"Spiders like corners," I said to my daughter this morning.
She was standing near the top of the stairs and hesitating to come down; she'd caught sight of a small milk spider clinging to the slanted ceiling above the stair case and was feeling unsure of herself. She was also, I think, a little rattled from hearing her brother cry for an extended period in the early morning. He had woken suddenly and it took some time to calm him down. The spider was just icing on the cake.
"Tell him to shoo Daddy," she said to me, "Make him go away."
I don't like killing spiders if I can help it. They tend to mind their own business for the most part and stick to ceilings and corners. I think they're useful and good to have in a house - the domestic kind that is - and I respect the role they play in nature. I'm also superstitious I guess, and when I have to, I'll just move one out of the house with a tissue rather than killing it.
I also don't like my daughter to be afraid of things that won't bother her if she's respectful.
"The spider's just hanging out," I said, "He just likes that corner and he won't bother you if you leave him be."
She considered this logic with a dubious tilt of her head.
"Um," I said, "I'll just ask him to stay put, OK?"
Her expression changed from nervousness to smiles in a moment. She nodded vigorously and waited for my performance.
"Mr. Spider Sir," I began, thinking it best to sound polite, "Please just stay where you are while my little girl walks down the stairs. She promises not to bother you."
I held a raised finger up at the little guy to emphasize my seriousness and gestured for my daugther to make her move. I know this is a bit of a cheat, but I’ve become less scrupulous and more tactical about the measures I’ll use in my day to day survival as a father. As deceptions go this seemed to me not much worse than the Tooth Fairy.
"Stay there Mr. Spider," she said as she descended the stairs quickly, "Listen to Daddy!"
She breathed a sigh of relief as she made her way to the kitchen for breakfast and smiled.
"Spiders like corners," she repeated without looking at me as she ate her toast and butter.
I was glad to have helped her, even if it was partly by silly sleight of hand. I was also glad the spider had decided - for whatever reason - to stay put. It’s great to have the appearance of super powers, but the appearance part can be very tricky to hold on to.
I thought at the time that it must be confusing for a kid to see their parents as both invincible and also as sometimes helpless. Sometimes the transformation can be nearly instant; there are so many occasions where I fall flat on my face. This is especially apparent with my son’s needs.
When he’s crying and can’t be consoled, or when he begins a new treatment that requires him to be uncomfortable, I see my daughter trying to understand why we (the parents, a.k.a. superman and super woman) can’t solve this for him; why we get frustrated and angry; why sometimes, we just put him down in his crib and let him cry it out while we calm down.
“Why is he crying,” she’ll ask plaintively when this happens, “Is he hungry?”
I wish I had a spider answer for these questions. The explanations I have to give seem much less plausible or understandable: “He’s just uncomfortable... he’s not used to the brace ... he’s a little satta fratta (our non-swear word for pee’d off).”
The explanations don’t seem to explain and they leave her worried and trying to resolve the riddle with her own wits.
I looked down at her over my coffee and felt a tug at my heart with this train of thinking. I know kids have a good resilience to stress, but I don’t like the thought of her confused and worried.
She must have felt me looking at her because she suddenly looked up with a question.
“Daddy,” my daughter said, “I need to ask you something?”
“Ok,” I said, “What?”
“Do you love spiders?” she asked without a trace of impishness about her.
“Uh ... um...” I was at a loss
“We’ll I don’t hate them, but I don’t make them breakfast either,” I said a little evasively.
“Oh,” she said.
“Besides,” I said, “I don’t like corners. I’ll probably never get to know a spider well enough to love one.”
“That’s just silly Daddy,” she smiled and returned to eating.
“I know, I’m just a silly Daddy,” I said thinking that her observation was more than true.
Nonsense is just the only way to respond to some things. It provides the satisfaction of an answer when there is no answer to give. And though it can’t always be used, it rarely fails me when it’s allowed.
Nonsense also has some real staying power. My daughter seems to remember my silly answers and statements far longer than what I say honestly on instructively. She’ll often trot out these phrases at unexpected times and places; and so it proved today.
“Mommy, do you love spiders?” my daughter said to my wife with a giggle later in the day; she giggled louder still when my wife made a face at the proposal.
“Would you love a spider in a corner?” she said and fell on the floor laughing at her own improvised joke.
My wife gave me a quick glance and I explained briefly the history.
“You guys are just super silly,” my wife said laughing at us.
“Yes. Yes, we are,“ I thought quietly. Silly nonsense is our best friend these days.