Why are we so scared of the dark?
My parents never figured out why I was so afraid of the lights being off at nighttime. I remember the first time the dark was terrifying. My mother tucked me into bed, flipped the light switch, and closed the door. It took my eyes a moment to adjust, and for a few seconds, I could see nothing but black. Those few seconds were enough to feel the darkness suffocating me. There was nothing but creeping black fingers seeping into my blankets and wrapping around me. Panic built in my stomach and slowly rose up my spine as my breathing became faster. The panic reached my heart, which beat harder and quicker. The panic crawled up my throat, emerging as a scream.
My mother burst in the room, herself terrified by my scream, only to find me exactly where she left me, with nothing wrong except the fear paralyzing my body. The light from the hallway caused the darkness to retreat into the corners of my room. The panic faded as the light reassured me of my familiar surroundings.
The next night, my parents put a night light in my room beside my bed. The feeble light didn’t do much to dispel the darkness, and it only created dancing, taunting shadows. Across from my bed, the shadows crawled across the wall, hiding my closet and crayon drawings I drew. The shadows took the forms of monsters and creatures, who waited until my eyes were closed to snatch me from my bed. My mother found me crying under my blankets.
Twenty years later, I’m sitting in a white hospital waiting room. I’m leaning forward with my elbows on my knees and my chin resting against my extended fingers. The small television is quietly playing commercials in the corner, and the receptionist’s phone rings every now and then. The ceiling fan gives a little click, and sunlight shines in through the window behind me. A book I brought sits untouched on the cushioned chair next to me. I don’t have the stomach to read. I can’t say how long my eyes were frozen on my slightly worn tennis shoes, though I’m not really looking at them. My toes nervously tap the tile underneath me. My mind buzzes with memories and emotions, jumping from one thought to the next at random.
A memory comes back of my parents’ solution to my fear of darkness. They opened my door all the way, and left the hallway light on, enough to force the darkness to sulk away into the night. After several years of this bedtime routine, I overheard my parents talking in the kitchen while I sat on the stairs.
“She’s ten, shouldn’t she have grown out of this by now?” My father’s voice quietly said.
“Kids’ brains are very different from adults',” my mother argued. “So please just give her time. She will leave this behind someday, I know she will.”
I try to think about when I didn’t need the hallway light anymore, but I can’t remember exactly. The fear started to fade around the end of elementary school, so it must’ve been sometime in middle school when the darkness would come, but not the panic.
The panic came back last week. I had found out I was pregnant with my second child a few weeks before. My three year old was complaining of headaches, but I didn’t think much of it until the headaches wouldn’t go away. All I heard the doctor say was “brain tumor”. I couldn’t comprehend anything else she said. I squeezed my husband’s hand as I felt the familiar pit of panic grow in my stomach. It slowly climbed up my spine and to my accelerating heart, before getting caught in my throat.
Amidst my turmoil of thoughts and feelings being processed, my main question always came back around: “What is going to happen to my son?”
“Claire? Claire?” I slowly became aware of the doctor saying my name.
Startled, I looked up into her concerned eyes, but I still didn’t hear the words. I remember trying to say something, but my breath refused to come. Nathan explained everything on the drive home.
“Owen needs surgery ASAP. The tumor has grown very big, very fast. He’s scheduled for Wednesday of next week, so the surgeons can remove the--” Nathan pursed his lips together, tears silently falling down his face. His breath shook as he tightened his grip on the steering wheel and focused on the road.
My phone buzzing brings me back to the present. My toes stop tapping as I answer the call. “Hey, Nathan,” is all I manage to whisper.
“Hey, honey. I explained to my boss the . . . situation, and he let me go early,” he says, probably from the car based on the constant background noise.
“That’s great.” I’m so happy he’s finally coming over, but my voice doesn’t convey that. Nathan understands.
“I’ll be at the hospital in twenty minutes.”
“Okay.” We take a deep breath in and out at the same time. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, honey. See you soon.”
I set my phone down, wondering if there was any possibility that my heart could break into more pieces. A single memory keeps playing in my mind’s eye of Owen right before his surgery. He was scared, but I couldn’t let him see that I was infinitely more terrified. I sang his favorite song and stroked his thick, black hair while the nurses prepared him for surgery.
“You have an owie on your head,” I explained one last time. “But the nice doctors and nurses are going to make you all better.”
It took all my willpower to keep the lump in my throat down as I told the hardest lie. “Yes.”
If it was possible to squeeze out his tumor with a hug, I did. I didn’t know if he’d be all better. I didn’t know if he’d be my happy boy again. I didn’t know if he’d be with us much longer.
Sighing, I glance at my watch. The surgery began about an hour ago. I fold my arms around my stomach, trying to keep the five week old baby inside of me alive by sheer will. Thinking about the unknown makes the panic build even stronger. My elbows find my knees again. I lace my fingers together in a fist and rest them against my forehead, pleading to God in a silent prayer.
“If it is your will, let him live,” I pray in my mind. “I don’t know what will happen, but you do.” Hot tears freely flow down my cheeks and into my lap as my faith drives the panic away. “I’ve dedicated the past three years to keeping him alive, but I never thought I’d feel this powerless. But you have all power. Owen is in your hands, Lord.”
Why are we so scared of the dark?
Because we’re afraid of the unknown.