I’m afraid of the squirrel carcass in my Dumpster right now. For one, I didn’t check to make sure it was really dead, but since I found it hanging from my dog’s mouth, I figured the odds were high. Maybe it was just dazed, but I am not going out there to check, because rabies is one of the useless new things I fear now, along with—but not limited to—earwigs, cyber predators, yellow fever, and drug addiction.
I used to be afraid of greater things, like Satan, for example. Today I have no idea where that fear went, only that it existed in the first place thanks to my mother, who left the book The Exorcist lying around the house for me to tamper with like an open bottle of prescription pills. I didn’t even read the whole book, just a few choice passages. It took me five months to stop twitching.
That fear was replaced by an amazing fear of flying. I used to be able to walk on a plane and immediately burst into tears, so certain was I that we’d nose-dive into a suburban cul-de-sac. I loved having that fear; it was a solid, meaty fear I could really get behind. My mind was alive with horrific scenarios, visions of my kidneys impaled on car antennae and such.
Today when I get on a plane and the pilot tells me to sit back and relax, I kind of actually do it—only the “relax” part feels a lot more like resolve, as in I sit back and resolve that if the plane crashes, then at least it will mean an escape from all these odd fears plaguing me lately. Take the fact that I recently taught my ten-year-old how to break out of a locked trunk. I’ve also taught her—as much as I could without it being a hands-on lesson—how to escape from a submerged vehicle, how to fend off a shark attack, and how to disarm a knife-wielding predator. I never really worried about any of this stuff until after I had her; then, all of a sudden, it became impossibly urgent for me to equip myself with this knowledge so I could impart it to her.
My own childhood didn’t get riddled with grand fears until I was eleven and a classmate of mine was killed by a car. Much later I learned that another classmate, a beauty named Eileen with hair the color of sun-dappled old gold, died of a heroin overdose in high school. Eileen and I had gymnastics together in the fourth grade. I remember her ability on the balance beam in particular. She didn’t just walk across this thing, she danced across it. She did backflips. I was amazed by her—and fearful for her. Then she slipped somehow and was dead before she finished her junior year.
During the time Eileen and I were friends, there was a period when it was my habit to leave the house in the middle of the night, while my parents were sleeping, in order to intercept the school janitor as he arrived for his shift. This gave me hours and hours—in the dark and in utter isolation—to play with all the recreational equipment on the school grounds before the other children began to show up and impose. Why this enticed me I don’t know, except that solitude was a valuable commodity to me back then. Today, if I were to wake up to find my adolescent daughter gone, I’d scream so loud that everyone and everything, from SWAT helicopters to lobsters in the middle of the Atlantic, would immediately brace for action.
Because with parenthood comes, you know, the fears. I hate having to relegate the history of my consciousness into two distinct categories, that of before parenthood and afterward, but it’s so unavoidable. Once you cross from one category to the other, you invariably look back and see the precariousness of your own journey. You’re astounded to see that the whole time, you were really walking such an impossibly slim line of balance across a gaping canyon. Then, just as you are marveling at what a treacherous journey it had actually been, you see your own kid out there, on the same beam. She is dancing. She is doing backflips. And she is as blind as you were to the tiny slip it takes to lose your balance and be lost forever. But you are on the other side now, and all you can do is be astounded by her, fear for her, and hope she hears you from across the canyon, pleading for her to watch her step.
Illustration by Peter Arkle