Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Only Thing We Have to Fear...

My son Jabberwock is deathly afraid of dogs. Heights. The coffee grinder. Automatic flush toilets. And a host of other things.

Through much of my life, I have also battled a parade of fears, and I think I have triumphed over them all, at least from time to time. I wouldn't say that I have any fears that would qualify as phobias, but I have struggled with anxiety since I was very young. When I was a kid, I remember being absolutely terrified of going into the ShortStop for a gallon of milk. My mom was exasperated at me for balking at this seemingly simple task. As a mom now, I realize that sending me in after that milk was keeping her from having to wake my infant brother and pack him up out of the car seat, haul both of us out into the freezing Minnesota winter, stand in line juggling a baby, a purse, and a gallon of milk, and then turn around and get everyone settled back into the car, a process bound to take a bit more time than me just running in. I was nine years old, and this gas station was a place we stopped frequently, probably several times a week. Most of the cashiers knew us. I can remember, though, gripping the front seat of the car and turning my face away from my mother, tears trying to squeeze out of my eyes as I shook my head, refusing to go in.

Like my son, I have a fear of heights. When I am a certain distance above the solid, comforting ground, my hands and feet go completely numb. My heart beats irregularly. Even when I watch someone on TV who is mountain climbing, my hands go numb. They start to sweat profusely.

My biggest fear is and has always been losing someone I love. To say that this fear has gotten worse after becoming a mother is a severe understatement, but I've really always had it. If I were to psychoanalyze myself, I suppose I could come up with some kind of anxiety disorder, some abandonment issues, who knows. But I can remember lying in bed at night, thinking, and suddenly it would occur to me that my dad was going to die. He lived in another state, so I really didn't know him all that well, but it would just occur to me that he was dead or dying, and suddenly I would be crying, weeping really. I was so afraid that it was true. Or instead of my dad, it would be my best friend who died. Now, of course, it is my children. Out of the blue, my brain shows me hideous images of the horrible things that could happen to them, and it hits me right in the chest, a sledge hammer of fear.

I don't know how my son got his fear of dogs. I don't know where my own fears come from. But as I've gotten older and examined my life, I see how some fears pass from parents to children. I see how afraid my own mother was at times in her life, and I see how much she has conquered those fears today. It gives me hope for myself, and for my sensitive little guy, too. I will say that I almost never pass up an opportunity to climb up high enough to make my hands go numb. I look over the edge of cliffs, ignoring the sweaty palms and racing heart, willing myself to conquer my fear. I haven't figured out how to face down my fear of loss, but I bravely love in spite of the fragility of it all.

Lastly, here's a lighthearted poem I wrote about a time when my mother conquered her snake phobia, for the love of her grandson, and Jabber offered me some words of wisdom about facing those fears.


My mother
smiles a nervous smile
and breathes
softly, steeling herself.

"I can do this," she whispers,
as my son smooths a cobra sticker
onto the hem of her shirt.
"Thanks, honey," she gasps,
and she takes a tentative
glance down--

the snake sits coiled
and indifferent
my son's eyes are searching
his grandmother's,
seeing more than she intends.

"It's not a snake," he offers.
He smiles, an enchantment
an enigma--
"It's just rope," he announces,
"With a head and stripes."

And that's how I am trying to see all fears, with the wisdom of a four-year-old. Not a snake at all. Just rope, with a head and stripes.

And here's my youngest son Monkey, who at sixteen months, is completely fearless.

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