Sometimes I feel it before I see it. There will be a sudden tensing of the little body on my back. His legs will creep up to try to wrap around my waist. And that is when I start looking for it: the dog. There is a dog somewhere, and Squish has spotted it. As often as not it is across the street, or behind us, or walking down the sidewalk we just passed. This does not matter to the boy. If it is in his line of sight, it is a threat to his little life. So I speak comfortingly. I tell him I’ve got him, so the dog can’t get him. I tell him the dog looks very nice, and he agrees. But still, until the dog has disappeared into the streets of Brooklyn, his body is tense, his legs are up, his voice is high and tight.
There are a few other things that provoke such a response in the boy. He had the same reaction on Halloween as we rode the train to meet some friends for trick-or-treating. The masks and costumes, which had escaped my attention, were suddenly not only blatantly obvious, but understandably terrifying. No wonder little Squish was trying to climb onto my head. Snow shovels, at least briefly, held the same terror. An unintentional comment led the child to believe that these noisy tools scraping snow off the sidewalk were monsters. And, once again, the boy tried to climb out of reach at the sight of one.
This evening I read the boys There’s a Nightmare in My Closet as they were finishing their dinners. By the end of the story I could see the worry in Squish’s eyes as he looked from me to the book and back again. Was this real? Were there nightmares in the closet? So we started again from the beginning. And we saw how scared the nightmare was of the little boy. We noticed that the boy wasn’t very nice to him. Did you see how sad the nightmare was when the boy was mean to him? Oh, and look, it turns out there wasn’t a nightmare in the closet at all. It was a friend! He seemed calmed, reassured. And he asked to have the book read to him two more times before bed.
Fear turns to intrigue, intrigue to interest, interest to understanding and understanding, I hope, to integration. May a dog soon be just another thing we see when we are out and about. (Although I’m not banking on it. After all, I still want to climb on somebody’s head at the sight of a rat scurrying across the sidewalk in front of me.)