Up til now, Zoe and Lucy’s life has been relatively scare-free. Although they say they’re afraid of nightmares, they haven’t really seemed to actually have any. They didn’t like Finding Nemo from the first moments, and by the time the sharks came on, they asked me, at age 2 1/2, to please turn it off. And on Halloween last year, Lucy wasn’t thrilled when a hidden smoke machine surprised her with an emphatic (read: loud) cloud of smoke from point-blank range. But mostly, their life has been free of actual scary stuff.
We were driving home from a lovely weekend in Durham.* Zoe and Lucy got to have 2 different sleepovers in their new pink camouflage sleeping bags, and I got some front porch and new restaurant time with a few much-loved college friends. We played hard and we slept little and when it was time to drive home, there were tornadoes in the forecast. So we stayed a little longer, waiting out the driving rain, hoping it would end before we ever got in the car. Once the rain stopped and the radar maps indicated the storms were over, we hit the road. The girls fell asleep almost instantly. I listened to a This American Life podcast. The roads were clear.
But less than an hour into the drive, a sudden wind shear almost made me drive off the road. Seconds later the rain started. Seconds after that, the rain got harder. Really hard. Suddenly so hard that I realized I couldn’t see, and, based on the number of hazard lights I saw around me, neither could anyone else. Then I really couldn’t see, like so much so that I had to come to a complete stop right where I was. In the middle of the interstate.
Then it started to hail.
It wasn’t golf ball sized hail, nor was it even marble sized hail. More like pea sized hail. But there was a lot of it. And it was falling fast and the wind was blowing hard enough to rock the car. And we were inside a car. Made mostly of metal. A small (relative to something big and safe-feeling, like a house) metal car. What I’m setting up for you is that it was loud. Very loud. Loud enough to wake Lucy and Zoe from their much-needed naps long before those naps should have ended.
Imagine yourself — drowsing lazily in the car while someone you trust as much as your mother drives you away from a fun place and toward your cozy happy home. Suddenly you are awakened by a loud noise the likes of which you have never heard before. You open your eyes to see something you have never seen before. In a place you don’t recognize. The person you trust as much as your mother provides flimsy explanations for what’s going on and you don’t understand a word she is saying but you can’t seem to get a straight answer out of her. How would you feel?
Yes. That’s exactly how Lucy and Zoe felt. Zoe didn’t actually say a word. She just stared sharply out the window, her legs folded indian-style, her hands clenching her feet, concentrating with all her power to either figure this out or possibly make it stop. Lucy, however, wore her fear on her sleeve. She asked a million rapid-fire questions, and when she got tired of not understanding my answers (It’s like snow? When it’s warm out? Hitting the car like rocks? Hail? Isn’t that one of the ten passover plagues???) she started to cry. A genuine earnest cry that said “Help me. I don’t feel safe.” And that, in turn, filled me with sorrow, because I didn’t feel like I could make her feel safe there in the middle of the highway in a car reverberating with rapping gunshots of hail.
As a mother I find myself to be overly aware of just how unsafe the world is, now that I’m looking at it through the lens of Lucy and Zoe’s well-being. Most of the time I am able to keep this awareness in check, tucked neatly away with all the other things I can’t do anything about. I believe this gives Zoe and Lucy the freedom to live their lives mostly unaware of how unsafe the world can be — essential, in my opinion, to being able to experience childhood as a child. Then when something scary happens, I’m there (or Bob is there), ready to help them be less scared. But being unable to assuage their fears, even for just a few minutes, that’s the stuff that leaves you reeling.
So I climbed in the back seat with them and held their hands (praying that no-one would drive into us — not that they would be going very fast, but still, to be sitting in the backseat while you’re parked in the middle of the interstate, it’s hard not to feel a little uncertain), and I talked to them, explaining that hail doesn’t last long, that even though it was loud, the car was a safe place to be, that nothing would happen if I got out of the car because I absolutely wasn’t going to get out of the car, I promise I promise I promise.
Eventually the hail stopped. Tentatively, we all started driving again, inching along in the still heavy rain, hazard lights left on to declare our presence to anyone foolish enough to be driving faster than we were. Then the rain started to slow, then stop, so that all that was left was a bullying wind. Myself amazed, I pointed out the white-trimmed road, icy by-product of this seemingly incongruous form of precipitation — the thermometer read 58°. The girls never went back to sleep, but they did settle in for the rest of the ride, happily listening to a Magic Tree House audio-book — Jack and Annie’s fictional adventure helping a baby kangaroo in Australia.
In the end we were very relieved to be greeted at the door by big strong bear-hugging Bob. Home at last, safe once again.
To those of you who live in Durham but whom I did not call — please forgive me. It was a very scattered weekend that I did not plan at all. Each step of the way, the plans were made the very moment they needed to be made and were based more-or-less on whomever was directly in front of my face and able to play. I promise I’ll call next time.