic sway for a few minutes with the other moms. Nope. He wanted to scrape his knees toddling and toppling around on the pavement. He wanted to eat woodchips and sand. So I expected much of the same when he asked to be lifted up into the swing this time. His little fingers gripped the swing as I gave him a few gentle pushes and then, tentatively, he tipped his back slightly, looked up at the sky and exclaimed: “Look, mommy! I see an airplane!” He let out an exhilarated shriek of joy as he told me, “I go fast! I flying!”
That’s what life feels like these days. I’m going fast. I’m flying. I feel the riskiness of life each time I get into the car to drive away from my son’s daycare. I feel it as I sit down at my laptop to write. I feel it each time I open myself up to new people and new places or old people and old places when I’d rather be sitting at home alone. I feel the way that each of those choices suspends me above huge chasms of uncertainty, the way they promise failure and destruction. Fear is healthy. It alerts us to danger and keeps us out of harm’s way. But there’s something compelling about fear, as well. It can lead us to the most breathtaking heights and profound discoveries. It strips away the detritus of complacency, of habitual living, of losing oneself in the drone of the day-to-day. We are more alive than ever when we’re lit up with fear, racing toward or away from something. Adrenaline junkies everywhere can attest to this. Every day is life or death. Our lives hang perpetually in the balance. #YOLO. You know what I mean; you’ve heard all the idioms and clichés before.
That day, we stayed at the swings for a long-ish stretch of time (in toddler minutes, anyway) feeling life anew as the wind rushed through our hair, and we considered the possibility of disaster, weighing all those what ifs: What if the swing doesn’t hold? What if I fly away? What if this life gives way before I’m ready? What if it’s all as painful and disappointing as it sometimes promises to be? Okay, so my son was still just concerned about those shirtless boys and the wispy white trails of airplanes as they zigzagged across the sky. But I was thinking, “well, what if?” Here’s what I know. I’m a little (A LOT) more gray-headed than I was at this time last year. But that just means I’m a little wiser, too, right? My pockets are heavier, lined with those hefty stones of loss and grief that threaten to drown me some days. In other ways, though, I’m lighter than ever; each day I find myself shedding the things that don’t really matter in favor of those things that do matter. And, yes, I’m afraid of so much these days. But I can’t shake this feeling that it’s not the kind of fear that I should run from. Instead, I feel a little more certain every day that it’s the kind of fear that I should lean into. It’s the kind that makes me want to tentatively tip my head back. Because sometimes, if we’re willing to relinquish the safety of the ground and give ourselves over to soaring, fear leads us to the things we most desire, to that exhilaration and joy that we might not have found otherwise.