“I just don’t like it when one of you is gone,” says my soon-to-be eight-year-old son.
He is sprawled on our bed, watching me fold laundry, while the ceiling fan spins above us. Spring has come suddenly to our little town, the birds joyous and loud in their songs, proud and showing off for their future mates, trilling louder than I think I’ve heard them in the six years we’ve been here. A lawnmower purrs outside, a sound I always associate with comfort and summer.
My husband is away for a few days on a hiking trip with his father, and my son is not happy to have one parent is not at home. It just feels wrong, he tells me, to not have both of us here.
“What are you worried about, exactly?” I say, as I fold a stack of pink and purple leggings, and roll endless small socks into pairs.
My son starts to talk about various scenarios–what if I got hurt and couldn’t talk or move, what if Daddy and Grampa did not come home, what if a tornado came–and I see him growing more tense with each possibility.
I start to tell him that these things won’t happen, to smooth them over, then stop myself.
We talk about all the adults he could ask for help, just nearby–several families he knows well, and how he could call 911, and how even if he doesn’t remember the address for his grandparents, he knows how to show someone how to get there, or he and his sister could even walk there if necessary.
Strangely, as we talk about these possible disasters, I sense we are both calmer at just the practicing of the steps to react to the imaginary scenarios. He begins to relax more into the bed, and flips through an “I Spy” book.
I stack the piles of folded clothes into the laundry basket. I think about the burden of worry, of responsibility too early. Sometimes the eldest in the family ends up bearing this the most. “It’s not your job to be responsible if something like that goes wrong,” I say. “That’s my job and Daddy’s job, and other grown-ups too sometimes. We are here keep you safe, so your job is to be a kid and learn and try things and have fun.” He seems satisfied, and wanders out of the room to find his sister.
Even in advanced age of 44 and my role of parent for seven-plus years, I do not admit to my son that I am not sure 1) I actually qualify as a grown-up yet or 2) if disaster struck, whether I really and truly am able to keep he and his sister completely safe from harm.
As I start to put the laundry away, I hear he and his sister giggling over a made-up game. He has forgotten his worries for now.
Maybe, I think, if I act the part–brave, confident, capable, unmoored by potential disaster–I will become that person.
After the kids go to bed, I keep refreshing the weather radar on the iPad. The angry jagged red line mixes with the sickly yellow blot of severe thunderstorms and is edging closer to our town. Five different weather alerts warn of possible tornadoes, 60-70 mph winds, and hail. The sky, a perfect turquoise blue just two hours ago, quickly turns gunmetal gray laced with black. Hot, sour gusts of wind sneak through the crack of the window I am keeping open.
Our town has a siren that sounds off in severe weather, and I admit as I sit in my bed, wondering about the storm, that I like the simplicity of the signal. If the siren blows, we go downstairs. As a parent, there are so many choices and directions, that sometimes I feel overwhelmed about making the wrong one. When the siren calls, there is no debate, no wondering if I am being excessively cautious, no gazing at the sky to deduce the safest course of action. As the resident grown-up in charge right now, I like this certainty.
After the kids fall asleep, I head down to our finished basement, and amid the scattered Lego bricks, board games, and dress-up clothes, I arrange our sleeping bags, pads, and pillows–me in the middle, the kids flanking me on either side. It is our standard configuration when the three of us are together–how we snuggle in the morning, the way we arrange ourselves at our cabin when we sleep over in the summer, and even the way we sit to read books on the sofa.
I return upstairs to watch a movie I’ve seen many times--its gorgeous, well-appointed beach house and gentle wit always cheers me. The white sand, sunny skies, and willowy, fashionable people take me far away. Every 10 mins or so, I refresh the radar. The red line moves closer and the severe thunderstorm gets upgraded to a tornado watch.
I question again, as I do every tornado season, why I willingly chose to live in the Midwest.
Finally, as I am almost fully distracted by a favorite scene, the siren goes off.
I spring into action, scooping up my daughter, and asking my son to get up and come downstairs with us. He is so deep in sleep that he sits up, opens his eyes, and then lies back down. I come back in and turn on his bedside light so he partially wakes up. He holds his beloved baby blanket–a once white, satin-edged, well-worn square he’s had since birth.
(“When will you make me get rid of this?” he asked me about the blanket, a few weeks ago. He knows well how he had to give up his pacifier when he was on the cusp of turning three.
“Never,” I said. “You can keep that blanket as long as you like, that’s your choice.”)
We head downstairs, and the kids fall asleep in seconds. I lie awake, willing myself not to keep looking at the radar, while the wind howls its terrible story outside. I think about what we would do if it gets worse, deciding that we could pile the sofa pillows and sleeping bags into the small bathroom.
I break down and check the radar after an hour. The main line of red tornado moves across without much incident in our town, but the watch remains in place until 3 a.m.
The basement is cool and my sleeping bag surprisingly comfortable, and I drift off, also thinking that that the sooner I sleep, the sooner it will be morning.
And in a flash, it is the bright morning. My daughter curls up close to me, so delighted to find herself down in the basement. “This is so FUN! This is so COZY” she squeals. “I love sleeping down here!”
My son also is dazzled by the magic of going to bed in one place and waking up elsewhere. “Mommy, how did you do that?” he says, in awe.
I laugh, realizing that he has no memory of his sleepy walk down two flights of stairs, holding his blanket.
The kids play happily among our bedding and toys while I fix breakfast upstairs. While I wait for my first golden cup of coffee to brew, I push up the sashes of the windows, grateful for the sun and the smell of lilacs drifting in.
This afternoon I told him kids that the storms may come again. “No big deal,” says my son, crunching through his bowl of cereal, his clear eyes showing no trace of any sleep loss. “We’ll just sleep down there again.”
No concern, no fear.
If the siren blows, we do it what it tells us.