The former four seem to have the run of the house, able to roam and ramble both upstairs and down, inside and out, and in all hours of the day. The monster, however, seems strangely confined to both the small hours of the night and the smaller confines of my son’s closet.
For the last two weeks he has awakened my wife and I with shaky cries of fear, pleading for rescue. I will toss the covers back and trudge into his bedroom, where I’ll settle him down with a big hug. In a few minutes he will yawn, flutter his eyes a few times, and drift back to sleep. I do this without thinking. After all, I should know what I’m doing. I’ve been on the other side of that hug.
My monster arrived when I was his age. I woke one night to the shifting sounds of something in the bowels of my closet. It happened again the next night, but this time the noise was loud enough to even penetrate my cotton cocoon. That’s when I started to cry. And when my father woke up.
I remember him coming into my room and giving me a hug, softly talking to me until I yawned, fluttered my eyes a few times, and fell back asleep. He did it without thinking. Because he’d been on the other side of that hug, too.
My father made the trip down the hallway and into my bedroom countless times over the next few years. He never once complained or hesitated, and I always felt better afterwards. But Dad never offered the one thing I most needed. He never told me what I desperately needed to hear.
He never said there are no such things as monsters.
I learned later on that the sounds coming from my closet were the result of gravity mixed with an assortment of poorly stacked toys. The Thing I saw in the corner of my room? Just the moonlight shining on a discarded jacket. And all those guttural sounds I thought were the churning stomach of a hungry ogre were just the furnace turning on and off.
In high school monsters became a source of entertainment rather than dread. Freddy Kruger, Jason, and Pinhead? Not only were they not scary, they were sort of ridiculous. And they always got theirs in the end.
It was during my brief flirtation with college that I finally learned monsters weren’t real. They were instead misunderstood aberrations, products of a poor childhood or a few misfired brain synapses. They deserved of our sympathy and pity rather than our fear and anger. It was a notion I found supremely appealing. A world without monsters was a world I could better understand.
But the problem was that I couldn’t.
There was genocide in Rwanda, which left tens of thousands raped and butchered in mere weeks. Then another in Yugoslavia.
And then came 9/11.
I knew then why my father always came to my room in those small hours of the night, why he would hug me and comfort me until I found sleep but never said there were no monsters in the world. And it’s the same reason why I spare my son those same words.
It would be a lie.
There really are monsters in this world.
They’re not slimy or horned, they look like us. Men and women who live in the black places of the soul, who seek to imprison rather than set free, who murder and rape in the name of God. To deny their existence is to give them power, and to spare them our anger and determination only lengthens the shadow they cast over our world.
As I write these words it’s both dark and late. I can hear my son shuffling in his bed. A sniffle makes its way through his door and around the corner to my ears. In a moment he will cry out softly for me, and I will answer. I will sit by his bed and hold him until he’s asleep again, and I’ll leave the hall light on just in case.
I will not tell him what he wants to hear. The truth, even at his age, is better. Like me, my son will believe in monsters. And like me, he will be raised to fight them.