Spiders All Die in the Winter

November 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm (Uncategorized)

Last night I told my 7-year old son Andrew an assortment of half-truths, full-blown lies, and other comforting pabulum to get him to sleep.

Really, I’m not a pathological liar. I generally try to tell my son the truth. But it was after 11pm, and Andrew had been laying in bed, his anxiety building by the minute, since 8. He had school the next day, and while the boy claims he doesn’t need to sleep, he’s a bear with less than nine hours and that ship was sailing.

When I poked my head into the night-light room for the umpteenth ten-minute check-in, Andrew’s voice rose out of the gloom, tight with anxiety. “Mommy. Can we do another spider check? I think I saw one on the wall.”

I choked back the deep, annoyed mother-is-thoroughly-vexed sigh that was rising in my throat and entered the room. Before I turned on the light, the shapes of his partly-disassembled hundreds-of-pieces Lego sets lurked in the dimness like broken-down beasts. The harsh, bright light instantly dispelled the illusion. We looked through Andrew’s tangled bedding. No spiders. We stared at his walls. No spiders. I even forced open his closet door (nearly jammed shut with all the junk in there) and took a peek. No spiders.

I turned the light back off and tried to smooth Andrew’s blonde cow-lick down. It popped right back up, along with his fears. “Don’t leave,” he whimpered. I didn’t. I sunk down on the floor next to his bed, and stroked his head.

“We talked about this last night,” I murmured—hopefully soothingly. “Spiders hibernate in the winter. You have nothing to worry about.

“But Daddy and I saw one in the bathroom tonight.”

“Oh, well. That must have just been a silly one that didn’t know it was time to hibernate.”

“And Anna [his 12-year old babysitter] told me she saw a hairy one with pincers on the side of the house.”

“When?”

“In the summer.”

“See. It would be hibernating by now.”

“But maybe it’s a silly one, too. And is in the bedroom.”

Before you think I have a completely hysterical son, let me note that Andrew has good reason to be afraid. Eighteen months ago, when he and I were visiting my sister after a trip to see the sarcoidosis specialist in Cincinnati, our beloved cat Kate died after being bitten by a black widow spider. Kate was as close to a sibling as Andrew had. She was a tiny jungle cat Jay and I adopted when we lived in Palau and then brought back to Montana. You can read more about her in “Herding Cats” (https://chronicville.wordpress.com/2006/05/25/herding-cats/). Jay was at home when Kate died. He got her to the vet when she seemed sick. The vet poured IV fluids, antibiotics, and anything else he thought might help into Kate’s little body. Nothing worked. She died after a day in the vet hospital.

Andrew was heartbroken. We all were. It helped a little that while we were visiting my sister, Andrew made a new feline friend in one of my sister’s cats, Fireball. It helped even more that my sister needed to find a new home for Fireball. She delivered him to us in Montana a couple of months later, and Andrew loves Fireball. But he continues to grieve Kate’s death. He keeps a “Kate Family Journal” in which he writes to Kate a couple of times a week. He tells her what’s going on, and usually draws her funny pictures—Kate flying a spaceship, Kate conquering Darth Maul, Kate and Andrew’s private amusement park with Star Wars rides.

I understand his sadness. I miss Kate too. I have always felt the death of my animals—mice, rabbits, dogs, and cats—with a sharpness that makes it hard to breathe sometimes. When I was 8, my first rabbit named Barbara died (she was followed–but not replaced–by Barbaras II and III) with hardly any warning (much like Kate), I wore the key to her hutch around my neck for months. I didn’t keep a separate journal for my feelings about her, but I did record my grief in my thick, hardbound diary. On July 7, 1980, I wrote, “Barbara died today. All the fun is gone.” Andrew comes by his sorrows honestly.

