To Fear, or Not to Fear?


When I was a kid, I worried that I'd end up in juvie for picking a bluebonnet, accidentally killing a mockingbird, or tearing a tag off a new pillow. The first two would be crimes of Texanhood; the third would be federal jurisdiction. Fear ran rampant in my brain.

Not being superstitious by nature, I didn't fret over broken mirrors, often walked under ladders, and opened umbrellas indoors just to freak out my superstitious friends. But when it came to everyday threats like keeping my feet uncovered while I tried to sleep, I was a mess. I have a hazy memory of Dad saying something about alligators getting my toes as I slept, so my feet stayed covered until I was in my mid-40s. 

Flash is scared of the dark, or rather of what's in the dark that he can't see. Which explains the 9-pack of LED mini flashlights he keeps on his side of our headboard. And my friend Red hasn't waded into deep water at any beach, past her knees, since Jaws premiered in 1975.

Everybody's afraid of something, be it rational or not. But for years, far beyond toddlerhood, Cowboy wasn’t afraid of anything. Being a conscientious mother, I lost him one day. Inside the house. It takes a special kind of caregiver to lose a toddler in a house with all the doors locked and the alarm set.

I looked in all the rooms, including closets. Finding no Cowboy, I double checked all escape routes.

When I circled back to the living room, I saw the curtains in front of our picture window rippling from left to right as if a slight wind were blowing. When I pulled them back, there was three-year-old Cowboy walking his way across the window sill, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

When he was four, I found him perched on our large roll-top desk, swinging his legs and looking proud of himself. Cowboy loved heights and was content when Flash, who stood ready to catch him, sat him on the fireplace mantle.

So it came as no surprise when Cowboy enjoyed his first roller coaster ride at Six Flags Fiesta Texas. Thankfully, for my sake, it was a relatively small coaster. After riding Astroworld’s Sky Screamer with my 8-year-old niece, Bevo, in 1991, I swore off rides that made me want to slap the people who created them. When Bevo and I entered a metal cage and slammed towards earth; I knew my life was over. Somehow we survived, but I was shaking, and Bevo was crying. I patted her on the back and said, “I know how you feel.” All she remembers about that ride is the bad word that Aunt Kim said all the way to the ground. But when I got married, I had to be brave for my stepkids, Mario and Zelda, and later for Cowboy.

However, I wasn’t prepared for the level of thrill Cowboy would bring. It was all downhill, at break-neck speeds, after that first little coaster. He became an adrenaline junkie. Nothing moved fast enough for him. When he was seven, we took him to Six Flags in New Orleans. Being a good sport, I climbed aboard a roller coaster that looked mom-friendly. As usual, I let out a scream that would rival Janet Leigh's in Psycho. But it was over quickly. That wasn’t too bad, I told myself. Then, it started up again, going over all the same drops, twists, and turns as before, but in reverse. Completely disoriented, I stumbled off the ride when it came to a stop, and bid adieu to Flash and Cowboy. They rode it six more times in a row.

Cowboy also had the opposite of separation anxiety. He was a runner for years; it was the most exercise I've ever had, and it was best to have a 2-to-1 ratio of adult to child when we went somewhere. So Mom went with me, every week for years, when I took Cowboy to behavioral therapy at Texas Children's Hospital Clinical Care Center in Houston's Medical Center.

We parked the car and walked to the elevator in the parking garage. As we waited for the doors to open, I spotted a ticket someone had dropped as they walked to their car. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to exit the garage. I was looking for a place to put the ticket so, if they returned for it, they would find it.

Mom was standing with Cowboy, but quickly glanced back over her shoulder in an effort to help me. In that one-millionth of a second, the elevator doors opened. Never one to miss an opportunity for a ride, five-year-old Cowboy jumped in. We saw him as the elevator doors closed, and we frantically pushed the button to open the doors again.

But he was gone into the belly of a building that is over 16 stories high.

Mom jumped on the elevator to go in search of our adventurer as I pushed the red button by the elevator. I spoke into the speaker, "My son jumped on the elevator and he has autism and I have no idea what floor he went to." They asked me for a description that was a tad more detailed and told me to come up to the first floor.

As I stepped off the elevator, a guard was waiting nearby and told this panic-stricken mother, "We always go on automatic lock-down when things like this happen. All the exterior doors are locked.”

My heart slowed a little, and my guilt was somewhat appeased by the thought, I’m not the only mom who has lost her child in a high-rise.

I heard a garbled message come through the guard’s radio, then she turned to me and said, “They have him on three.”

“What a loser mom,” she said as I ran to the elevator. Okay, that was just in my head. But I heard her thinking it. As I exited the elevator onto the third floor, wearing a scarlet L on my chest, there stood Cowboy, happy as could be.

We went up to the 16th floor for our appointment as I lectured Cowboy. "You cannot get on the elevator without Mommy and Grandma, ever." I know he wondered what the big deal was. His therapist greeted us with, “I thought that description I heard over the radio sounded like Cowboy.” Word spread quickly regarding my parenting skills.

With Mom then missing, I was worried her blood pressure was skyrocketing during her unsuccessful search. Unknown to me, she had gone to the third floor, saw no Cowboy, then traveled to the first floor, and saw no Cowboy. Eventually, we were in the same place at the same time. She and I aged 10 years that day.

Over the years, Cowboy suggested swimming with alligators, got out of his car seat to stand up as I drove down the freeway, was a champion speed walker in large crowds, and crossed streets, oblivious to danger. His hands have permanent imprints on them from the death grip we had on him for the first 12 years of his life. When we visited the Statue of Liberty in 2001, I had him in a harness with a leash attached. That’s right, a leash. I got a lot of looks from other parents; I’m not sure if they felt disdain or envy.

But now, he’s maturing. He watches intently when we are driving, and puts his hands over his ears when we stop at particularly busy intersections, in case we crash. He says “stop” at red lights and stop signs, and says “go” to let us know it’s safe to proceed after the light turns green or no cars are coming, respectively. Cowboy is more discerning, thank God, on which amusement park rides he chooses. And even though he’s still a sprint-walker, he waits for us to catch up. Recently, when we were riding a four-seat bicycle on the Galveston seawall and Flash was steering, we came a little too close to the metal poles on the sidewalk on Cowboy’s side of the bike. Cowboy leaned over toward Flash and put on the hand brake, bringing us to a quick stop. I’ve been tempted to do the same when Flash drives me on any given freeway.

Fear’s a tricky and powerful thing. It can immobilize us or save our lives. It’s an emotion that must be taught and untaught. I’ve tried to teach Cowboy to have courage while also instilling fear in him for particular scenarios. He is learning well.

I, by contrast, am afraid of roaches, water bugs, crickets, June bugs, grasshoppers, opossums, armadillos, Bette Davis’ eyes, presidential debates, rodents of any type, crickets, never meeting Sam Elliott, cicadas, stray hairs growing on my face, karaoke, cows, men whose hair doesn’t move in the wind, and my electric bill during a typical Houston summer. If it weren't for Cowboy, everything on my list could keep me in therapy for years. But I can count on him to kill the bugs for me; I made sure I didn’t teach him to fear them. That's the crown jewel in my accomplishments as a mother.