What, Me Worry?

“Are you always afraid, or what?”

This is the question my 12-year-old son posed, when I was wondering aloud whether to sign a permission slip for his older brother to go on a youth trip to Colorado this summer, because some of the activities sounded a bit dicey.

“Yes,” I answered. “Pretty much.”

It was a moment of candor, and definitely not a trait I’d like to pass along to my kids, but I wanted to give him an honest reply.

Looking back on that day earlier this week, fear was a driver of my decisions and a lurker in my thoughts, as it so often is.

Do I sign this youth trip permission slip? What if his bus careens off one of those mountain roads with no guard rails? Sure, an adventure camp sounds great for a teenager, but what about his mother back home fretting about him going mountain biking in the mountains or taking part in a high ropes challenge?

Earlier that day, when I hear the sound of screaming sirens not long after the high school lets out for the day, I instinctively reach for my phone and text my sons. “Where r u?”

As I make dinner that night, I bark at my young daughter for getting too close to the stove. She only wants to give me a hug, she says, but I’m worried she is going to burn her hand on the hot stovetop that she brushed up way too close to.

After dinner, I head out to pick up my younger son from a late-night sports practice. When he doesn’t come out of the locker room after all of the other kids have emerged and left with their parents, a tiny knot of dread builds. Why isn’t he out yet?

He does come out, of course, and while we’re driving home, I’m startled to see a man dressed all in dark clothing jogging in the middle of the street at 8:45 p.m. My heart beats a bit faster. What if I was distracted and didn’t see him?

I know other people and, parents, especially, worry. It’s part of the territory.

But I’ve always been on the border between everyday, common worry and anxiety. As a kid, I worried about my mom smoking, because I was concerned she’d get cancer and die. Well, she did get cancer and nine years later, she did die.

I think her death, which happened when I was in my early 20s, is actually what made me the kind of worrier I am today. Bad things can and do happen, whether it’s a random cancer, an accident, or an ill-timed turn of events.

The question is what to do about it. Right now, I’ve learned to live with it, at least externally.

I ended up signing that permission slip. He’s going on the 20-hour bus tour on rural roads and taking part in a trip that involves a real degree of risk.

I keep driving. I keep running errands. I keep working in the city, when I sometimes let my mind wander to what would happen if another 9/11 type of attack separates me from my children out in the suburbs. I keep drinking an inordinate amount diet soda, even though I worry that I’m messing up my health with artificial sweetener and will one day face a health crisis of my own.

I could go on anti-anxiety medicine, I supposed, but reading the warning label itself would send me into a tizzy. Look at these side effects!

Fear, I’ve concluded, is a side effect in my life of caring and, well, of living.

When it gets right down to it, if “what-ifs” are all I have, I know it could be a lot worse. And that’s where fear and gratitude meet.

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