Every evening when the sun starts to set, my daughter picks me a bouquet of light.
The front door of our house is glass-paned, so she crouches in front of it, where lines of sun are drifting across the wood floor. She pretends to scoop something up — the motion very much like picking a flower — and then runs to me with empty hands.
“Here is some light,” she says, matter-of-factly.
I am on the couch, often, when she makes her deliveries. I am on the couch, often, period. I am able, for the most part, to keep the worst symptoms of major depressive disorder away from my daughter, but she sees its more innocuous manifestations, even though she doesn’t yet know what they mean. Which is to say I knew that I had been unable to get off the couch for weeks, but I didn’t know that my daughter also knew until the day she patted the cushion next to me and said, “This is Mommy’s house.”
After she makes her delivery to the couch, she runs back to the door and crouches again, staring at the light and shadows shifting on the ground. Something catches her eye, and she reaches for it. This time, she holds the emptiness like a ball and runs back to me with her hands cupped.
“And,” she says, breathless and proud, pleased with her selection, “here is some dark.”
She has been delivering pieces of light and dark to me for several months. It’s a nightly ritual that started some time after her fear of the dark appeared.
For two years, she wasn’t afraid of the dark, and then she was. One evening, I was loading her into the car in a Target parking lot and she began to wail. The streetlamp above my car had died. “Oh no!” she screamed. “It’s too dark!” The sun was still out.
She had never worried about the dark before, so I tried the deflection I usually use with her. “It is dark!” I said. “That’s so silly.”
Up until then, “That’s so silly” had worked for nearly everything. I use it to distract from any potential toddler tragedy: a broken toy or a dropped ice cream cone; the scary parts of books or movies; the afternoon I accidentally let her watch a lion rip the hide off a giraffe while we watched Planet Earth II. “That’s so silly!” I cried, fumbling desperately for the remote. “The lion and the giraffe are hugging.”
Her fear of the dark was the first problem That’s so silly couldn’t solve. After that first evening in the parking lot, it got worse every day: At bedtime, we deployed night lights and cracked doors, but even in the afternoon, she would cry when a cloud passed over the sun or when I turned off a living room lamp. “Too dark!” she whimpered.
We tried practicing talking back to the dark: In the afternoon, I would flip off the light in my office, and we would stand in the doorway, yelling, “You’re so silly, dark! I’m not afraid of you!” But the practice didn’t help; for weeks, she still panicked at every shadow, every cloud. I thought that trivializing the thing she was afraid of — You’re so silly, dark! — would help, but some monsters are so big that the old weapons don’t work.
“I wish you could see yourself the way I see you,” my husband told me once, when I confessed that I was thinking about dying constantly, again, all the time.
“That’s not the problem,” I told him. “I think I’m a lovely person.” Still, I was thinking about dying constantly, again, all the time.
Around the time that her fear of the dark surfaced, I started having panic attacks again: the punctuation mark at the end of a long, dry, depressed sentence. When I wasn’t sleeping for 16 hours a day, I was awake all night, pacing the small hallway between my room and my daughter’s, a sliver of light creeping out from under her door. Should I call someone? No. Stupid. But I can’t breathe, said my body. Good, said my brain. I walked downstairs to the bathroom, yanked open the medicine cabinet, and immediately slammed it shut. No. Should I go to the hospital? I crawled back into the dark hallway between our rooms, into muted lullaby music and the thinnest strip of light. I couldn’t afford to go to the hospital. I couldn’t afford not to go to the hospital. I fell asleep, eventually, deciding.
All night, I dreamed about dying.
In the morning, I was awoken by a stuffed pig in a diaper who wanted to play catch.
“Open your hands!”
That’s the first thing I always have to remind my daughter of when we play catch. She keeps her arms behind her back or in her pockets or clapping in excitement. Okay, I have to say every time. Open your hands.
I catch her delivering the same instructions to her toys when she doesn’t know I’m watching. “Okay,” she says to an attentive semicircle of teddy bears and Sesame Street characters. “This is a basketball,” she explains. It’s a soccer ball. “Open your hands!” She throws the ball and knocks an Ernie doll over. “Great try!” she says. “You’re so silly!” My words, coming out of her mouth.
A ball bounces off my cheek and my daughter explodes in giggles. She sleeps through the night now, for the most part. That’s so silly, I had told her, but it wasn’t true. It didn’t help her. So she figured it out without me: She toddled into a mess of shadows and scooped up everything, the dark and the light both.
When I open my eyes, still crusted over with salt and mascara from the night before, a blurry pig is staring at me.
“Mom!” the diapered pig says. “You forgot to open your hands!”
So far, my daughter is only afraid of the dark. I am afraid of everything else. Spiders and centipedes and whales and needles and rollercoasters and every scary movie or television show ever made, including the Halloween episode of Boy Meets World; I’m afraid of when cars drive too fast over hills or too slow past my house; I’m afraid of outer space and the ocean and turtlenecks that are too constrictive. I’m afraid of walking under trees (spiders) and camping (spiders) and the entire continent of Australia (death spiders).
More than anything, I am afraid of passing down my own fears to my daughter. I’m afraid of what she may have inherited from me, the sludge of mental illnesses that come from my gene pool: the panic attacks and anxiety; the obsessions and compulsions; the depression and what follows depression.
I’m afraid I won’t be able to teach her how to survive the world. I’m afraid I won’t be able to teach her how to survive me. I’m afraid, perhaps most of all, that one day she will get older and want to own a pet spider.
I worry so much about what I am giving her and what I am teaching her that I forget this: I am not a sculptor, creating this small person in my image. Every day, we are shaping each other. I hack at the clay, and the clay hacks right back.
It is a bright morning after a sleepless night. I am not even out of bed and my stomach already heaves at the thought of another night of panic and pacing. But there’s no time to dwell on it: A stuffed pig wants to play catch with me.
“Catch the basketball!” It’s a soccer ball.
Like almost every day since my daughter was born, I smile despite myself.
Here is some light.
Here is some dark.
Open your hands.