Jay and I researched children and grief. That’s how we got the idea of asking Andrew if he wanted to keep a Kate journal. We learned that kids this age are formulating their first intellectual and emotional conceptions of death. A pet’s death is usually the first opportunity a young child has to grapple with the idea of death—someone you love has suddenly ceased to be. It’s not fair. It makes no sense. And it hurts like hell. The professionals I sounded out said that Kate’s death was doubly important for Andrew. As his little brain is stretching itself to grasp the finality and totality of death, he’s also confronted with a sick mother. His mom disappears into the hospital and becomes too sick to participate in his daily life (again with little warning or explanation). Sometimes she seems better. Then suddenly she’s back in bed, clutching her head, or she’s stumbling around the house with blind spells or vertigo, or she’s getting yet another surgery. Is she going to make like Kate and die?

If I think about this too long, I’ll drop down the rabbit hole of guilt that I’ve caused my beautiful boy such pain, anxiety that he has too much to handle, and fear that I’m not helping him through this as best as I can. All of this comes rushing through my head as it did last night, when Andrew’s fear of spiders quickly did its own plummet—back into the familiar refrain of missing Kate, hurting for Kate, worrying a spider will seek him out and send him after Kate.

I know from dealing with my own night-time panics, that reasoning and rationality aren’t always the path through the treacherous landscape of the mind’s fears. Nevertheless, I’ve tried with Andrew—and I tried again last night—to talk through his fear. Spiders don’t often try and attack people. Kate liked to hunt bugs. The black widow probably bit her because she was pursuing it. Even if a spider did go against its survival instinct and seek out Andrew in his bed and bite him, he’s a lot bigger than the 6 pound tabby. It wouldn’t kill him. We would rush him to a hospital. He would be just fine.

Andrew’s anything but stupid. He has a riposte for every reassuring statement. He knows I cannot guarantee his safety from spider bites—or anything else. As midnight draws closer, I can see him becoming exhausted beneath the agitation, even in the dim light of his room. He must sleep. He will feel better in the morning. What I need to do now is offer him enough comfort to drift off. I promise him he will be safe. I swear nothing will happen to him. But he is seven—almost eight now—and he’s too wary and intelligent for these blithe reassurances that calmed him when he was four and five. He has evidence of my powerlessness. I couldn’t protect Kate. I can’t keep myself well. How can I guarantee his safety tonight? He needed something more.

I’m tired too. I look for the nearest authority I can find—and see it glowing in the gloom. My Android, with its handy connection to the Internet. I seize it.

“You know what? We’re going to look up spiders on Google and see if poisonous spiders live through the winter—even in the house.”

I type spiders and winter and Montana into the search engine and go to the first article Google brings me. I don’t even bother reading it. “It says here that spiders die off in the winter in Montana,” I say. “It’s too cold for them to live. Even inside.”

“What about hairy spiders with pincers? Check if they live in the winter,” he says.

I dutifully type in “hairy spiders with pincers in Montana” and “winter,” and avoid the terrifying pictures Google finds me. “Yep, it says they die too.”

“What about black widows?”

I type again, cast another cursory glance. “Nope. They die before it snows. And it’s already snowed.”

“Brown recluses?”

“Too cold for them.”

“Hobo spiders?”

What is this kid – an arachnologist? How the hell did he learn about hobo spiders, I wonder, before saying. “Hobo spiders are especially susceptible to cold.”

Andrew takes his first real breath in a couple of hours. “I’m tired,” he announces.

“I bet you are. Now go to sleep. Nothing will happen. You are safe. I will never let anything hurt you.”

He’s asleep before the next ten-minute check in. He looks heartbreakingly little beneath his Star Wars comforter.

What will happen when Andrew has grown enough to look for his own answers on the Internet? Am I setting a terrible precedent by lying to him?

I choose not to lose myself in the cobwebs of my own fears. He is asleep. I should be too. There is plenty of time to worry about spiders, illness, proper parenting, and the value of truth tomorrow. For now, I must sleep.

What about you? Do you lie to your kids sometimes to help them through a tough time? Or to yourself? Is it important to always tell the truth?

3 Comments

  1. roz heafitz said,

    Your writing is so evocative and touching.
    Your little one is very fortunate as am I to be your reader.
    RGH

  2. Allyson said,

    I would like to answer that last question you posed – and since our boys are 12 days apart, you know I feel every word that you write – by saying what I tell myself in these situations: He will not remember the white lies, half-truths and exaggerations, but only the comfort that they bring.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      I will try and remember that.

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