My father has represented the United States of America as an athlete in several World Championship Duathlons and competed in several Ironman events. He has gone shark fishing on boats that a baby Great White could swallow. He once had his friend (a dentist, I might add) put stitches in his head at a picnic table after having been hit with a clam rake. When he got thrown off his bike by a pothole in Massachusetts fracturing a rib, he got back on his bike to ride to the nearest hospital. My point is that as much as it pains me to admit it, my dad is a pretty tough guy.
So I was left bewildered one night when he ran into the corner of our kitchen quivering like a dog that had pooped in the house, waiting for its master to punish him. The “tough guy” entered the fetal position as he tentatively aimed a spray can of “Bug-Off” at one of the things that scares him most in the world: weighing in at 84 milligrams with a height of 15 millimeters, the Vespula vulgaris, more commonly known as the wasp.
However pathetic, I knew that I had to go take care of the wasp situation so that my dad could rest assured that he would not be attacked when he returned to the living room, just as he does every time I freeze and scream at the top of my lungs when I see even the tiniest of spiders.
My dad is also terrified of someone in my family getting hurt. One night, I screamed from the bottom of the stairs because I saw a spider and surprisingly, my half-deaf dad heard me from inside his shower, nearly broke the glass door jamming it open, and ran down the hallway, promptly slipping on the floor and hitting his head. With blood leaking down his forehead, he asked me if I was alright. Then he pinched the microscopic spider between his index finger and his thumb ending the crisis.
A fear of something plagues all of us. Maybe the thing my dad is most afraid of is my growing up. Lately, when I ask him to go to my boyfriend’s house, a concert, a party, or even a sleepover at a friend’s house, I see a little sting of anguish on his face as though he is realizing that there will soon come a day when he won’t be in the other room to save me and when I don’t have to ask his permission to do anything. I can only imagine the sensation a parent must feel on the day that they send their child out into the world to begin a journey of their own. For me, it is the knowledge that at some point I will have to muster up the courage to face spiders and other scary things on my own because my dad won’t always be in the other room, armed with Bug-Off.
Everybody’s afraid of something. Mickey is an arachnophobe. The wispy gauze of a silk cobweb brushing against her cheek is enough to send her into spasms in which she slaps her hair like it’s on fire, repeatedly screaming “Get it off me, dad!”
And if, God forbid, she encounters Charlotte in her web, she will jet out of the room and refuse to return until I present her with positive proof that I have properly dispatched the spider, usually in the form of a visual confirmation on the sole of my shoe.
I am gripped by my own set of fears which Michaela revels in exploiting at every opportunity. The other night after I had melted into the couch watching a Red Sox game with Michaela, she giggled mischievously as she told me something had just flown across the room. A jolt of adrenaline needled my fingertips when I saw a wasp crawling along the wall. I threw a blanket over my head and pleaded with her to swat it with a magazine.
Instead, she hovered around the top of the blanket making buzzing noises intermittently interrupted by her howls of sinister laughter, the same menacing cackle I have heard atop Bromley Mountain when the ski lift jerks wildly after an emergency stop. Instead of keeping still, waiting for the violent swinging to abate, Michaela gyrates in the chair, as my fingernails scrape paint off the safety bar. Or whenever we are on an elevator together, she will jump up and down knowing that even an uneventful ride has me one heartbeat away from a full-on panic attack.
One thing we both worry about is August 14. That’s the day she will report for duty at “the U”, as in the University of Miami.
Recently she asked me if I was going to be sad when she left for school. I thought of the deafening stillness that will settle upon our home, the clinical neatness of her unlived-in room. I pictured myself leaving the house every day without getting a kissing hand.
“Maybe a little scared,” I allowed.
I asked her how she felt about leaving. “I’m just afraid it won’t be the same when I get home because I will only be visiting for the next four years.”
I wanted to tell her she can always come home, and it will always be the same, but I know that her old life will shrink like a favorite cotton sweatshirt mistakenly tossed in the dryer, still recognizable, but not the same any more. She is a butterfly emerging from her cocoon which will soon seem small and superfluous.
As I contemplated this reality, I realized spiders and wasps are not really scary at all.
Mike Kerin is a lawyer in Milford, and his daughter, Michaela, is a student at Amity High School. In their column, this father and daughter bicker and banter about boys, curfews, homework, stress at school, dress codes, and a host of other issues that represent the jagged edges of adolescence they must navigate every day, sometimes with humor, sometimes with sarcasm, always with love.