On Halloween I walked Maggie home from school. As usual, we talked about her day and then we talked about pretty much everything else.
On the way there I’d been listening to the “This American Life” episode that featured scary stories with real world explanations. A family had been haunted by ghosts that only they could see. Real ghosts that did frightening things. It turned out that they were suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.
It’s the real life frights that shake me the most. Half a dozen years ago, Kim’s cousins nearly died from carbon monoxide. When her uncle uncharacteristically missed his first two appointments in his dental practice, his son-in-law and business partner called the house.
So he rushed over to the house and found much of the family passed out. They were life-flighted to various hospitals. It saved their lives. Carbon monoxide. Invisible like a ghost. Much scarier. Much.
We kept a carbon monoxide detector in the girls room in the old house. It still sits on Elena’s bureau. The green light still indicating that we have kept her safe from at least one invisible threat.
You protect your children from everything you can think of.
In “Father and Daughter” Paul Simon sings to his daughter that he believes “the light that shines on you will shine on you forever (forever). And though I can’t guarantee there’s nothing scary hiding under your bed, I’m gonna stand guard like a postcard of a golden retriever. And never leave ’til I leave you with a sweet dream in your head.”
And so, walking home I ask Maggie what scares her.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“It’s Halloween,” I say, “are you scared of things like ghosts.”
“Not really,” she says and I believe her. “The only things that bother me are real looking skeletons and things that look like real body parts that have been cut off of people.”
I know what she means.
The symbols of Halloween feel different this year now that I have an actual person below the ground that I think of so often. Maybe that isn’t fair. Why didn’t I feel that way about my grandparents? I remember feeling it briefly with my paternal grandfather when we walked beside the simple casket with holes drilled in the bottom to accelerate the process. It was too much to think about even at thirty.
But Maggie loves gross things as long as they are alive. She searches for operations on the computer and has watched beating hearts and incisions that would give me pause. I didn’t know that she felt this way about skeletons.
A few years ago, Kim took the girls to the natural history museum. Some of the moms took the big kids into the planetarium for a show targeted at older kids. Maggie wanted to go so Kim let her. Elena didn’t.
When Maggie came out, her eyes were opened wide. She had learned that meteors hit the earth with some regularity. For several nights after she would lay awake in her bed crying. Sometimes Kim would go in and comfort her and sometimes I would – but what do you tell her. She was frightened of something real and too young to understand the chances of it happening.
One night I went in because I heard her sobbing. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The meteors,” she said. She looked up at me and asked, “are they real? Could they really hit our house?”
“They could, but it’s really, really rare.”
“Can’t rare things happen?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. I was thinking that the house was more likely to be hit by lightening but didn’t want to give her something else to worry about. “They can happen, but the almost never do.”
Almost never. Like a six year old dying in the space of an hour.
“What can you do about it?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked back.
“What can you do if a meteor hits your house?”
And for some reason that calmed her down. She thought things through while she silently cried.
Across the room Elena cleared her throat.
“Yes,” I said looking over at her. “It’s ten o’clock, go to bed.”
She stood in the doorway to Maggie’s bedroom with her arms crossed and said, “when you’re done dealing with this meteor thing I need you in my room. There are monsters in my closet.”
Maggie rolled her eyes and said, “oh brother.”
Elena put an earnest look on her face and said, “for real.”
Maggie was comforted by the fact that her fears were real while Elena’s were imaginary monsters. I looked from one of them to another and smiled.
Paul Simon sings the chorus, “I’m gonna watch you shine, gonna watch you grow. Gonna paint a sign so you’ll always know … There could never be a father who loved his daughter more than I love you.”