JC Schildbach, LMHC
Sleep fell away and I knew something was wrong.
Grogginess held me down.
Pain. Tingling pain in my feet. I moved my legs, and the tingling turned to stabbing.
Awake enough now to see it was definitely nighttime, the nightlight somehow making things scarier—casting just enough light to intensify the shadows.
I was frozen, a panic starting to take hold. If I moved, the pain intensified. Or did it?
Yow! Bad idea. But what? Oh good grief! Snakes! It had to be snakes! If I moved, they would bite!
I had to get away, but how to avoid more bites? If I stayed, things would certainly get worse. But I already knew I couldn’t move without provoking more bites.
I could call out, but who knew what that might provoke? Might I only draw some other family member into danger? And what if they were all similarly under siege–nobody to help?
Stay absolutely still.
With one burst of energy I could be free of the bed and flee the snakes!
This would have to happen just right.
I prepped myself, trying to control my breathing, trying to work up the courage.
I had to go.
Pitching off the blanket, I swung my feet off the bed and rolled out, narrowly maintaining my balance as I landed and staggered forward.
Stabbing, tingling pains in my feet, uncooperative legs and rubbery knees conspired to create a lurching journey across my bedroom and out into the hallway. I had no idea if the snakes were at my heels, or if more were in wait along the path.
Afraid to look down at my feet, certain of the terrible mess they must be. I staggered on until—dad!
I huffed and sputtered an incoherent explanation, grabbing at my feet.
Startled awake, he rose slowly and turned on his bedroom light. He crouched to examine my feet briefly. Each touch was tingling torture. But, he pointed out, there were no bite marks.
Scooping me up, he carried me back to my bedroom, despite my panicked insistence that it was a death trap, teeming with snakes. He flicked on the lights, prompting only mild stirring from the siblings who shared the room with me, and who were in their own, possibly snake-infested, beds.
The light revealed no additional snakes. Perhaps they were all confined to my bed, although there were plenty of other hiding places.
I could not believe the sense of calm dad had as he approached my bed. I wanted to be released, to escape out of there. He had no idea–just marching right into it. With me in one arm, gravely limiting his ability to respond appropriately to threats, dad reached for the blankets, peeling them back in one grand gesture that caused them to puff out like a parachute…revealing…nothing but my sheets, my stuffed toy dog, and my Teddy bear—or, rather, my Cindy bear. Oh, the pangs of guilt at the realization I’d left them behind to be devoured by snakes.
But where were the snakes? I looked wildly about. They must have moved to other hiding places! Were they under the bed, coiled and ready to strike away at dad’s feet?
Dad set me down on the bed, again pointing out that I hadn’t been bitten. He surmised that my legs and feet had fallen asleep. The fading of the tingling sensations bore out that conclusion.
Dad pulled my blankets back into place, tucking me in, despite my insistence that I had truly been in danger. He flicked out the lights, and before long I was out again.
In that instance, my father was like a magician, disappearing the snakes with the sweeping flip of the sheets; or perhaps like Saint Patrick, driving the snakes from the island of my bed. How had he swept away such evil with so little effort?
And that, dear reader, is a rather embellished version of what is not only my first (narrative) memory of any sort, but also the only memory whatsoever that I have of my father. As with almost any memory, especially early, unclear ones, I have no idea what percentage of it, if any, is real. Assuming even some portion of it is real, I was not even three years old at the time it took place. This I know because my father died a week before my third birthday, when a young man ran a stop sign in the tiny, Nebraska town where we lived, crushing my father’s rather poorly-engineered car.
As I write this, it’s the anniversary of that day. Had my dad not been taken from us on that day, or any time in the interim, he would be in his 80s now. Earlier this year, I had intended to (finally) commemorate his birthday, rather than to remember him on this more somber occasion. But, after checking the date, I neglected to write it on the kitchen calendar, and it slipped my mind in the great wash of trivial things that are forever plaguing all of us.
Of course, when the bulk of your remembered experience of a person is the loss and absence of that person, forgetfulness isn’t all that unusual a tribute.
At any rate, the memory of the foot-biting bed-snakes–real or imagined or somewhere in between–is the one thing I’ve clung to about my father throughout the years—that I went to him in a moment of confused terror, and that he set things to right.
That’s not a bad thing to hang onto.
Happy death-day, pops.