Carter has had a rough couple weeks. Tantrums while camping, increased physical aggression towards others, and the ever-infuriating, “Sorry, but” to lead off every refusal to comply. But on a day that might make the parenting highlight film, I got to have a meaningful conversation with him. We connected. We listened to each other. Behavior changed for the better. Hooray for dad.
Tonight, as the light of the evening faded, Carter routinously asked to hear a story as he fell asleep. My prerequisites at this point include being under the covers and absent of the gotta-keep-awake movements or noises that stubborn children such as myself helped perfect. To calm him down, I tell Carter about how his mind finally gets a chance to play, without all of the distractions of physical stimulation. “Close your eyes,” I tell him, “and your mind will start making up the images without needing to see.” It is a variation on a familiar theme that helps him clear the last hurdles of consciousness. As such, it sparked a memory.
“That reminds me of my dream from yesternight,” he says with sudden coherence. “That nightmare that scared me. I was at a haunted house and there was a skeleton flying a plane. And there were these bugs that landed on you and made a terrible screeching noise that hurt my head.”
“Ah,” the wise father says, sensing an opportunity. Now, I can empower Carter in his sleep to overcome these fears. More restful nights and a timely Father of the Year award are only moments away.
“The thing is, that skeleton,” I lie, “is Charlie. He’s a pilot and a friend. He probably just flew down to see if you were OK, to see if he could help you out at all.”
I’m on a roll. “And that house, it isn’t really haunted at all. It’s like a ride at Disney. It’s all mechanical, done with lights and mirrors. If you had gone around to the other side of the house, you would have seen this long, long line of people queued up to get inside. Great fun.”
Just one more. “That leaves the bugs. I have never seen these bugs, but I think that you could reach into your utility belt. Down on the left side, there’s a little capsule of bug spray. It’s radioactive bug spray. For radioactive bugs. And you could just spray that all around you, and those bugs will run squealing away. They can’t stand the stuff. But remember, it’s on the left side.”
Typically, my stories tend to be rambling narratives of my life or plots of movies. Occassionally, I get the urge to be creative and come up with something original. But almost without fail, I find myself concluding such a story after about 45 minutes to find my son riveted. Rather than snoring, he says with wide-open eyes, “What happens next?” So, to preserve my brief evening time with Amy and grant Carter the sleep he won’t let himself get, I go for boring. Monotonous. Excrutiatingly detailed. I have discovered that placing the hero of the story on a freight train of thought gets the job done.
I’m not sure why I didn’t do that. Instead, I told him about my own nightmare.
“You know, I had a nightmare myself not too long ago,” I began. “That day Mommy let me sleep in. I think it was Saturday.” I was going for empathy. Empathy, on a long boring train of thought. I could feel Carter settle deeper into the mattress.
“I woke up scared. I dreamt there was this storm, and you and me and Mommy and Archie were in the house. It came up fast. Snooks and Not Was were there, too. All of sudden, I look out the window and there are a bunch of funnel clouds forming. At least three, I’d say. So I try to rush us all into the basement, where we can take shelter. The basement doesn’t look like our basement. It had safer places to hide. But our cat wouldn’t let herself be picked up, and Snooks wouldn’t come quickly, like the way she always waits before going outside. And you ran back to get something. And you wouldn’t come back when I called. Finally, with the storm right on top of us, I managed to get everyone downstairs and under some shelter. But the storm was hitting us dead on, and it ripped off our room and the floor above the basement –”
Sometime in between identifying the questionable safety of our basement and destroying our house, a thought started to echo in my head. Maybe this isn’t the best bedtime story. By the time my momentum had carried me to the terrifying moment of losing my eldest son to a swirl of winds, I had passed the point of no return. Now, two thoughts raced through my mind: Get to the point, and I hope he’s asleep.
I didn’t, and he wasn’t. Before I could illustrate the power of consciously stocking your subconscious with equipment to fend off nightmares, my son was sobbing for his mother. I had also mistaken the tears falling into my shoulder for the more customary drool.
“I want my Mommy.”
“Oh, no, no. It’s all right Carter. You see, the next night, I made sure I had this rocket backpack, just in case. And sure enough another storm hit–”
“No, no, everything was fine. When you started to slip into the air–”
“–I zipped on my jet pack, and caught you. We went really high into the air until we were above the storms and could look down in the middle. And we could see mommy. And Archie. And Snooks and Not Was. Everything was fine. They were safe, and we had this great view of this interesting natural occurrence. It was grayish, but this was a special twister, with gumdrops and pink puppies wagging their tail. Do you want some chocolate?”
The words may not be exact, but the desperation was accurate. Clever dad had just reduced his sleep-challenged son to a hysterical and terrified little boy who now had the pleasant bedtime image of his home and family being ripped apart. Bonus discovery: Carter realized his father dreams that his son goes away.
I keep hoping I’ll just wake up in a cold sweat. Seems I forgot the jet pack.