I stood in line with my two cousins and friends at Six Flags Great America on the outskirts of Chicago waiting to ride my first roller coaster: “Superman: Ultimate Flight.”
The Superman roller coaster speeds at over 50 miles per hour and has a 115-foot drop.
I thought it was something I needed to experience at least once. I needed to understand why my middle school classmates bragged about buying season passes.
I thought of my mom as the most fearless person I knew. Whenever she touches a hot pan to flip a piece of bread with her bare hands, I cringe. Whenever she recounts the story about her decision to immigrate from the Dominican Republic to the United States, I listen in amazement. She faced a country with an unfamiliar language, leaving behind her professional career as a lawyer and starting fresh with a toddler.
She would play it off as “no big deal.” My mom managed to work here comfortably as a home daycare provider in Chicago for over 10 years and learned English conversationally.
I used to think of myself as the opposite. I’m afraid of worms, tightly enclosed spaces, large bodies of water and most of all, heights. Riding in glass elevators is agonizing; I think of all the ways the glass could break and send me plummeting to the ground.
I confronted this fear of heights abruptly in the summer of 2018. I was 15. My cousins dared me to.
My fears have always been easily avoidable. My fear of oceans kept me from the beach. I stayed away from dirt because of my fear of worms. I let my mom order for me at restaurants because I was too shy and constantly jumbled up my words, and even with broken English she happily did so. Roller coasters are one of those things I avoided.
My mom showed me that fear is merely a roadblock to experiencing great new things. She insisted that I shouldn’t write something off unless I try.
I doubted my choice to ride the roller coaster as I watched each ride cycle come flying down, doing unimaginable flips and turns. I held tighter onto the chipped blue railing.
“Guys, I don't think I can do this. I have to go back,” I said to my cousins.
I felt unsure if they could truly hear the desperation in my voice. Or if my hammering heartbeat sounded as loud to them as it did to me.
My friend’s boyfriend laughed. “You can’t turn back now,” he said.
I stayed quiet. Everyone proceeded to chat and check their phones. Many excited children – as young as six – surrounded me in the packed line. Reluctantly, I nodded in agreement.
As the ride operators strapped me into the seat, my hands became moist while I thought about the seat belt becoming undone or the ride getting stuck midway. I didn't want to be the only person pleading to be let off while already seated.
The platform sank and my seat – along with everyone else's – tipped forward until I was facing downward.
I screwed my eyes shut. I focused on slowing my breathing. The ride inched forward and I heard the sound of gears clicking and cranking loudly.
Once at the peak, the ride cars stopped. This was it. I would pass out as soon as we fell.
With that first drop, the wind engulfed me. I felt an unexpected adrenaline rush. Slowly, I opened my eyes. Looking forward, I saw a clear blue sky. I felt like a bird flying for the first time. Below, I could see the top of once-towering trees.
I’ve realized that moment helped me understand my mother. She does not make bold decisions because she is fearless but because she hopes her fears are wrong. I don’t need to get rid of my fears, or keep hiding from them, just be willing to face them no matter how difficult it may be. Of course my mother worried about going through so many challenging things on her own, I couldn’t imagine it to have been easy. But I admired her turning those circumstances on their heads. She saw a chance to start a new journey as fulfilling as her life before.
That first ride is the reason I always get on at least six rides when visiting Six Flags. Now I’m 19. I’ve become more comfortable with my fears, whether it's public speaking, traveling alone or asking for condiments at restaurants. My mom approves by giving me compliments and letting me know she trusts me to continue facing things on my own.
My mom does not make bold decisions because she’s fearless, but because she knows something might be better on the other side.
Thumbnail graphic by Olivia Abeyta