When I was a little boy, I was afraid of the dark – VERY AFRAID.
The thing is: I’m not sure whether, like most children, my fear was born of the dangers I imagined existed on the bedroom side of the door – the monsters hiding in my closet, under my bed, or just outside my window – or the ones I knew existed on the other side of it – the iron, albeit often shaky hand of a dictator, the alcohol-fueled arguments between people who professed to “love” each other (and me), the sound of splintering plate glass and stemware in the middle of the night – or both. All I know for sure is that the fear was real, palpable, at times even paralyzing, suffocating and that it hung like a guillotine blade in the air above my bed, which is why, night after night, as soon as I heard her footsteps cross the threshold that led from the bedroom hallway to the family room, I hurried to the door, stealthily opened it just a crack, raced back to my bed – and hoped. I knew the futility of it all. I knew that the sliver of light would only be mine for a moment. That it would disappear just as quickly – often with an aggressive and emphatic slam to reinforce the message, to remind me (and my siblings) who was in charge.
You see, my mother had long since befriended the dark and (I think) in her own misguided way was intent on my learning to do the same even if it meant force feeding it. It was her way (one of her ways) of toughening me up, of preparing me for a world that, I only later learned, for her, had been a dark and scary place for a very long time. Regrettably, tragically it was the only thing she knew – but the last thing on earth a came-into-this-world-too-sensitive me wanted to know. She escaped to it, sought refuge for her shame and guilt-ridden soul in it, but I wanted none of it. I wanted a mom. I wanted to be held. I wanted to be checked on. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be reassured that light was just around the corner – available whenever I needed it. And so our evening dance continued – me seeking the light, her dispelling it. Eventually, it stopped. I got a transistor radio that substituted for a mom. Depending on the season, I listened to play-by-play announcers broadcast baseball, basketball, even hockey games from all around the country. They kept me company and their metronomic, dulcet tones rocked me to sleep.
If I’m to be honest, however, my fear of the dark never completely went away. I still find myself preferring to have at least some light on somewhere when I go to bed at night. It’s also why I’m careful to leave a light on if I know it’ll be dark when I come home and fumble first for the foyer light switch when I walk through the door of a darkened hotel room. It’s not that I still worry that an imaginary boogeyman is lurking somewhere nearby. Like most childhood wounds of its kind, it’s much more complicated, insidious, and deep-seated than that. For me, the darkness is a daily dredging up of R-rated emotions seared into my soul, emotions that no young child should ever be exposed to (loneliness, fear of abandonment, a sense of invisibility, unworthiness, unlovability) – scars that easily could’ve (and should’ve) been avoided by an occasional hug, a moment of empathy and compassion, a word of comfort and reassurance, a recognition of the responsibility that comes with parenting a heart that sees and feels it all – and that you have one of those – a moment’s curiosity about the seemingly insatiable need for just a glimpse of light. But, here’s the irony of it all: In her eagerness to dispel the light, what my mom actually “taught” me was the criticality of rooting out and dispelling darkness – in all of its forms – and for that I am eternally grateful.
Last weekend, I passed a playground on my morning walk and saw a young mom laughing and bouncing on a rickety wooden bridge with her two little boys as if she were 4 years old again. “She will never close the door on them,” I thought to myself as I walked by – that and how incredibly lucky they are!