These are the ramblings of a middle-aged parent, pondering what keeps me up at night: mostly concern about my children’s safety, welfare and happiness. As parents we try to protect their kids. Its what we do. When Julia was 10 I discouraged her from doing a self-defense karate class that her friends were doing because I didn’t want her to think the world was such a dangerous place that she needed to defend herself. That seems really dumb in hindsight. But I was trying to protect my innocent, creative daughter from the wide world, and to build positive expectations. Luckily she developed street-smarts during her teenage-years by watching enough TV shows where the women get abducted to know never, ever get in the car because it always ends badly. By the time Cameron was 10, five and a half years later, I was pushing confidence-building karate, mostly because Cameron was so naïve and sensitive that I figured at some point she was going to need to defend herself, if only from her own self-doubt. Isn’t it funny how your perspective changes?
Yet the child who I tried to protect from fear turned out full of it. Set aside the odd fact that Julia will confidently stride the streets of Brooklyn at all hours. Julia is afraid of ghosts and home intruders. We often pull into the driveway to see our house ablaze; she’s turned on every light and locked all the doors. Locked doors might sound reasonable to many but here it is totally unnecessary. Home alone when a mild earthquake occurred, she ran from the house, jumped in the car and sped to her grandparents, convinced that ghosts were shaking the pictures on the walls.
Cameron on the other hand is fearless, possibly to an irrational degree. Wondering why she was so late getting home from her job at the mall the other night I used my Find My Phone app to locate her. Although she accuses me of using it to stalk her, I mostly use it to see if she is on the move, driving and unable to text me back. What I found was that, on a 10-degree night at 11 p.m., she was in the woods, lakeside, at the end of a mile-long dirt road in the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area near our house.
I texted: “Where are you?” which was the least antagonistic thing I could think of if she was in fact there of her own volition rather than as a result of abduction. Her prompt response was: “You’re annoying. I was taking a picture.” She was taking photos of the frozen lake. Alone. In the woods. On a freezing dark night. Seriously? Did encountering a psychopath never occur to her? How about a group of drunken teenaged boys? What about stumbling upon someone who was up to no good – dumping a body, raping someone? Of course all these things immediately occurred to me. Even after I dismissed them as unlikely, I came up with other fear-inspiring possibilities: bears, coyotes, thin ice….
She was home within 10 minutes so I took a deep breath and let it go. But she did the same at a different local but secluded lake on the following night, so when she got home I had to share with her all that might go wrong for a 19 year-old woman on a solitary jaunt in the freezing dark woods at night. Her response: “Da! If anyone else was there I wouldn’t get out of the car!” Here is where I didn’t go: What if the car got stuck in the snow? What if someone was hanging out in the woods waiting for you to show up? With every example my brain constructed, my better judgment helped me bite my tongue. I feebly mentioned bears but again she laughed and said sarcastically, “Yeah, they’re coming to drink from the frozen solid lake. Hello? Hibernation!” I was defeated.
Over the following few days all this marinated in my brain and here is my conclusion: the chance that anything would happen to Cameron during one of these photographic forays is close to zero. There are photographers in war zones, but Assunpink Wildlife Management Area is not one of them. So even if my brain conjures new scary scenarios I won’t share them with her. She is fearless in a relatively safe situation, and that’s a good thing, especially considering her history of crippling anxiety.
But here is what I keep coming back to: Why is she not afraid? It’s not a lack of imagination or exposure (she watches Walking Dead). The woods behind our house abut Assunpink a few miles from where she was. Sometimes we hear blood-curdling shrieks from in there (a rabbit being killed by something big, we speculate) or a cacophony of barks and howls (a pack coyotes, we know). These sounds are literally hair-raising, in a primal, primitive brain sort of way. Have you ever imagined the pitch-dark woods at night and thought about how you would feel there? I would be petrified. Julia would be petrified. Maybe there is a gene that I passed to one daughter but not the other. I asked Fletcher whether going into the woods alone on a dark, cold night in pursuit of a cool photo was something he would ever do and his response was, yes. If he wanted it badly enough he would rationalize it to himself, relying on the fact that no one has died in Assunpink lately. There you have it. Julia and I have the scared-y cat gene and Cameron and Fletcher have the logical rationalization gene. Mystery solved!
In spite of my scaredy-cat gene, I know rationalizing away fear is a learnable skill because I did it for all of 2014. Breast cancer jumped out, not in the dark woods but under the fluorescent lights of doctors’ offices. For all of 2014 it sat nearby shrieking and howling, until I recently kicked it to the curb. I logically rationalize that I’ve been treated at the best cancer center in the world to try to keep the fear of recurrence at bay.
Whether it hits in bed in the middle of the night, creeps up behind in a cold dark wood, or pulls out the rug in a doctor’s office, fear is what keeps us present, compels us to protect each other and ourselves. We circle the wagons, double check that everyone is safe.
The next time I take the dog out at night I’ll dismiss the thought of zombies stumbling out of the woods. After 2014 I know there are definitely enough real things to fear. But I’ll still look both ways before I step out, and I’ll turn on the lights to illuminate the woods, because logically and rationally, I know that there’s a pretty good chance of encountering a bear in my back yard. Except maybe on the coldest of nights because, you know: hibernation.
*After I wrote this but before I posted it, Cameron stumbled in, mid-day, limping and in tears. She’d been to the lake taking photos in broad daylight, tripped on a snow-covered stump, and fell on the knee she previously had surgery on. Turns out I was worried about all the wrong things. Go figure.