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Thursday, May 31, 2007

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Life Insurance

At six months. Photo by Willie Allen.

Middle son had a sleepover tonight, so I took my firstborn out to see a movie. On the way home, he wanted to know where he would sleep in his bunkmate's absence.

"You wouldn't enjoy having your room all to yourself?" I asked.

"It sort of freaks me out," he responded.

"I understand," I said.

I do. I am thirty-seven years old, and sleeping alone sort of freaks me out too. I think it must be an inborn, not an acquired, trait that we share. Whereas he and his brothers are the products of infant co-sleeping (as if I was going to get out of bed and walk somewhere to nurse them six times a night), I am a graduate of cry-it-out boot camp, class of '70. But I also preferred to sleep with my sib at night when I was his age.

It's an age that carries special poignancy for me. I was eight years old the year my grandfather died. I didn't want him to die, and what was worse, I knew that he didn't want to die. He broke down and cried the last time I saw him, and I ran out of the room, terrified and overwhelmed.

I was eight years old when I began to dread nighttime, because it was when my parents would bring out the problems they were trying to protect us from by day. I would cover my ears and pray and pray, while my stomach ached and churned.

I was eight years old when I was terrorized by my third grade teacher, who singled myself and another child out on a regular basis for verbal abuse. She had a signature tactic of shaking your chin with her crooked finger while haranging you. I understood anecdotally that this was mild stuff compared to the standard-issue Catholic school discipline of my parent's generation, which is why I suppose I didn't feel like I had recourse with them. I guess I thought they knew what they had signed me up for, and that teachers were the bosses of everyone, including my Mom and Dad.

Eight years old was the end of innocence. The end of feeling safe.

What now pains me most about that time is how much I held to my chest. I knew I was loved by both my parents. I don't know why it was inconceivable to share what I was going through. It frightens me when I see evidence of that same streak of stoicism in my son. I think he still trusts life. I think he feels safe. But I can only see above the surface. I wonder how much I miss.

I still tend to hold things close to my chest. This afternoon I ran an errand that was difficult and emotional, because it involved friends who are going through a hard time. I wept all the way home. As I pulled into our driveway, I wondered what I would tell my son if he noticed I had been crying. I don't want to have to tell him that awful things happen to families like ours. I don't want him to know that people who aren't done with living, can die. I don't want him to find out that people who love each other, can stop. I don't want him to learn there are adults who would hurt him. I don't have answers for any of those whys.

In some ways, I am still that eight year old. If I don't speak about them, maybe painful things will be less real. If I don't cry about them, maybe I won't have to feel.

My son needs to be shown a different way.

"I had scary thoughts at night when I was a kid, too," I offered. "Sometimes I still do. It starts with one scary thought and then it gets hard to switch the channel in my head. If I can concentrate on a time I was really happy, or something I am really looking forward to, I can sometimes turn the scary thoughts off."

"I try that, but it's like my mind gets out of control," he said.

"Yeah," I said, "I know what you mean."

I wanted so much to tell him, don't worry, none of that stuff you fear will ever happen. But it isn't my job as his parent to insulate him from life. It's my job to equip him to deal with it. That means demonstrating that it's okay to talk about these things; that it's alright to feel them. And for me, it means something else.

"I pray," I told him. "I tell God that I'm really scared and I need to know that I am loved and taken care of. I remind myself that God is bigger than all of the things that scare me."

This is the best I've got, and it will have to do. I can't promise my children that they will always be safe and free from pain. I can't always be there to protect them. I won't always know what's going on with them. But I can teach them where to turn when there are no answers for the whys. I can pass on my faith — and my experience — that the one who brought them here will see them through. I can't prevent all the screwy ideas they will encounter and develop about God as they grow; it's their relationship, and they will have to work it out their whole lives like everybody else. But I hope I can teach them that while prayer doesn't bring us a lamp and a genie —or even always, illumination —they don't have to feel all alone in the dark.

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Blogger lia from luebeck, germany said...

What a wondeful post. As children we know, oh yes, how we know, about the dangers of the dark and the unpredictable tragedies we might have to face.

I think your "I know what you mean" is such a perfect way to acknowledge your son’s uncertainty, without diminishing his right to feel the way he does.

I had terrible nightmares for years and years during my early childhood. My parents responded in one of two ways: the dreams will go away, or if they were exasperated, they are only dreams.

When my children came to our bed in the middle of the night with a nightmare, we held them tight and told the nightmares to go away; otherwise we’d take wooden spoons and bang upon metal pots until they were scared away. This notion made the children laugh, and so all I had to do was to say, “Why don’t we go and get the wooden spoons, and they would fall back to sleep”.

The only thing I've found to say to my children that comforts them when they are scared is; no matter what, they are never going to be alone with their problems. Whatever happens, or whenever, or for whatever reason, their dad and I are going to make sure that someone who loves them ferociously will be there to help them. And if it isn’t us, then it will be someone else. We’ve been working on creating that list of people who ferociously love our children from the day of their births.

9:36 AM  
Blogger uberstrickenfrau said...

Hi. I'm delurking to say how much I love the phrase" Isn't my job to insulate him but to equip him for life" Man, I have to keep reminding myself that. Really like your blog, thanks for sharing.

10:10 AM  
Blogger littlepurplecow said...

Yes, I too believe "that the one who brought them here will seem them through." Thanks for sharing this.

7:39 PM  
Blogger shauna said...

I'm so excited. I just found a new favorite blog. Thanks again.

9:28 PM  

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