fear

“Trick-or-treat, smell my feet, my son’s gonna need therapy!”

Halloween season is finally over! If you are of a certain age, you remember when Halloween lasted a day. Just one day. Now it seems like everywhere you turn there’s a hayride to climb or a pumpkin to carve. When we were young, there weren’t aisles and aisles of candy and costumes and decorations in every store on every other corner. I swear, Target‘s Halloween section was as big as the entire A&P of my youth.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Halloween, and we had fun this year, but I am pumpkined out.

The weekend before trick-or-treating we took the boys on a moonlight hayride at a local farm. There were rolling fields and 300 year-old oak trees, and a beautiful creek–Prophecy Creek. The hayride led us to a roaring bonfire, where we drank hot chocolate and cider, painted pumpkins, and listened to a storyteller regale the crowd with stories that were just this side of spooky. It was a crisp night, and the clear sky dazzled with stars. It was a perfect way to get us into the Halloween spirit. But, of course, we couldn’t leave well enough alone.

There is a house right up the road from us that has a huge old barn on its property. For the past three years, they have created a “haunted” barn and people have raved about it. I couldn’t get a read on if it was too scary/gory/hellish from people’s comments, and the kids at the boys’ school were talking it up this year. As with many things, the people who were willing to be spooked surprised me. Like the little girl in Owen’s class who went through the barn last year, in second grade, while her two brothers, one several years older, backed out. I don’t say “chickened out” because I am a recovering chicken, and frightening images can do a number on someone–I know they did a number on me. (Note: I still can’t even watch the preview for the Carrie remake as I am still scarred from the original).

We drive by this barn multiple times a day, and this year we toyed with the idea of going. Owen, our older son, seemed game from the start, his brother Hayden seemed less so. Perhaps emboldened from our time spent out in the night, we decided we would try the scary barn after the hayride. We met some friends there –a father and son. The son had attempted to go through the barn two previous years. This was the year he would make it.

In the end, Owen backed out (could have inherited my chicken gene), so Pam stayed with him while Hayden and I went in with the other father and son. BIG MISTAKE. WE’RE TALKING PSYCHOLOGICALLY SCARRING. It’s a barn. I thought we would just walk from one end to the other and see various scenes partitioned off. No! This thing had scaffolding, winding staircases, three floors of bizarre terror, hidden doors, narrow paths, and black curtains that clung to our bodies. I felt like I was in every teen slasher movie from the eighties with a dash of Apocalypse Now thrown in for further damage–and all the while I had my seven-year-old buried in the pit of my arm. I tried to shield him from so many things–but he saw more than enough. Here’s a bright idea: perhaps I should have gone through on my own first to judge the fear factor. Had that epiphany two days after the fact. Sometimes, I am amazed at my thick head. “Oh, right, I’m the adult in charge!”

Hayden was very brave. He even guided us through one of the rooms when I was confused. And he held it together until the very end, when we spied the exit and he ran toward it and cried. Hard. Like he was auditioning for the role of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz : “I do believe in spooks, I do, I do, I do…”

Before we even got home, I gave Hayden five bucks for making it all the way through, for there was no turning back once we were in there. Then at home I gave him cookies AND ice cream–trying to wash away his fear-soaked tears with some sugar. And I stayed with him in his bed that night, upon his request. Surprisingly, he slept soundly through the night. The next day he was even bragging a little about it to our neighbors, but I could see he was still freaked out by what he saw. By the end of the weekend it seemed like a distant memory, much to my relief.

The next day, he came running up the driveway from the bus, waving a notebook in his hands. It was his journal from school. “I snuck it home ’cause I wasn’t finished writing my story.”  “Oh, what is your story about?” I asked. “It’s called ‘The Barn of Terror’!” he proclaimed with the pride of a survivor. That made it official. The night of frights left an indelible mark. I felt like a bad parent. I know that many bizarre sights await my sons, I just wished I hadn’t been responsible for my youngest one’s worst scare in his life. Here, you read it and tell me if the scars will linger, as I fear they will.

