Into the Void

The other day, I pushed learning-to-swim Toots into the pool.

I know, I know.


It’s just that she wanted desperately to jump off the edge into the shallow end (I’m not a total monster), hesitating time and again, yearning to jump, really struggling with herself and her fear of the unknown. And, suddenly, I flashed back to myself at that age, and how my dad used to just kind of force us kids to do the things we feared, and how relieved I was afterwards that he did. So I did, and she was.


After that, she kept asking me to push her again, and I obliged, suffering the scathing parental stares of the more reasonable moms and dads around us.


I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but Toots is my carbon copy: overimaginative, overemotional, overdramatic and overanxious. In my view, the first three traits are good things in moderation and, I think, are earmarks of a creative soul. But I also know from experience that if not kept in check, those personality traits will bite you in the ass.


When Toots is afraid to swallow toothpaste because it may poison her, I downplay the fear. When she thinks there’s an eyeball on her ceiling, I tell her it’s a trick of the moonlight. If she refuses to get near the ocean because of the sharks, I hold her hand and assure her that sharks like the older kids with more meat on ’em. And if she’s afraid to jump, sometimes I push her.


So, I’m trying to manage Toots’ fears with a combination of deflection, humor, and a measure of force. Which, admittedly, is not the best course of action for every child, as my own father reminded me a few months ago. That he reprimanded me for mitigating Toot’s emotions struck me as so ironic, that I burst out laughing. I mean, here was the man who forced my reactions to life for years. And not in an altogether bad way, either. In fact, his way of dealing with my excessive personality worked for me. Mostly because he understood it so viscerally, as I was cleaved from his genes: bone from bone, vice from vice, fear from fear. And so it goes with Toots. I figure because it worked for me, it will for her too.


My dad’s philosophy was “just do it” way before Nike sloganized the tagline. He advised us to get done with the being scared part and just jump over the crevasse of fear and land on the other side. No dickering, no hesitating, no nothing. Just do it. So, it was often that I found my young self behind the closet door, with a string tied to my loose tooth, the other end noosed around the doorknob, with my dad on the other side, yanking the door open in one brutal instant. As my bloody tooth dangled from the string, a flood of relief overcame me so powerful, that I believe it engrained itself in my deepest places — right down to the smallest cell.


When, if the Thanksgiving of ’75, I developed an inability to swallow foodstuffs due to an unnatural fear of choking, my dad shoved food down my throat. To his credit, it took him a good three days to reach that point. But finally, after I hadn’t eaten anything in that time, my dad just couldn’t take it anymore. It was Thanksgiving, for God’s sake! So, he stuck a shelled peanut in my mouth. (Not the best “starter” food to stick into your crazy child’s mouth, when she feels she will choke on water.) But after I let the peanut dissolve in my mouth and dribble down the sides of my mouth, the peanut juice eventually made its way down my throat with the added bonus of not choking me. I was cured! The Thanksgiving of ’75 was saved. My dad was a hero.


And so it was. If I were scared to jump into the pool, my dad would push me. If I were afraid to get behind the wheel of a car, he took me out of the freeway to learn to drive. I realize how heartless and even cruel this all sounds, but it wasn’t done in that spirit. Rather, I know my dad felt he was helping us to get on with life. To live it. Stop dipping your toe in the pool. Get in! Splash! Have fun. Life is too short. Of course, he did all this on his terms, the way he thought best. And like I said, for me, it worked. For many kids, it won’t. But I think my dad knew that, too. His approach varied with my brothers and sister. As for me, I live/d in my head, making monsters bigger, greener, badder than they are, I magnify my fears to mega proportions until they overcome me and I’m paralyzed. My dad showed me that if you jump into the void, it’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be. And I’m forever grateful for that.


When my dad talks to me today, he still falls into the role of minimizing my fears. In fact, he gets downright cognitive with me. He pooh poohs my imagined illnesses, my parental mishaps; downplays my hypochondria, my monsters. He gives them no power, and like a cult member, I follow suit. Hey, he doesn’t think it’s a big deal, so maybe it’s not.


When all else fails, when he knows I’m too far down the chute of anxiety, he makes me laugh. On a trip to Hawaii eight years ago, as my family waited on the runway due to a “mechanical issue,” I shook in my aisle seat from fear of flying. Sensing my rising panic, my dad told me to relax, we’d be up in the air in a minute, “right after the pilot duct tapes the engine.” Soon enough, we were flying. And five hours later, I was in Hawaii. Alive.


Still, I think that fear has its place. Sometimes you need to listen to it. I’m a firm believer that you don’t walk down a closed ghetto alley at 11 o’clock at night. Which is something I did in Chicago’s Cabrini Green area a few years back. My friend and I rounded the street corner at West Division after a movie and saw some rabble-rousing youngsters near our car, which we’d parked on a dead-end alleyway. In the dark, so close to the area where even cabs refused to drive at night. But, we took a deep breath and entered the alley. Right when we caught the kids’ attention, we were in the car, driving away. I don’t know that those kids were anything but kids. Still, it’s something I wouldn’t do today. (Unless my dad was with me.)


