Last Friday night, as the country was transfixed by the manhunt going on in Boston, Dan and I found ourselves ripping apart Master M.’s bed and hunting for a small brown spider. We’d taken the last weekend of school vacation to drive up to my mother’s house on the coast of Maine for the weekend. And by now it was late, after 10 p.m. Our son was exhausted but stood firmly on the rug, holding his goggie and saying over and over, “I’m not getting back into bed until you find it.” Short of bringing in the Boston police, we were doing our best.
Since April 15th, we’d pretty much had the radio off in the house. The news was not, in our opinion, the stuff for four-year-old dreams. And so what little we’d gathered about the events unfolding all week had been surreptitiously gleaned by running to the bathroom and looking up the news on our iPhones — except in the evenings, after our son’s bedtime, when Dan and I could finally listen to the news together while we cleaned up and got ready for bed. On Friday afternoon, while we drove north to my mother’s, Master M. finally conked out in the backseat, and we turned the radio on low. Then, after dinner, as Dan gave Master M. a bath, my mother and I tuned in to hear the final moments of the manhunt and the ultimate capture of Dhokhar Tsarnaev.
My mind was still buzzing with an odd mixture of fear, relief, and anger that our world has become so violent, when I left the kitchen to put my son to bed. In our house, Dan, with the aid of Cookie Monster, walks Master M. through the shower or bath, the jammies and the tooth-brushing. I’m the closer. At that point in the evening, Dan didn’t know anything about the news — that Tsarnaev had been found or about the boat or the huge sigh of relief that had washed across our nation once Tsarnaev was taken away by the police. And I couldn’t tell him in front of Master M., so I quietly took over while Dan went downstairs.
The spider appeared just as Master M. started to doze off, and just as I started to relax and imagine myself finally tiptoeing downstairs to reconnect with Dan and talk about the news. Suddenly, in a voice that sounded much too awake, Master M. said, “Mommy, there’s a spider walking right toward me.” My first thought was, “Please! He was just almost asleep; please no spiders! I’m not sure I can handle bombs and a manhunt and now a spider in the bed.” But he was right: A small brown spider was walking down the wall of the alcove in my childhood bedroom, where the bed is stashed, making its determined way toward us. “I’ll get it,” I told him, picking up a Kleenex and figuring I’d grab it up as gently as possible and put it out the window (we’ve taught Master M. that spiders are necessary to keep around for our ecosystem).
I reached for it; I missed it. I tried again. This time I captured its light body in my grasp. But when I opened the Kleenex to put the spider out the window, it had somehow, in its journey across the sheets, gotten lost. “Oh no,” I said, forgetting that some moments in life require Academy Award-winning performances.
“Where is it, Mommy?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I was on the hook now to tell the truth. I backpedaled into a gray zone, but I knew it would be fruitless: “Perhaps I squished it by accident.” Master M. wasn’t buying it. He leapt out of bed and said, “Find it, Mommy.” I was tired, and given the events of the day, the irony was not lost on me that while I’d been carefully sheltering my son from the news of what was going on a couple hundred miles to the south, I now needed to marshal whatever was in me to find a small brown spider.
I found myself wondering, How dangerous is a small brown spider in the scheme of things? An entire city has been terrorized and completely shut down while the police hunt for a bloodied nineteen-year-old boy. And this spider, by comparison, is a small, small problem. But not to my son. For him, with no understanding of anything more terrible happening anywhere in the world, this spider is the epicenter of his fear. For him, the spider is enough of a problem to shut down bedtime.
I checked myself before saying anything else: Am I trivializing this spider because the real news is so much bigger, so much more terrifying, that I can’t quite access the fear my son feels? It would be unlikely, I thought, for this spider to be a brown recluse or something poisonous, so we are talking about, perhaps — outside chance — an itchy spider bite tomorrow. Right?
I realized, finally, after a long beat in which I tried sort this all out and my child stood waiting on the rug in his PJs and bare feet, that I couldn’t minimize what was happening here. He wanted action. He wanted me to bring on whatever I had so that he could feel safe enough to go sleep. After all, who wants to get back into bed when there’s a spider on the loose in the sheets? So I started pulling apart the bed. I couldn’t find it. After a while of hopeless searching, I said, “I’m sure it’s run away by now, Bud. I really think it’s safe to get back into your bed.”
He was unmoved: “I want Daddy.”
“We’re hunting for a spider in the bed,” I called down to Dan. “Can you help us?” Dan came up and gamely and took the bed apart again. Together we shook out the blankets to look. I could tell from Dan’s face that by now he knew the news, and that he, too, was rattled.
Finally, after the bed had been taken apart and remade three times, we convinced Master M. to climb back up. What we agreed was that Dan would lie down on the side of the bed next to the wall, and I’d lie on the other side. Master M. finally relented from sheer exhaustion. Sandwiched between us on the small single bed, we all lay quietly. “You’re safe,” I told my child. “You’re safe.” Over his small body I caught Dan’s eye and the look on his face was heartbreaking.