The child is afraid of the dark. She says she is afraid to go to sleep. She weeps.
It is after her bedtime, of course, and after her younger sister’s, and the baby is fussing and needs to be put down, and you are tired yourself, and would like a few minutes of silence in which to attempt to retrieve your life from the clutches of motherhood before you, too, must go to bed.
But the child is weeping, her shoulders shake, and you notice how large and frail and newly thin the shoulder blades are beneath her nightgown. She is your daughter, your firstborn, a tall seven-year-old with quick fingers and blond tangles, who loves novels, symphonies, and mud, who claims tonight she is afraid to go to sleep in her bed beside her little sister with her door open and the night light on and Brahms’s lullaby playing on the stereo.
“What are you scared of?” you ask, as you try to evaluate whether this isn’t just another ploy to wring a few more seconds from the day.
“Monsters,” she says.
And before you see the need to think, you answer as you were once answered, “There are no monsters.”
But even as you speak those words, you know you are lying. If there are no monsters, then what is it that so torments the world? If there are no monsters, where does all the dread and carnage come from? If there are no monsters, why is there fear? Perhaps there are other words, perhaps even other explanations, but if monsters are just metaphors or symbols, then you have to admit that the things they stand for are so much more horrible they make a child’s fears seem cute.
The other day, your daughter drew a monster, hairy and huge and purple and green, with pointy teeth and toenails globbed with blood. She said, “This creature knocks at your door and befriends you. It pretends to be kind, and then it eats you in your sleep,” and you saw with a shudder how much she understands.
Besides, you are a monster yourself. It’s a secret you share with her, that a hideous, stinking, growling creature lurks beneath all your goodness. You know you are a model mother–patient, thoughtful, loving, lively, supportive, intelligent, kind, fun–and you know you have abused her. You have crushed and abandoned her in countless ways, and you know she knows it. When you asked, “What are you scared of?” an unrecognized sliver of yourself cringed in fear that the child would answer, “You.”
Instead your daughter weeps, “I’m scared of monsters,” and again you deny her. Again you say, “Monsters aren’t real,” while the shadows thicken around you.
(And here, your younger daughter, who is protected by her older sister’s fear, pipes up, “If monsters aren’t real, then neither is Santa Claus.” But fortunately or not, this logically elegant and precocious non sequitur gets lost in her sister’s tears.)
Because you’ve lied about the presence of monsters, the child tries a different tack. She resorts to logic to word her fears, “People could get in the house and hurt us.” But now your response comes immediate and pure.
“I’ll protect you,” you promise, quick as light.
You mean it, of course, with all your strength and self. Sometimes you go to sleep at night imagining how you would save your children if you had to, how you would stab or shoot anyone who threatened them, how you would lift cars, dive to the bottom of murky lakes, race back into burning buildings. You imagine the ferocity, the bloodlust and courage that nothing but a threat to your children would stir in you, and you are thrilled by how much you love them.
But even your daughter, who knows how much you love her, knows you cannot possibly be vigilant enough to keep her safe. She knows that you, too, have to sleep. She knows your strength is finite, that sooner or later you would have to drop the car, come up for air, or perish in the flames. She understands that, however perfect your intention, every promise is conditional.
Then, too, she has been a witness to your failings. She knows you aren’t entirely reliable. She has seen you fret and falter, seen you quail at minor threats, grumble at little difficulties. She has seen you be cautious. She knows you are a fraud, feeding off her fear to keep you brave.
Besides, she knows the way the world works. Last fall, less than thirty miles from here, another child was taken from her home while her mother slept. Someone else’s daughter was stolen at night from the sanctuary of her bed, and though her face still haunts you everywhere you go, no one will ever see that child alive again.
As much as you tried to protect your daughter from that news, still it crept past your guard, seeped into your home. Your daughter knows that story, and she knows the stories of witches, the rites of Halloween. She has heard snatches of news when you aren’t quick enough to shut it off, has seen the indelible images of accident and anguish.
Despite your best efforts to protect her, the child has discovered the world is a dangerous place. Though she has not yet learned the word for it, she knows in her bones how life crumbles, topples, tears. She understands mortality, and she is afraid to sleep.
“I have nightmares,” she weeps.
“They’re just dreams,” you say. And wince.
You still remember the nightmares you had as a child, nightmares so terrifying they held you hostage, stiff and tongue-tied, during the long dry days, and the part of you that remains forever five recognizes that your daughter is right when she argues, “They’re not just dreams.”
Suddenly you have an impulse to agree with everything she’s said. Your own fears and weaknesses long to cave in, to admit she’s got it right—that nightmares aren’t just dreams, that monsters are real, that people might well come into your house to hurt you. For a moment you want to submit to the long, weird horror of this life, to clutch the daughter you live in fear of losing, and shudder in her arms, the two of you moaning and keening your fear of being.
But then no one would ever get to sleep, and underneath your pity, grows an increasing irritation. You are tired, there is much yet to be done. You want to protect your daughter from one monster at least by getting her to bed before your impatience surfaces. So you comfort and coax and command and distract, and finally, finally, the child goes to sleep.
Once the others sleep also, and the house is steeped at last in the blessings of silence, you double-lock the doors and double-check the stove and slip back into their toy-strewn, night-lit rooms. You kiss the littler two, inhaling as you do a little of the warm and animal steam of their dreams, and then you pause to stand over your unconscious daughter, to watch her sleep in the single safe moment which is always all you will ever have.
She is so peaceful and far from you, lost in the currents of her sleep.
Helpless with love, you tower in the darkness above her, and as you study her oblivious face, you are suddenly newly aware of the courage it requires to enter sleep’s dark realm, to experience again that falling away from the self which would otherwise mean death.
Night after night after night, cradled in nothing but a little imperfect love, clothed in nothing but the faith we can manufacture for ourselves, we all must abandon ourselves to the mercy of the world, and go to sleep.
This essay appeared in Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Essays Vol. 5, No. 1, 1998