I don’t really know when nightmares begin. I guess it is possible that babies have nightmares, shaken awake in the night by dreams of stuffed giraffes turned suddenly sinister or a nipple that you chase and chase and never quite catch up to. I remember some pained expressions on my children’s sleeping faces, but we always assumed it was gas, not nightmares.
One thing I do know is that by the time they reach the age of 4, children have nightmares — vivid, terrifying , wrenching nightmares. The kind of nightmares that shatter sleep like an errant baseball shatters a living room window. The kind of nightmares that do not evaporate on contact once they are awake, burned away by the daylight like so much early morning fog, completely forgotten before the Cheerios begin dividing like cells in the cereal bowl.
No, these nightmares linger for hours, even days, making the prospect of going to bed not only a bummer, but a source of pure and profound dread, worse, even, than eating a brussel sprout, nearly as bad as getting a vaccination shot or being hugged too tightly and too long by a well meaning relative. Dreams ... the polyester pressing hard against your face, maybe a sharp pendant scratching you, and the smells ... sweet perfume like rotting peaches, some kind of powder, too.
But dreams lately are even worse than that, a lot worse, worse than anything. You get a shot, the shot’s over. You eat a brussel sprout, you wash it down with a shot of chocolate milk and a jelly bean you smuggled in your pocket. Your great-great-whatever hugs you, you hold your breath and wait for it to pass. These are horrors, but predictable, manageable horrors. What to do about these dreams? There is no way to predict them, no way to manage them.
Worse, your mind reels and reels and reels as darkness falls, and the machinery of your nighttime ritual pushes you toward bedtime. The taking of baths, the brushing of teeth, the reading of stories, the singing of the familiar bedtime songs, the old repetition of kisses and goodnights, more kisses and more goodnights, a couple of last minute random questions designed for last-ditch stalling — yes, we may have ice cream tomorrow, no, we can’t go to the beach yet — one last good night. OK, one more.
Now it comes. Images. Sounds. Sensations. What was that? Did you see something just then, right there? You remember something you saw in a book, a monster with terrible yellow teeth. You remember the big bad wolf, the poor pigs. You remember something your friend said, something very scary about enemies and bad guys, and even though you are not exactly sure what an “enemy” is, it can’t be good, not if they’re BAD guys. You hear something outside. The dog barks. Enemies!!!
Time to go get Dad.
I know these dreams are fueled in part by popular culture. As a kid, I thought nothing of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Aunt Rhody and her dead old gray goose, or any other of the time-honored twisted tales that parents inflict on their children, but as a parent, I look at the rich history of flat-out weirdness in children’s literature with some mixture of fascination and disgust. No wonder we’re so violent, so warped, so in need of therapy and self help books. Maybe I was more affected than I realize. I do remember tossing and turning in my bed at night, imagining always what might be outside, lurking, looking for a way to get inside. Isn’t that a persistent theme in children’s stories, after all, something out there trying to get in here?
I remember getting a CD of famous children’s songs from a family friend a couple of years ago when we were getting ready to go to the beach and spend six or seven hours in the minivan with the kids. “This will help entertain them,” the friend said. Sure enough, they listened attentively for a good while, and my mind began to wander aimlessly and quite pleasantly until the lyrics of a creepy little song about lady bugs crept into my consciousness: “Lady bug, Lady bug, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children are gone.”
And we wonder where the nightmares come from? We started skipping the “Lady Bug” song, opting instead to send the bear over the mountain about 1,200 times before we got to Charleston.
Taking the advice of another friend, I have begun using Monster Spray every night before bed — yes, it is now part of the bedtime ritual. I spray around the doors and windows, under the beds, over the beds, even give a good blast into the center of the room for good measure. According to the label, it also works well on enemies and bad guys.
Now, good night, guys. I love you, too. Yes, we can throw the Frisbee tomorrow. Good night ... what’s that? No, we aren’t having brussel sprouts tomorrow.
Sweet dreams, buddy. Yes, the spray lasts all night. Yes, really.