“What if there is a tornado out there right now?” my son asks. His question is hard to hear because of the tornado sirens. They sound like screeching brakes that never come to a stop. The concrete basement walls add an echo effect so that we feel caught up in a whirlwind rather than safe from it. “There is no tornado outside our house,” I tell him. My voice is without inflection. It’s toneless; unemotional. It is the bedrock that I’m hoping he latches onto instead of the gray basement walls and screaming sirens.
“But what if there is?” he asks.
“There’s not,” I say.
“What if there is!”
“We would hear it, honey,” I tell him.
“What if it’s silent like the videos say the eye is like. They say you can’t hear it. What if we are in the eye right now?”
I pull my ten-year-old son over to my lap, and I point to the computer screen that is resting on his old changing table, the one from when he was in diapers. Instead of throwing it away years ago, we banished it to the basement. I always meant to get to it, really I did. But for some reason, it never felt right to follow through on that promise. I show him the weather map, where the worst of the storm is, and the location of our house.
“See, we’re fine,” I tell him
“What if the map is wrong?” my boy says. He’s shaking his hands out, trying to release the tension and failing. His breathing is shallow, and I know that he’s not listening to anything I’m saying. He’s afraid of tornados, who in the midwest isn’t? But that’s not really what’s got him going. It’s the unknown; the things that he sees lurking in ordinary storm clouds. In his mind’s eye, his imagination gives the black clouds a sinister intent. They have become a thing, a monster fueled by what-if questions supplied sometimes way to bright son.
I get this. I understand this. His what-if questions, the constant barrage of them, is his anxiety taking physical form. But I’m dad, and I have a secret. I know anxiety. I know the rabbit hole that it can lead down. Hell, the tornado is amateur hour for me.
A Father’s Rabbit Hole of What-If
What if there is a tornado outside right now? That’s not the worst of it. Let me show you how this is really done. What if that tornado rips our house apart and exposes my family in the basement. And what if I’m not strong enough to cover my son, and all I’m left with is impotent rage? What if the storm takes him, and my entire world is ended?
Oh, it gets better. What if that doesn’t happen but the house is damaged. How good really is our home insurance? Is it good enough to replace a home? And if it doesn’t, what happens to us then? Our money will eventually run out, we become homeless, the kids get taken away because I can’t provide for them. Then my wife will follow because who wants to stay married to a failure of a father? I will at that point just become some random face sitting on a corner holding a sign saying that a tornado took my family.
See, that’s how it’s done. That’s how to take normal anxiety and ratchet it up until the only way out is to never leave your bed in the morning. A parent’s anxiety is bottomless. Don’t even get me started every time I hear about a school shooting. You want to know where the what-if questions go? You don’t, believe me. But I’m dad. And dad knows how to deal with it.
How To Deal With The What-If Questions
“The siren’s are for just in case,” I tell my son.
“But what if…” he begins before I cut him off.
“Hold it, bub. Let’s understand what they mean, ok?” This is how you teach your son to deal with the what-if questions. You begin to explain the difference between the probable and the not likely to happen.
“We wear a seatbelt every time we get into the car, right?”
“Yeah,” he says.
“That doesn’t mean we are going to get into a wreck, right?” I say.
“So the sirens are like that. We are just being careful.”
I understand where his head’s at. He will follow the what-if questions until the last thing standing between him and the great unknown is nothing. It’s a vortex of the improbable that I don’t want him to get sucked up in. He’s too young to understand the absurdity of all of it. Next, I explain the science behind tornados. The way high and low-pressure systems come together. I try to interject reality into his monster. I point to our basement, explain how thick the walls are. I tell him that we might lose some shingles, but that’s probably about it. I take him to our little hiddy hole underneath the basement stairs. We touch the exposed wood, and I explain their toughness and the number of nails holding it all together. And then I hold him, wrap him up so that now he can feel that foundation that our entire family is built on. I try to take away that dark what-if unknown and replace it with the sharp edges of reassurance.
This is how you deal with those types of questions. You begin to look at all the strength in your world, wherever you can find it, and use it to cover your anxiety until the fire is smothered. That’s what dad is, that strength, even if I’m just pretending. My boy relaxes and his hands go still. The rain is still hard outside and it sounds like insects smashing against the windows. Hail. Tornados and hail. Fantastic. What if the hail breaks a window?
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