Glancing down at a questionnaire Niko’s doctor had handed me on the way out of the office today, one item stood out: Frequently worried or afraid. I was supposed to select the degree to which the description might be true: Not at all; Somewhat; A lot, or some similar scale. I sighed as I checked off A lot.
Worried or fearful aren’t words the average observer might immediately think of as descriptors for my ebullient son. He is curious about absolutely everything, full of questions about life, death, dinosaurs, the solar system, you name it. His questions are thoughtfully designed to extract every possible drop of knowledge from the mind of his conversational partner. Nothing makes him happier than learning that Deinonychus’s teeth were sharp as steak knives, or North American porcupines have barbed quills.
But give him two minutes of silence in the car, or the peaceful quiet of his bed at night, and his mind begins roiling with the ramifications of all these facts. Will a porcupine’s quills HURT us? But why? It’s not nice to hurt people. Why did that bird die? Will I die? When? Will you still love me if I die… or if you die?
Tonight, nearly two hours had passed after putting Niko to bed…after hugs, kisses, cuddles, reassurances, tucking in yet again, soothing the panic of the realization Stuffy had been left in the car, rescuing Stuffy, more hugs, more kisses, ditto for Stuffy too… After all that, I was thinking yearningly of my own bed when I heard a small, anxious
I opened his door. “What’s wrong?”
“I need you. I really really neeeeeeed you.”
Usually I can withstand even the most heartfelt neeeeeed, but this one sounded more urgent than usual. I climbed onto his bed and cuddled beside him, any hope for an early night vanishing. “Why do you need me?”
We talked about loneliness, about how far away Mom seemed at night. I reminded him that really I was very close, just a few steps away, and showed him how close his sister was, too — just right next to him, on the other side of the wall. He seemed to relax for a moment, and then in a rush the real problem came out.
“When I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom” — and here his voice wobbled, grew thick with tears — “I almost started to cry.”
“Why did you almost cry?”
“I didn’t want to go to school tomorrow. I was just nervous.”
“What part of school made you feel nervous?”
“Dramatic play. I was worried about dramatic play.”
Dramatic play is not typically a concern for Niko. He loves costumes, always has, and this winter, after a huge amount of effort from his preschool teacher, he had a breakthrough: he discovered his imagination and the joy of pretending. His excessively literalist tendencies make those ventures into make-believe all the more delight-filled. And he often mentions the dramatic play center as one of his favorites. So it was with growing puzzlement that I dutifully asked, “Why were you worried about dramatic play?”
“It’s the wooden food. I’m worried about the avocado.”
Don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh… “The…the avocado
is worrying you?”
“I just don’t want to eat it. I really don’t like avocados.”
Avocados. This child was lying awake for two hours worrying about the possibility that he might have to pretend to eat a wooden avocado. TWO HOURS. It turns out that it was a social dilemma: he wanted to participate and be a server, but what if — oh, the horror! — what if someone asked for the avocado? “If someone else asks for the avocado, you don’t have to eat it, do you?” I pointed out. Not that simple, of course: what if they offered him a bite? “It’s pretend. So you just pretend to eat it, and pretend you like it. Or you say no thank you. Or you take a pretend bite and say it’s not your favorite and you’d rather try a, a, a tomato.” Problem solved. Whew! After two…well, now almost three…hours of obsessing over a toy avocado, his mind was finally peaceful enough to sleep.
Yes, if a toy avocado can cause such havoc, I think it’s safe for me to check off “A lot” beside Frequently worried. Lying awake for three hours, pondering the social implications of pretend serving a toy food he himself does not care for…
What a boy.