Trigger Warning: This piece contains a lot of vague fretting about dead children.
In Grade 10 English class, I learned the three types of conflict found in literature. With apologies for the sexist language, they were: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self. Although my subsequent playwriting career would largely be an exploration of the first type of conflict, the front-runner in our Canadian short story unit was definitely Number Two—man vs. nature. It was all Prairie Gothic snowstorms or duststorms, spruced up with the occasional bear or wolf attack. Fun stuff when you’re 16, although the parallel motif of dead babies rather spoiled the mood.
There are probably as many dead kids in CanLit as there are absent mothers in Shakespeare (or in Disney, if that rings more bells for you). Blame the rugged pioneer conditions, I guess, or else an abstract sense of fatalism brought about by winters that last 8 months. It’s almost enough to warrant a fourth category of literary conflict: man vs. child mortality rates.
Lately, the news has been reading a bit like CanLit, albeit with a dose of absurdist excess. It’s callous of me to apply terms like that to actual news stories, but when you’re far away from the gory reality, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow when you read about a child mauled by a gorilla in Ohio, or a toddler snatched by a gator within sight of Disney World. If the world is trying to tell us anything, it’s “Don’t take your kids anywhere, ever.”
In just a few days, I’m taking my kid on a trip spanning four cities on two continents. There probably won’t be a high risk of gator attacks, but we might hit a few zoos. And then there are the everpresent hazards of cars, strange dogs, and what my father calls “perverts.” Those don’t all fall into the category of “nature,” I realize, but in my nightmares, they all end up invoking the same CanLit motif—the dead child.
What are the odds? The last time my dad lectured me about never letting X out of my sight, he based part of his argument upon an anecdote in which a child had become separated from her parents in a hotel and got snatched up by a “pervert,” drawn into his room and…well, that’s where the anecdote trailed off, leaving me free to imagine the worst. I wanted to ask my father how long ago he’d heard this story, and from whom. I wanted to counter with statistics, somehow—to point to the overwhelming number of times when a kid in a hotel does not get abducted or molested. But I knew that his risk-assessment practices had no tolerance for odds, only for worst-case scenarios.
I wonder where he developed his fear. Maybe he read the same stories I did in school? His own parents were notoriously laissez-faire, and all the tales I’ve ever heard from dad’s own childhood involved him and his siblings running amuck, courting personal disaster in the untamed fringes of pre-boom Edmonton. He and his brother would wage war against other groups of boys, Lord of the Flies-style, or else dig “tiger traps” in the unpaved pathways, covering them with branches and leaves and then running like hell when some elderly neighbour stumbled into them. Dad even has a few scars to show for his adventurous, unsupervised upbringing—although if he ever came genuinely close to serious harm or death, he omitted that story from his repertoire. Perhaps he now believes he was constantly at risk, and wants my son to have the scrupulous protection that he lacked, lest the Sharplin luck run out.
On the other extreme, you have my mom, who is very careful not to interfere with our parenting choices, though she’d probably speak up if she thought we were being lethally negligent. Her attitude seems likewise at odds with her upbringing; her own mother was once subjected to a devastating prank which undermined all sense of safety in her life, and left her more than a little bit paranoid.
It went like this: M (my grandmother) was waiting for B (her daughter) to come home from school when the phone rang. M didn’t recognize the caller’s voice, but he spoke as though she ought to, so she exchanged pleasantries anyway, hoping his identity would come to her. “What are you up to?” The friendly stranger asked. “Just waiting for B to get home,” She replied without thinking. Then he said, “What if I told you I had B here with me now?” before proceeding to describe, in agonizing, sadistic detail, what he’d been doing to B since abducting her.
Horrified, my grandmother hung up and called the police. By the time young B arrived from school, unharassed and blissfully ignorant, her house was swarming with cops and her mother was a wreck. Small wonder M was slow to trust her kids’ abilities to look after themselves.
When I was 5 or 6, I joined my mom and a great-aunt on a trip to the doctor’s. Somehow, I ended up in the elevator ahead of them, and when the doors closed, I pressed the button to the sixth floor, since I thought that’s where mom said we were headed. But the doctor was on Floor 8, not Floor 6, which meant the adults had no idea where to find me. After a panicked search, Auntie Dot found me. I remember being marched back down to the lobby to face the music. I remember the octogenarian’s vise-like grip on my arm—taking no chances I’d escape again.
As I list these personal accounts, I realize how many of them are false alarms or, at worst, near-misses. In those moments, the conflict is probably just “man vs. self”—the pain of a parent’s worst fears encroaching upon them in a period of uncertainty. I feel it any time X runs a bit too close to a busy street, or rounds a corner ahead of me. But it’s my feeling. “Worst case scenario” is a state of mind, and the hard truth is, no amount of stress or preparation can account for life’s gators.
Growing up, what were the things your parents taught you to fear the most?