This week, as our regular phone conversation was drawing to a close, my mom said, “Oh! Did I tell you yet about our day at Dorney Park this past Monday?”
“Nope,” I said, “But tell me all about it now.”
She told me her version of the story of the splash park, and then put my brother Willie on the line to tell his. After quizzing him with the usual inquiries (“How are you?” “What did you do today?”), I asked, “Where did you go on Monday?”
A pause. “Ummm …” He was trying for the answer, and seemed concerned that it wasn't coming to mind right away. “Ummm …”
“Did you go to Dorney Park?” I asked gently.
“I did go to Dorney Park!” he exclaimed, sounding relieved.
“What did you like best about Dorney Park?” I countered.
There was no hesitation this time. “The roller-coaster!” he said, with glee in his voice.
As he said it, my mind zoomed back to the first time I'd been to an amusement park with Willie. It was Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, and we were both in grade school. I don't remember much about that vacation, but I do remember our first major roller coaster ride. It was on a ride called the Loch Ness Monster, and it was a black-and-yellow swirl of track that shot up high and dove down low and did similarly terrifying things.
Given that just looking at the thing was intimidating, I'm not sure exactly how we as a family convinced ourselves to stand in line and ride it, but that's what we did. (Willie just barely made the height requirement, and he did state clearly that he wanted to go with us on the ride.) And as we strapped ourselves into the seats, I remember my mother encouraging both of us to scream, saying that the ride would be that much scarier if we didn't. And I obeyed; I screamed and screamed, hoping to drive away the rushes of fear that came at me with every turn of the machine. But Willie was silent the whole time. Was he not afraid?
When we stepped off the ride, our legs were all wobbly; we leaned on one another for support. “That was wild!” we exclaimed over and over again. My parents were particularly curious as to how Willie had felt about it. “Willie, did you like the roller-coaster ride?” they asked.
“Yes, I did!” he said, his voice wavering.
“Did you really like it?” (Even then, when asked a question of preference, Willie and I both tended to be what Anne Lamott calls a “Politeness person.” Responding “Yes” is Willie’s default mode. To this day, for example, he'll say he likes a certain new food, while his grimacing face gives away a very different opinion. Neither of us has any kind of poker face to speak of.)
“Do you want to get in line and ride it again?”
I'll never forget the sound of that emphatic No! We all cracked up, Willie included. And it was such a sweet moment—we'd done something crazy, and we'd survived to laugh about it. Willie and I were both scared of the ride, but we went on as a family. And indeed, our laughter has held us together through times of tears.
The memory of Busch Gardens lingered as I replied to Willie, “The roller-coaster! Wow. Were you scared?” I asked, my voice lilting. I was teasing him a little bit, but not really. I'm afraid of heights, I get dizzy easily, and I remember the Loch Ness Monster. This being the case, I tend to avoid roller-coasters as an adult. I was legitimately impressed that he'd gone on one. And I was even more impressed by his reply, which came at once: “No. I'm brave!”
Soon after, we exchanged our goodbyes and I-love-yous, and I hung up. But as I put down the phone, unexpected tears had come to my eyes. There was something about the way he'd said, “I'm brave,” that struck me right in the heart. Yes, you are brave, I thought. You are, my brother, and I'm glad that you know it to be true.