Now, without further adieu, I give you Hayden’s story: (Note his use of eery onomatopoeia–DON DON DON!!!!)

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Chapter 1 The Terrifying Barn

I was at Prophecy Creek then I went to the DON DON DON terrifying barn.

I waited in line with my friend Thomas then it was my turn DON DON DON.

I went in and there was blood dripping down the wall. My dad didn’t see it.

There were fake skeletons hiding behind

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a fake potion. Oh, and we had a line it went

my dad, me, Thomas, and his dad. We saw a person chained

to something with fake blood on him and he was

yelling, “Help me!” I was like “Get me out of here!”

There was a goblin shaking jail bars that scared the

heck out of me. I almost fainted!It was so scary that

when I came out I started to cry.

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Chapter 2 Can’t Sleep

I said, “There is no favorite part for me.”

I got $5 for doing it, then I had $16.

My dad said, “You can have whatever you want.”

It ends there. He ran out of steam, I guess. It’s been a week

and he appears to be unscathed from the whole thing.

I just wonder what he will be like next year, when the sign appears outside the barn. Perhaps he and Owen will walk up to it in a few years with their friends. They’ll probably go repeatedly like the kids next door do. Whatever happens, I know one thing for sure. There’s no way in hell I’m going back in. Once is enough for me.

The Road to Hell, Part Two

Owen and I stared out towards the road. There was no sign of Hayden. I was trying to determine where he had hidden–I did not feel like walking around the entire building. I was tired of playing Hayden’s game and losing.

We walked to the car and got in. My new car. Ha! It could have been a soap box for all I cared now. The cookie mess in the back didn’t matter now. When your world is about to crumble, nothing matters. NO thing.

My reactions felt surreal. Strange. I was not mad. I was not even scared. I was numb. My heart did not race. I did not sweat. I simply felt like I was hanging in the balance. A minute ticked away. Then another. Surely, if Hayden was hiding he would have come out by now. But what if I drove away and he was left here? What if he darted out to the road when he saw my car leaving? I did not want to be in charge anymore. I wanted someone else to take over.

“Dad, are we going to leave him here?” Owen asked.

“NO!”

“Dad, where is he?”

The anger was back. “I don’t know, Owen. I’m here with you. I don’t know where Hayden is.” I felt bad for saying this, but I was at a loss.

WE got out of the car, and walked towards the road. It was useless. The place was hidden with large pine trees.

“HAYDEN!” I screamed. “HAYYYYYYYDENNNNN!”

Owen and I walked around the building. With every turn we made, part of me expected to find him. To see his devilish grin. To hear his high-pitched laugh.

An elderly couple was strolling the grounds, looking at us oddly. I was in no mood to explain what we were doing. They tried to make small talk. I pretended to not hear them.

We circled the building, and still no sign of Hayden. I contemplated calling 9-1-1. The panic started to rise in me. How did things get out of my control so quickly? I waited to hear the screeching of brakes on the road, or the whir of an ambulance siren, or the scream of a driver who had just hit a little boy. My boy.

And the moments stretched out infinitely. The whole thing transpired over ten minutes, but it felt like hours. And within each minute, my mind toyed with me. My thoughts became desperate:

Well, here it is. The tragedy that will define the rest of your existence.

Why do people have kids? Why did I think I could do this job? I’m not good at it. I’m not the right man for it.

We bring these creatures into the world and we fool ourselves into thinking we are in charge, yet we have no control. They are their own keepers, we just bear witness. Yet, from the moment they enter this world, our primary goal is to keep them alive. We hover and they push us away. Hover/Push…

I thought about human nature, and our inclination to judge others. I thought about how I used to read stories and judge. How could someone forget their child in a car? Well, if you’ve ever been a sleep-deprived parent, then you know. How could a child just disappear? It happens. IT HAPPENS. It happened to me moments ago. When you become a parent, you stop asking how something could happen.

“Get back in the car, Owen. We have to go home.”

