It’s been well-established and -documented that I was a weird little kid from the ages of birth to about age 6, when I started to develop enough self-awareness to realize I’d have to hide my quirks better if I wanted to ever have any friends.
I think my peculiarity was a combination of my actual innate weirdness combined with spending my first three-and-a-half years isolated on a farm in rural North Carolina where my only companions were my parents, two dogs, and a goat named Hannah.
When we moved to the city and I enrolled in preschool at age 4, it was too much, too fast. After a few weeks of acute separation anxiety, though, I got used to the routine and grew very close to my teacher, Mr. Ridge.
But one day, in mid-November, Mr. Ridge was unexpectedly not there; we had a substitute teacher instead.
When I saw her, I hid behind the beanbag chair by the library and refused to come to the rug for circle time.
She came over to me and crouched down. “You can come sit on the rug, sweetie,” she said. “I’m not Mr. Ridge, but I’m not going to bite you.”
I had never heard that expression, but I recall taking it extremely literally.
“I didn’t know biting me was even an option!” I remember thinking with great distress. “Why would she even have to say that if she wasn’t planning to DO it!”
I stayed behind the beanbag chair for the rest of the day. I didn’t drink my juice or eat my Goldfish crackers, which I normally loved to crunch into after methodically licking the salt off, one by one. I wouldn’t go to block corner. I wouldn’t go to the playhouse to rock my baby dolls. My preschool bestie, Blake, checked on me a few times, assuring me the substitute teacher was nice and enticing me with bristle blocks. I wouldn’t budge.
“She might seem nice,” I told him, “but she is just waiting to bite you. I’m staying here.”
When my father picked me up at the end of the day, he seemed impressed by my stubborn resolve to stay behind the beanbag chair all day but also definitely amused.
“No one is actually going to bite you, kiddo; that’s just something people say,” he explained. “It’s an expression, an idiom.”
He always talked to me like I was an adult.
I was still wary, but I trusted him. He was my father, and he was the smartest man ever, and he knew everything. If he said it was OK, it must be OK. I suddenly felt foolish and embarrassed, and I hated feeling that way in front of him because I always wanted to be smart for him.
My father was found unresponsive at his home last Thursday and rushed to the ER, where he was evaluated for a stroke. Ultimately, they ruled it out, but he is still hospitalized while they try to figure out what’s going on with him. The hospital is exacerbating and accelatering his existing dementia to the point that he has no idea where he is or what’s going on.
And how hard it is now, almost 40 years after my preschool anxiety and humiliation, to try to explain to him that his concept of reality is not real, that his nurses aren’t torturing him via the automatic blood pressure cuff he believes they are controlling remotely with their cell phones, that no one is trying to harm him, that the hurricane isn’t coming for us, that my children and I are not dead in a car accident like the one he saw on the news. (I’ve told the nurses to keep his TV off from now on.)
“It’s not real,” I told him soothingly, rubbing his bald head the way I’ve done my whole life. “None of the scary stuff is real. You’re here, and I’m here, and we’re safe. We’re all safe.”
“I believe you,” he said, slowly, “because I trust you. But I still know something isn’t right.”
He’s wrong about everything else now – a man who always prided himself about being right, having the last word – but he is correct on this one.
Something here is definitely not right … and as much as I want to please him, have always wanted nothing more than to make him happy, I can’t make it right.
All I can do is hug him in his hospital bed and tell him, “I’m here; I’ve got you. I’m your daughter, remember? I love you, and it’s OK. Come on; you can hug me back. I’m not going to bite you.”