There was a bloodcurdling scream from upstairs, and even though voice was emanating from a bathroom tucked into a bedroom, it was loud and sharp, and pierced through the air, reaching my ears in the kitchen below. There are some screams I ignore—ones that reek of gesturing for attention, of sibling rivalry, of overly-dramatized minor pains. But this one was different. There was fear.
I put down the broom I was holding and ascended the stairs, following the shrill sounds that still floated through the halls, and when my hand was on the knob to the bathroom door, I knocked brusquely. “It’s Mommy!” I said, my voice slightly raised because the shower was on. “Is everything okay?”
“There’s a centipede in the shower with me!” my daughter squealed, and then followed this statement with another melodramatic whimper. She turned off the water, grabbed her towel, and flew out of the stall. Her hair still dripped with shampoo, and her face had red blotches, as the fear had creeped up into her blood and was visible through her skin.
I took a tissue and crushed the centipede (sorry PETA, I kill things), and then proceeded to try to coax her back into the shower. “I can’t go in there anymore…” she said. “It has bugs.” And that was the end of it. Instead, we washed her hair in the sink, and for several months, she would not shower, use the toilet, or brush her teeth in that bathroom because it still felt traumatic, infested.
I waited it out. There was also a time in her earlier youth when she wouldn’t sleep in her bedroom because she claimed it had monsters. I let her move in with a sibling because it was right before we were due to travel for a few weeks, and I figured the change in scenery would lessen her fear. It did. When we returned home, she seemed to be at peace with the monsters in her room, or she realized there were none at all.
The bathroom of choice became the main one on the second floor, and at night, there was traffic in its quarters, as we’d all huddle together, rotating through showers and baths, brushing teeth, cutting nails, and doing hair. And then one day, there was a spider in it. Overjoyed by this, I called the kids in to see who else was hanging out in their beloved tub. My goal was to point out that no area of the house is immune to the occasional spider or centipede or fly, and they should just get used to it. Maybe because this spider was more recent, she would make the pilgrimage back to her own bathroom, and resume using it. The centipede was now a disintegrated fossil in a crumpled tissue in a dumpster, whereas the spider was alive and spinning a fresh web.
“Kill it!” they screamed. One child clutched my shoulder, clinging for dear life. Another bolted from the bathroom. A third hid in a closet that was supposedly haunted. The spider was not welcome and had to leave.
“The spider is more scared of you,” I reminded them, trying to assuage their fears. “Imagine how it feels, accidentally being next to a giant person in a shower? Probably not too happy.” And I wondered what it was about spiders that instilled such a universal fear? The potential for danger? The surprise? The stealthy silence in its creeping ways? I tried to tell the kids that spiders are good and friendly because they eat the centipedes, but this didn’t make them seem heroic enough. It does not redeem the Arachnid-class in their eyes.
Eventually, my daughter resumed using her bathroom, even though a spider had been recently caught crawling through it. I suppose if we shied away from all areas of the house that had spiders, we’d have nowhere left to go, except for outdoors, and there are plenty of bugs there too. But it’s hard to understand the fears of our children, and sometimes I just have to be empathetic.
My daughter’s class went on a recent trip to the Liberty Science Center, and later, when she came home, I asked her to tell me about her favorite part. “The best part was this giant tank full of cockroaches! There were like two-hundred of them in there, climbing all over the place…” I look at her, slightly repulsed, imagining the long, cricket-like bodies, piled up on each other, overflowing from the glass container. It makes me want to shudder. “They’re so cool!” she continues on. “They eat other bugs!” And I think to myself, so do spiders. I would much rather find myself in a shower with a centipede or a spider than with a roach. But for some reason, she has it all wrong.
“They eat dead things, kind of like us!” I nod, thinking that this is true. We just had chicken for dinner. I guess she feels a close kinship with the roaches, and I suppose we are quite similar, whereas centipedes… they just have one-hundred legs, and we only have two. Definitely a valid reason to run away.
Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer living with her husband and four children in Teaneck. She is working on her first book. More of her essays can be read at www.writersblackout.wordpress.com
By Sarah Abenaim