“He didn’t walk home, did he, Dad?”

My answer was silent.

I sped home, conscious of the hazards that lined the road. The uneven shoulder. The horrible intersection. The speeding MACK Trucks. I expected to see a crumpled mass of orange. We passed the cemetery, and I felt the tombstones looking at me–“We know,” they said. “We know what it feels like to leave that world.”

It took little time to get home, but when I pulled in the driveway, I did not want to get out of the car. If he’s not here, my life is over. If he’s not here, I am a terrible parent. If he’s not here, I will lose my shit and just run away and hide. I can’t do this job. I can’t.

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There is a scene in the movie House of Sand and Fog where Ben Kingsley‘s character charges up the steps of a building, knowing that his son is dead, but hoping beyond hope he’s not. As he races to find out, he repeats “I want only for my son. I want only for my son.” I saw that film before I had children, yet the scene haunted me for days. It haunts me still. I fear, like every parent fears, that one day I will lose my child. I think of those I know who have faced this unbearable pain, and I wonder if I could do so. I shudder to think.

I turn the door knob and am met by quiet. Owen is on my heels. “Hayden?” My heart pauses.

“Yeah?” he answers.

“Did you walk home?”

“Yeah,” he says, matter-of-factly.

There are tears. Many from Owen and not nearly enough from Hayden, as far as I’m concerned. I want to hug him, but I am afraid I will throttle him. I send him to his room and add on to his punishment from earlier. I yell at him, A LOT. And the one thing I keep repeating is “Why would you do that?” I did not give him room to answer.

I know why. Now, at least. He did it because he’s seven! He has little concept of danger and consequences and death. But that answer has been small consolation for me since.

Did you ever date someone you cared about–loved even–and then they do something so out of the ordinary and bizarre that you become completely freaked out by them and end the relationship soon after? I have. And that’s how I’ve felt these past few days: Freaked out. But you can’t break up with your child. This union is for better or worse, for richer or poorer…

Each day, though, I feel a little more normal. The amount of times I replay his walk home in my mind gets fewer. I have finally stopped hearing the screech of brakes and a thud in my mind. Last night, at dinner, when we were talking about how many more days he has “without screen” I finally got up the nerve to ask him where he crossed the street–it took me five days to get up the courage to ask that question.

But I am changed. This event changed me. And my sadness feels profound, because I think it marks the beginning of many more betrayals that are inherent in the parent/child relationship. This daring walk home marks the first of many possible betrayals: There will be other dangerous jaunts: on foot, bike, skateboard, and eventually, car. There will be parties where he’ll have to confront drinking and drugs. There will be lies about curfew and who he was with. There will be many times I’ll want him to go in one direction, and he’ll defy me and go another.

But for now, I am trying to appreciate the fact that my life did not turn upside down that day. I looked down the road to Hell, but thankfully turned off before I arrived there. I realize other obstacles await, and someday tragedy may strike. I hope I’ll be better prepared, but I doubt it. That’s the constant reminder a parent must face. There is very little in my control. Too damn little.

EPILOGUE

The day after Hayden’s long walk home, I had to take our puppy, Rosie, to the vet. She threw up all over my front seat when we were seconds from arriving home. I had had the new car exactly one week.

The Road to Hell

There is so much more to this parenting thing than anyone expects, and so often I feel inferior at the job.

Something horrible happened this week that made my world shift. In the end, it was of little consequence, but it has had a profound effect on me. The experience made me sad–I feel powerless and afraid. And I almost didn’t write about it. Yet, after thinking some more, I realized that I can’t just write about things that are safe, or that I can poke fun of, or that happened a long time ago. If I did not write about this, I would feel like a phony. I remember reading something from the early stages of blogging about true writers write about stuff that is hard to face. I knew I needed to process this in writing. I can’t help it. I’m a writer.

