We figured there was a problem, a rather serious one, when our son Landen started playing in the bathroom and only the bathroom. He would collect his action figures and stuffed animals from his bedroom and haul them to the bathroom off the kitchen, the one with the most interior walls. Sometimes he brought a blanket, but usually he sat pretzel legged next to the toilet, his little legs and butt on the hard, cold tile. The first time I found him there, I thought little of it. Small kids like small places. Harmless. The second time, I became concerned it was something bigger. Landen, I said, why don’t you come out and play on the rug while Dad and I read? He looked up at me and shook his head. It’s safe in here, he said, and then he made a Power Ranger do a backflip.
Night. No. Early morning. The tornado had touched down officially at 12:41am. What I’m trying to say is that it was dark, and people were sleeping. Rick and I had gone to bed that night knowing there were bad storms in southern Kentucky, but that felt irrelevant. Our skies were clear. Stars were out. The storms were expected to dissipate, come undone like a knot. I turned on my white noise machine and chewed a melatonin gummy. Rick put in his ear plugs and rubbed my back. Three hours later, I woke up to Landen shaking me, saying Mama, Mommy. Sirens blared. Winds rattled our house, which suddenly seemed toylike, breakable. Lightning illuminated our bedroom as I woke Rick. He said we needed to take shelter. I scooped up Landen. We hurried to the bathroom, the downstairs one with the most interior walls.
Rick suggested putting Landen on something. There were dogs on medication for storm anxiety. His coworker’s goldendoodle was on fluoxetine, and he read a thread about a man buying a thunder vest for his old collie. I pointed out to Rick that Landen was a human boy. He said Vanessa, I know that. I said I didn’t want to jump to such an extreme intervention. I believed we could solve the bathroom problem ourselves. I believed we were fully capable parents.
But after three weeks of trying to coax Landen out of the bathroom with bribes of iPad time and Rick and I alternating nights of staying in Landen’s room, we decided to seek the help of a clinical therapist. Daniella was in network and young, two things that gave me comfort. Since she was a recent graduate from her masters program, she would be equipped with the latest knowledge in cognitive behavioral therapy. And because she had dark hair and a warm smile like my sister’s, I figured Landen might think of her more as a fun aunt than a scary professional.
I liked Daniella immediately. She spoke to Landen like a person, not a child. She even shook his hand when she introduced herself, which made me feel a wave of tenderness toward her. Daniella’s office was filled with bright posters of cute animals saying cute things. An animated lion roaring Be courageous. A baby elephant holding its mother’s tail with its trunk, Help is helpful. A fuzzy sloth hanging from a tree branch. Everyone moves at their own pace.
During our first session, Daniella told us how therapy would work, how her office was a place to talk about feelings. Good ones, bad ones, the ones in between. She asked Landen if he knew why he was there. He swung his legs and said kind of, the tornado was scary. Daniella nodded and agreed. The whole city was changed by it. But together, she said, we would all come up with some strategies to help him feel safe and brave. Afterwards, I took Landen to lunch at the restaurant with the mural of the sunflower field. We shared a plate of chicken tenders and a bowl of tomato soup. On a paper napkin, we played tic-tac-toe. Most games ended in a draw.
When we went back to see Daniella a second time, Landen was more at ease. He still held my hand as we walked back to her office, but once there, he let go. Daniella asked if he wanted to color while they chatted. They both sat on the floor with printer paper and scented markers while I sat in the chair in the corner. He shared that he liked the bathroom because in the bathroom, it was quiet. And that’s where we went during the storm. He said he was a little afraid of the outside now, and it made him feel sad when we drove past the parts of the city with broken buildings and houses. Towards the end of the session, Daniella asked if she could see Landen’s picture. He held up his paper, stick figures of Rick, me and Landen. Our goldfish Finn, who had passed away a few months prior, swam in the clouds. Daniella held up a picture of her own family. Two black cats and a husband holding her hand.
Before we left, Daniella asked if she could speak with me privately. She handed Landen an Etch A Sketch and said he could go wait in the lobby with the nice receptionist who had candy on her desk. Daniella closed the door and gestured for me to take a seat again. She pulled out some in-take paperwork and said she wanted to know a bit about our family history. Did anxiety run in the family? She said that while the tornado was perhaps the triggering event for Landen, it was possible he was predisposed. Do you or your husband or your parents suffer from anxiety?
I sat in the chair, quiet. I wasn’t sure. Because what is a normal level of worry in life? What is abnormal? How does one even know when they’ve crossed the threshold? It was true that I often thought about my parents dying, and each time they appeared older over FaceTime, I felt my stomach twist. I didn’t like underground parking ramps because I was afraid the beams would collapse. I took Zzzquil before flying and kept my eyes on the wing until the medicine forced my body into sleep. In my classroom at the high school, I often closed the door and let it automatically lock in case a disgruntled student came with a firearm. I performed a self examination on my breasts each month because I was scared my body would betray me like my grandmother’s had. And every time Rick left for work, I hugged him goodbye and told him I loved him immensely, just in case. Since the tornado, I found myself silently saying the Hail Mary while driving on the highway. I hadn’t stepped foot in a church in years. It was possible I was an anxious person, and it was possible Landen had picked up on these things, these quiet moments of desperation and dread simmering within me. He was sensitive, attuned to my feelings. As a baby, he had only let me push his stroller. If he peered behind him and saw Rick’s fingers wrapped around the handles, he would start crying until I took over. It made me laugh. Rick too, although when it happened after a bad day at work, I suspect it broke his heart.
