Last night my daughter asked me, “Are grown-ups afraid of anything?” I had just finished reading an article on post traumatic stress disorder, and the story of a war-zone toddler terrified into silence was swimming in my mind. His mother recounted what had happened to him — how he had been mute since the day he saw soldiers kill his father — and in her numb retelling of the events, it was obvious that she was traumatized too, both because of what had happened to her family and because of her son’s ongoing condition. His silence was a constant reminder of her inability to protect him.
But the question remained. “Mom, are grown-ups afraid of anything?” I answered in bits and pieces. To my surprise, it was easy for me to rhyme off other people’s fears. A cousin who is afraid of spiders. An opa who hates heights. An aunt who cowers at thunder and lightning and another at the sound of bagpipes (this last proved curious enough to provide a temporary diversion).
But finally, “Mom, what are you afraid of?” I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to admit to. And then she asked, “What am I afraid of?” And we talked about that for a long time, lying in her dark room. Inwardly I realized her fears are much like my own, but expressed differently. I remember a time she was given a balloon and wouldn’t let us tie it to her wrist as we walked along the street, and of course eventually her grasp loosened, and the balloon lifted up, soaring higher and higher, an irretrievable speck of blue. Until that point, we had never heard her cry so hard.
“That’s not being afraid,” she said, and I gave her the point, but secretly I disagreed. The balloon is a moment, here now, and then gone.