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It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon. I was lying in the grass after a run, waiting for the boys’ bus to pull up. I gazed into the sky and contemplated the possibilities of this world. As a kid, I loved to look at clouds, and as an adult I try to do so from time to time. I heard the bus at the street corner, and the boys found me on the lawn.

“Dad, what are you doing here?” asked Owen (8).

“Just looking at the clouds,” I said, as if I did it everyday.

They both made motions to go inside, so I pleaded, “Sit here with me a minute. Relax. It’s a beautiful day.” They dropped their back packs and lied down next to me. Hayden (7) placed his head on my chest, and we all took in the view. It felt grand.

“Guys, I need to ask you a favor?” I said.

“What?” they replied in unison.

“I want us to go up the street and visit my friend’s husband.”

I explained to them that someone I knew was staying at the assisted living home up the street. He needed to be under medical care while his wife was travelling.  I knew she would appreciate us checking in on him. Besides, I want my sons to know what it’s like to be of service to others.

“So, we’ll have a snack and then head up there, okay?” I asked.

“Okay,” they each said. I was impressed because there was no whining or sulking. Plus, they each obliged me with a drawing for Mr. Jim.  Pictures of some leaves and trees with “Happy Fall” in their best penmanship. I placed their pictures beside a package of frosted cookies I had for him.

“Who are they for?” asked Hayden.

“Mr. Jim,” I said.

“I want one,” he asked–a whine creeping in to his tone.

“Buddy, these are for our friend. We have lots of treats, but I bought these special for him. You can have something else–here how about these cookies?” I offered him some others from the pantry.

Hayden began his moan-and-dance, “Uhnnnnnn. I WANT ONE OF THOSE!”

“Well, sorry, you can’t have one.”

I placed the pictures and cookies in a bag and put them in the car. As I went back inside for the boys, I noticed they had helped themselves to the other cookies from the pantry. Playfully, I asked, “Did you guys eat these?”

“Yeah,” said Hayden. “We each had two!”

“Fine with me. You deserve two for being so good about coming with me. Now get in the car, we’re leaving.”

I put the dogs in the house and started to lock up. Owen was in the driveway. He looked nervous. “Hayden ate one of the special cookies, Dad.”

I swung the car door open, and there he was, shoving a cookie in his mouth, with crumbs and icing all over my brand new car. I had just gotten a pre-owned Acura a week ago. It’s a 2013 and the nicest car I’ve ever had. I was incensed. “Hayden!” I grabbed him by the arm.  “I can’t believe you! You knew these cookies were…and all over my…get out…and up to your room…no dessert for a week…” I was so angry. Why couldn’t he leave well enough alone? Why weren’t the other cookies enough? Why was it so hard to do something nice for someone else? Why do I care so much about everything?

I calmed down pretty quickly, but the edge was still there. I made him come down, repeated most of my rant in a quieter tone, and we drove to Sunrise Assisted Living. “Wow guys, this is so close to our house. If there were sidewalks on this road, we could’ve walked,” I said lamely, trying to act cheery even though everyone was quite miserable now. Sunrise is a pretty building complex. It strives for a Southern Gothic charm– rocking chairs adorn wide porches around the front of the building, and white carved moldings decorate the railings. The boys had never been to an “Old folks” home–and it had been quite some time for me, too. When we got out, Hayden was still fuming at me, and I was trying to ignore him. He walked at a snail’s pace and wore his big frown like it was his job–sometimes, I think it is. “Hayden, you better be nice when we get in there. Do not make this worse on yourself.”

I walked slowly so he could catch up, and he did. We stepped inside the grand entrance way. There was a great deal of activity. Apparently, it was BINGO hour, and groups of residents seemed to populate every corner of the place. It was lively and chaotic, and depressing. I could tell the boys were a bit nervous. A woman with a matted wig marched back and forth nervously, as if she were trying to wear out the carpet. Another woman at the counter was complaining to the receptionist about how they hide her lighter from her. “I feel like a sixteen year old girl again. Every time I want a damn cigarette, I have to ask permission.” The boys were wide-eyed. So much for “smoking kills”, I thought, looking at this woman who was in her eighties. Then, a kind lady in a wheel chair stole our attention. She had a gentle smile with a few thin strands of hair on her forehead, and she was without legs. I was proud of the boys for being so brave. Hayden reached for my hand, and tucked his safely into my palm. Good, I thought, he’s not mad at me now.