At the next session with Daniella, a hot afternoon in June, we sat in a pool of sunlight as she suggested Landen and I come up with a mantra, something to say together when Landen felt like hiding in the bathroom. This is what we landed on: The things that frighten us are just things. We are people. Powerful people.
We drove to Wisconsin to visit my parents for the Fourth two weeks later. They lived on Lake Michigan, a small brick house with a large dock out back. My dad kept saying he wanted to take out the pontoon. The sky was gray, rain in the forecast. Nothing serious, just some drizzle. We were about to head outside to put on lifejackets when Landen, who had changed into his swim trunks without protest only minutes before, disappeared. We found him, Rick and I, in the bathroom of course, the one in the basement. My dad came down to see what was taking so long and asked why our kid was acting so funny, huddled by the toilet like that. I told him he ought to be more sensitive. He knew what had happened back in Nashville, had called us as soon as he heard there had been deaths, holding his breath until we picked up. Vanessa. Thank God. He had been scared at that moment. Was it, I wondered, what doctors and therapists would consider a normal amount of fear? As a child, my father was known to have night terrors and once, on a family camping trip out West, was so afraid of reports of recent bear sightings that we all slept in the cramped car, the tent unused. Was I perhaps predisposed for too much nervousness too?
Rick ended up staying back at the house with Landen. They played Go Fish while my parents and I went out on the lake. I was upset with my father’s comments about Landen, but since my father is getting older, I try to let go of such feelings faster. My parents are who they are at this point, and I too am probably who I am, but Landen is still forming, still growing into the Landen he will be, still malleable to the world in a way we are not. On the pontoon boat, I told my parents that Landen was in therapy, and their first thought was that something Bad happened. I said no no, not Bad bad. But still bad, right? Still a struggle, though struggle can be subjective, like pain. There are people that have it way worse and people who have it way better, and if I think about this too much, I feel dizzy and small and overwhelmed at the pure chance of nature, the way some houses get blown to pieces, and across the street, others stay standing.
That night, my dad let Landen roast S’mores on a small fire he built in the yard. My mother made balsamic drizzled asparagus and chicken on the grill. She wore an apron with my second-grade handprints pressed onto it in blue and orange paint, a Mother’s Day gift organized by my elementary school art teacher, still wearable after thirty years. Across the lake, people shot off fireworks and waved sparklers in large loops, their laughs and yells skipping across the water. Rick had driven to the nearby gas station to buy Landen ear plugs. As my father sandwiched Landen’s marshmallow between two graham crackers, Landen stood on the dock with the foam in his ears, looking up at the sparks and the stars, saying wow.
We promised my parents we would drive up again in September or October, whenever our jobs allowed. Finding substitute teachers in my district was proving harder and harder. I rarely took off, nor did Rick, who worked as a Junior Software Engineer. He spent his days building chatbots that would soon make most customer service workers obsolete. He carried some guilt about this, but then he’d get paid, and the guilt would subside slightly. I don’t think this makes him a bad person, just a person trying to get promoted, trying to provide for his family. Sometimes we talked about what we would do if we didn’t have to work. The fantasy looked like this: Rick would take up cooking and I would take up painting and together we would open a soup shop called What’soup. The walls would be lined with my acrylics and still lifes that people could simply take for free if they liked a certain one, and I’d simply make another because in this fantasy we have endless supplies. Landen would no longer need to stay at the neighbor’s until I got home from work, he’d just come to the soup shop and have a nice hot bowl of chicken noodle as if the place was his home away from home, a second kitchen table.
Back in Nashville, the night we returned, I came out of the shower to find a missed call from Daniella. She had had a family emergency and needed to cancel our upcoming appointment. Her voice sounded different, less measured. I texted her saying that was perfectly alright, and I hoped everything was okay. I wanted to say more, say let me know if there is anything I can do, but there are boundaries between clients and therapists and I didn’t want to put her in an awkward spot. I wondered, as I toweled off my hair, who helps Daniella? The husband in her drawing, the one holding her hand? Another professional? What is it like to hear about people’s struggles all day, to know the things that people carry? I combed my hair with a new brush, one with softer bristles, and called my sister, the one who looks like Daniella, to tell her I missed her during our trip to Wisconsin, to tell her I loved her.
Nashville had its first storm post the tornado at the start of August. As the sky darkened and the trees began to bend in the wind, I must admit I held my breath. I told Landen that we ought to go look, go feel the wind on our skin and hear the rain and understand this one was nothing to worry about, the meteorologists all said so. He followed me out onto the porch where we stood at the railing. We said it together: The things that frighten us are just things. We are people. Powerful people.
I tucked Landen into his own bed that night, assured him the storm was over, I promised. Everything was okay. But in the middle of the night, I awoke from a dream in which rainwater was filling our house and climbing up the walls and suddenly there was less and less air to breathe. The back of my neck was damp, my heart racing. Beneath the crack in our bedroom door, I saw the hallway light was on. I quietly slid out of bed so as to not wake Rick and took my pillow with me. At the end of the hall, the bathroom door was open. I pulled back the shower curtain to find Landen sitting in the tub, his arms wrapped around his knees. He looked up at me, his eyes small and tired and the exact shade of brown as mine. Without a word, I climbed inside and placed the pillow behind our heads.
Laura Schmitt received her MFA in creative writing from Hollins University. She is the winner of the 2022 Francine Ringold Award for New Writers, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nimrod, Grist and GASHER. Her fiction has been supported by the Tin House Winter Workshop, Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference, and Write On Door County Residency. She currently works as an indie bookseller and editorial intern for Electric Literature. She lives in Nashville and on Twitter @LauraSchmitt_.