I am 44-years-old, and I am afraid of the dark. Or at least I used to be. As I write this, it occurs to me that I’m not as afraid as I once was.
When I was a little girl, darkness held all manner of terrors. My parents, my siblings, and I lived in a small farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Tennessee. At night, the only artificial light as far as one could see glowed from the living room windows of our home. The darkness surrounding it was not just an absence of light. It seemed to suck any luminance away, tuck it into its deepest folds and corners, hide it where it could not be found. In my imagination, it was filled with monsters. If only I could turn around quickly enough, I might see them. Their fingers uncurled toward me as I walked through a dark room or ventured into the cool night, and they made the hair on the back of my neck rise. Ghosts wandered the house when the lights went out and gave me a chill as they passed. I could not see the things that scared me, but I could feel them lurking–just there.
I avoided going outside at night at all costs because there were no street lamps. There were no porch lights. The front of the house didn’t even have windows, so I could find no comfort in their warm glow unless I was on the other side where the kitchen window shone.
My father knew this. He knew that I was painfully afraid. Parents know these sorts of things even when we have yet to admit them. At the time, Daddy raised hogs in a barn about 200 long yards, down a little slope, up a long hill, along a tractor-rutted path behind the house. Most of the time, I had minimal duties where the farm animals were concerned, but occasionally, almost as an afterthought, Daddy would tell me I needed to feed and water the hogs that day. He would do this at sunset, with the whippoorwill’s calling and the fog already rolling through the bottom. The last precious pink whisper of light would be sitting on the horizon behind the barn.
And I would just look at him, “Do I really have to, Daddy?”
“Yep, babygirl, it’s your turn tonight,” he’d reply.
And terror would rip through my gut.
One would think I would run to the barn and finish the task as soon as possible in order to take advantage of what light was left, but somehow that thought never occurred to me. Instead, I was saunter up the hill, dreading the dimness of the feed room, worrying about what gruesome death awaited me. I know you’re wondering why I didn’t just take a flashlight, and that’s a valid thought, but we never had one that worked. Batteries were expensive, and most often, they were low on the list of priorities.
Having finally made it to the barn, I would go about my chores as quickly as possible. Inevitably, by the time I was finished, the last bits of light would have fallen away, and I would face the wide open space between the protection of the barn and the comfort of the light from the kitchen and back door–no doubt a gauntlet of monsters. So I would screw up my courage, take a deep breath, and I would run–as fast as my chubby legs could take me, arms pumping, chin jutting forward, long brown hair flailing backward, heart pounding–the whole way to the doorstep. You might imagine that I would then rip the door open to get inside as quickly as possible, but I did not. Magic lay in the golden square of light falling through the door, and there I was safe, so I would stand and catch my breath before going inside and declaring my mission complete.
Daddy didn’t send me to feed often, but he did it several times a year. I was 26-years-old when I realized why. I’m not sure why I was thinking about those dark runs down the hill, but suddenly my father’s reasoning became clear. He was steeling me for the monsters that lay ahead. He was doing that thing that brave parents do–the hard thing, the thing that hurts a little–because it would be years before his job was to be my friend. In those early years, his charge was to prepare me for doing those things in life that would terrify me but that had to be done.
I’m glad I realized this truth in time to thank him, which I immediately picked up the phone and did. I might also have called him an ass hole, but I was giggling when I did it.