Owen looked at me and said, “Dad, there are so many more women here than men!” I decided not to explain to him the mortality rates of men versus women.

So, it’s true what they say about the road to Hell–it is paved with good intentions.  The gentleman we were trying to visit was not there. He was taken to the hospital the night before due to a fall. His wife did not know yet, as she was on her trip. I was glad she was able to continue her vacation, and her children were there to stay with her husband. The boys and I said goodbye to no one in particular, and made our way back outside. I tried to pawn off the cookies on the staff, but they refused them politely. I wanted the damn reminder of my anger out of sight. The stupid cookies were pointless now.

Back outside, we lingered. This had been quite an odyssey for us all, and so close to our house. The autumn breeze seemed to blow away some of our uneasiness. I didn’t feel mad anymore, just sad. Sad for the people in the home–they, too, were once young, many, I’m sure, with children of their own at their sides. Now, they all seemed lost, scared, confused. And sad for the boys. I used to hate it when my parents would make me interact with strangers, especially the sick and the elderly. It’s such a difficult lesson to teach children about. And sad for me–I just wanted to do something nice for somebody, and instead I felt angry and annoyed.

“We are really close to this place,” said Owen.

“I know,” said Hayden.

I welcomed the conversation. I wanted to get out of the doldrums and enjoy the rest of this beautiful day.

“You’re right, guys. It’s a shame this road is so busy. Maybe in a few years, you could walk up here.”

“Like when we’re twelve,” asked Owen.

“We’ll see,” I said.

“I’m going to walk home, now,” said Hayden.

Owen and I laughed. “Yeah, right,” I said. “You know that’s way too dangerous. Adults don’t even walk on this road.”

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Our street is busy. It’s not a freeway, but it IS a throughway, where cars and trucks zip down as they hurry up to get where they need to go. There is barely a shoulder, there are no sidewalks–and it scares the shit out of me. Our house sits far enough back off the road, and our development is a dead-end. Yet Penllyn Pike is treacherous, and we have been instilling a fear in our boys about the deadly consequences of this road since they could crawl. To top it off, the only part of the street that offers a buffer from the road is an old cemetery that abuts a small church. Indeed, this road could have been the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel, Pet Cemetery.

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We were half way to the car when Hayden announced this. “Come on, Hayd, don’t be silly,” I said, trying to stifle my annoyance with him from before. Now, if you’re a parent, you might try this move at times. The one where you just keep walking, not giving your child the satisfaction of taking them seriously. I do it with my dogs, too. If I walk in a particular direction, the dogs–and the kids–will usually follow. Usually. Now if you’re a kid, like my kids, you might play an annoying game where you think it’s cute (or funny, or evil) to “hide” on your parents. My boys are constantly hiding from us, daring us to find them, so they can “surprise” us. We shriek in fake astonishment, and they crack up. The end. Except, I’ve told the boys I don’t like this game when we’re out. We don’t hide in a parking lot, or near a road, or at the mall… I hate this hiding game. And that’s what I thought Hayden was doing when he began walking in the other direction. Hiding on me.

“Not funny, Hayden,” I said. But oddly, he had already disappeared. We’re talking seconds. He didn’t run. He simply creeped away–behind the building? On one of the porches? Back inside? He was just here. We were ten steps from the car, and now he’s gone. I saw not even a glimpse of his bright orange shirt and shorts.

“Come on, Hayden, lets go home.” I know how stubborn he can be, but if I wait him out, usually he flinches and shows me where he’s hiding. Usually.

“Dad, where is he?” Owen asked.

I could hear the panic rise in his voice. I tried to quell my own. “I don’t know, Owen. I DON’T KNOW!”