My fears continue to walk with me. I still carry my flying phobia. Truth be known, I’m terrified to get on a plane. But I do. (Most of the time.) It’s been five years since I’ve flown and in the Fall, I’m planning to go to New York for my 40th birthday. By myself. Stepping into the void. Because after all, I’d rather jump into the pool, than stand on the edge. And now I push myself.


So maybe this will work for Toots and maybe it won’t. All I can say, is I understand where she’s coming from. And maybe that will be enough. If it’s not, I’ll give her a little shove.


19 Responses to “Into the Void”

  1. Kizz says:

    Surely the fact that she was relieved that you pushed her and asked for it again was a good sign! A sign that, perhaps, the other judgy parents around the pool should have seen. Sometimes I wish I had someone to do that for me even now. Then again, whenever anyone did that for me as a kid I just hung on to the edge tighter so who knows if it would work.

  2. robyn says:

    You must be my sister from another mister, because we have very similar personality traits. My whole family went on a cruise last week (without me) and I spent waaaaay too much time imagining all the different ways they could die on (and off) the boat. Yikes! I think you’re doing good with Toots. I would probably do the same thing with my kid.

  3. Vered says:

    You know your child better than anyone else. It is obvious that what you do is working – see the pool example. I think it’s great that you are following your heart. And the fact that you get her and know what she’s going through – that’s just wonderful, for both of you.

  4. Steph says:

    Eff those folks who were judging. She’s YOUR kid; you’re a great mom, and you’re doing what you feel is best. Rock on, Momma. Rock. On.

  5. myra says:

    is your dad adopting? just curious.

  6. Clink says:

    This is fantastic. Seriously, there are too many parents out there who don’t push when they should. I have an enormous amount of respect for you and your Dad!

  7. Karen says:

    Wow, so well-told! No wonder you want to be a writer.

    Your dad sounds a lot like my husband. He’s our family pusher. What’s really cool is that he’s your number one cheerleader after he pushes you.

  8. deb says:

    I think we all need a good push sometimes. The very thing we fear is sometimes, just what we need. Somebody has to give me a good shove off of the fence I’ve been sitting on too long.

  9. Cocktail Maven says:

    I think you’re doing a terrific job with Toots, and I so agree with the comment that no one knows better what she needs from you. You have amazing parenting instincts. Keep trusting them and you’ll be fine. Oh! And the up side of expecting/imagining the worst? You prepare yourself psychologically for it, so whatever ACTUALLY happens, even if it falls short of your best hopes, can be percieved for the blessing it is; the simple joy of eating a peanut, or the exhilaration of a beach luau.

  10. Cocktail Maven says:

    One more thing – This is an exceptionally well-written piece, my dear. Kudos, and a great big hug!

  11. Shelia says:

    This is a great piece of writing! I love how present you are to TOOTS. I love how present your dad is to you. Presence is an amazing gift.

  12. Angela says:

    Great post..everyone needs that ‘push’ sometimes. That is how good people become great!

  13. pajama momma says:

    You would have been fun to hang out with a child, much like I figure you’d be a blast now.

    I’m glad you told her there’s no eyeballs in the ceiling because, as we all know, they’re really in the closet.

  14. San Diego Momma says:

    Kizz: If you were at my pool, I’d push you too. (If you wanted me to…or even maybe if you didn’t…) :)

    Robyn: That DOES sound like something I’d imagine.

    Jenn: I think he’d love you right back.

    Vered: Thanks for that. It helps to hear a reasonable person tell me I’m maybe not crazy.

    Steph: Thanks! I think I will continue to ROCK ON. In name only, not in body. (But I’m working on it)

    Myra: I’ll take Jake for free!

    Clink: I think so too…

    Kate: Coming from a super momma, that means a lot!

    Karen: That’s a great way to out it.

    Cheri: No, YOU are!

    Deb: Where do you live? I will push you off that fence. If you do the same for me???

    Cocktail: Lady, even your comments read like novels.

    Sheila: Thanks for that. Glad to have e-met you! I’m liking your blog!

    Angela: I hope you’re right!

    PJM: Word. Totally. Word.

  15. Jen says:

    I’m a little bit of a pusher myself. My son is pretty timid so this seems to be the only way to get him outside his comfort zone. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails miserably. But if we didn’t push, then he would never try new things.

  16. You’re such a good writer! You should write a memoir…

    It sounds to me like your Dad knew what he was doing whether or not it may seem “tough”. That’s what made you what you are today and what will make your kids what they will be int he future. Fear is a difficult thing to deal with and can keep you from achieving the smallest of dreams and the best thing I think you can learn in life is how to move past those fears. I think “just doing it” is most of the time, the ONLY way to get things done and an extremely valuable lesson you took from your father and will pass on to your children.

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