The Unfamiliar Dark.

This weekend marked the second time our five year old son had a sleepover with a buddy. Needless to say, the kid was stoked.

He woke up on Saturday morning and began asking incessantly “how long until R comes over?” His pal wasn’t coming over until about 5 pm that night, and already he was unable to contain his excitement. He decided that he was going to stay in bed the entire day in order to make the whole waiting thing go faster. This innovative idea stems, of course, from the millions of times his mother and I have attempted to convince him that long car rides to exciting places go much faster if he would take a little nap.

He did, actually, end up spending a good part of the day in bed. It became his ceremonial preparation for his coming big night. During this vigil, I sit with him and read several chapters to him from the book we are reading and he draws a zillion pictures, all the while keeping a keen eye on the large digital image of the clock splashed upon the ceiling by his space rocket projector clock.

The day oozes by, and his friend finally arrives. The house explodes in the exuberant fireworks of dual five year old enthusiasm. Pizza is ordered. Darth Vader masks are donned, phasers are unholstered. A mini-galactic defense of the known universe is staged inside the house. The little sister follows them everywhere they go.

Eventually we sit down to eat our cheap and lovely take out pizza and we put in Castle In The Sky, and the boys are swept up in the breadth of Miyazaki’s restless imagination. The night ends with the creation of a sprawling blanket fort, complete with a deep inner chamber and a wraparound covered porch.

But the night is winding on and it is already way past the normal bedtime, permissable on such a red-letter night. After Oreo cookies and milk, my son’s friend climbs into the deep inner chamber of their fortified blanket bulwark, curling up inside his Cars sleeping bag and holding on tight to the thin wisp of fabric that used to be a child’s blanket. My son crawls in to the “covered porch” area right beside his friend, and I notice that the tone of the evening is taking a swift and decidedly uneasy tone. Both kids are quieter, but it is due only in part to the fact of that they had long ago run out of gas. They are quieter, yes, but both are wide eyed and solemn, and as they slide deeper into their sleeping bags, I start to wonder what kind of night we might be in for.

I read a particularly silly chapter from a generally silly book to keep things light, and the kids laugh and their limbs loosen and the thickess of the coming night air seems to thin a bit. But as I rise from my reading spot outside of the blanket fort that devours my living room and head off to begin to the process of clicking off a few lights, I hear a small voice, my son’s:

“Don’t turn them all off, Dad.”

Leaving the softest glow from the warmest lamp in our living room, I sit back down beside the fort to wish them a final goodnight. My son is the first to break.

“Dad? Will you snuggle with me for a minute? I’m a lil’ bit scared.”

I say sure, and curl up beside him. His friend is silent, but I can see the soft outline of his boyish shadow in the darkness of the inner chamber, and through the darkness, I can see the warm glow of his eyes, unwavering and wide, staring straight up at the ceiling of the fort. I stay unmoving and quiet, listening to the sound of my son’s breath quickly easing into the long rythym of sleep.

But his friend doesn’t sleep. He looks intently but quietly from the dark wool ceiling of the fort to my eyes, which are trying their best to feign sleep. He isn’t buying it.

As I wait for him to fall asleep, I am struck by how brave he is. A child’s entire world is molded from the familiar, the predictable and the comfortable. A child falls asleep, night after night, in a world that is created exclusively for him. He falls asleep in a room with familiar smells, predictable shadows and closes his eyes at the long end of a comfortable routine. The image of his parents face, the warm caress of their breath on his neck, the sound of a story in the most loving and recognizable of voices . . . these are the precursors to a child’s contented dreams.

I realize that, as much as might try, I can never recreate that for this child who is not my own. Even my son feels the difference, sleeping in the living room in a construction born of adventure and imagination. Even he can feel the tickle of the uncomfortable settle in around him in the tent. I can soothe him by being close, assure him that he is still safe in the loving protection of his father. I can do that for him.

But in many ways, the friend is completely on his own, in uncharted waters, alone. In spite of this, he makes a very grown-up decision to keep his fear in check, to close his eyes in the unfamilar dark, and rely on his own sense of stability and trust to carry him into the unfamiliar dark, and onward through till morning.

It is a very brave thing he does. As I watch him in the silence, I remember my own childhood fears of the unfamiliar dark, and my heart goes out to him, and I wish him well on his courageous micro journey towards something that begins to feel like manhood.

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