My son Dorian’s nightlight broke. It was, I eulogized to him, truly an exceptional nightlight: its bulb was surrounded by blue glitter suspended in liquid-filled glass, its warmth combining the cool of a snow globe and the heat of a lava lamp. It had comforted him against the darkness for several months, a talisman against invisible monsters. But then I noticed that it was dripping—dripping directly into its electrical outlet, reminding me once again how companies routinely market the most gorgeous garbage imaginable. To Dorian, freshly five years old, the nightlight was a sacrosanct promise of protection and a new day. To me, it was an invitingly colored leaky cauldron of antifreeze plugged into a live socket next to my child’s bed, presenting any number of fatal opportunities. It, obviously, had to go. But Dorian’s tears flowed more freely than even his sodden nightlight’s, and no hugs, no kisses, and no declarations of replacement could console him. The immediate substitute was a poor understudy. Its ordinary plastic, inattentively embellished with the obligatory stars and crescents, only underscored the original’s brilliance. Dorian lobbed thick sobs into his pillow and the night, the din punctuated only by the pregnant silences of lungs reloading.
Finally, my wife, Aura, managed to comfort Dorian by telling him a story: the tale of his older brother Jonah’s lost balloon. Again, it was not just any balloon: it was a silver helium balloon in the shape of a diving dolphin. We bought it at a parade when he was two, and he was so happy with it that he wanted desperately to hold the string himself rather than tie it to his wrist. The ending was inevitable: he accidentally let go. I ran after it, crossing the parade to chase it, and when it eluded me by mere inches, I heard the crowd gasp. I didn’t mean to upstage the festivities, but it was clear that the brief saga of a father’s failed rescue of his son’s balloon captured the tragic mythos of parenting better than the semi-cacophony of a high school marching band. We helplessly watched it float away, growing smaller and smaller. Jonah cried for days.
But Dorian stopped crying. And then he asked for more sad stories. And so they came: about Aura’s butterfly ring, her only special possession in a Bronx working-class rental unit childhood devoid of house and car, to say nothing of fairy princess tea parties. The ring was lost for days, despite frantic search and rescue efforts, until she accidentally found it, broken underfoot, while her friend Lauren was over. Aura cried so much that Lauren, nonplussed, had to be sent home.
And then more: about the time I threatened to pop my younger brother’s balloon and he, my brother, popped it himself to prevent me from popping it, and how I, not he, mourned. About how the very same thing happened again, this time over a record we were arguing over that he then broke to prevent me from having. About the tragic sunglasses trilogy: the ones I dropped while riding my bike, and how a car ran them over, and my futile effort to retrieve the shattered pieces and flattened frame. About another pair lost on a water flume ride at Six Flags. And another forgotten in a restaurant and how I stubbornly didn’t go back for them. (I have only recently permited myself sunglasses again.) One hour and a dozen dead treasures later, Dorian was asleep. The next night, he was fine.
Even at five, Dorian saw the horror in his loss. More than a beacon, certainly more than a way to avoid tripping on the way to the bathroom, a nightlight is a surrogate parent: even after Mommy and Daddy tuck the boys in and go downstairs to do nighttime grown up things (read: eat ice cream), the nightlight, ever vigilant, ever loyal, remains on guard. How could something so precious bleed? How could it die? Yet it could happen even to a nightlight, a sign of childhood but a symbol of life. It could happen to a balloon, so much like a living thing, yet its membranes are even more fragile, its lifespan even shorter, yet its nature even more recklessly fugitive. It could even happen to a butterfly ring, emblem of metamorphosis, of the wishful childhood change from ugly and earthbound to beautiful and free, to fly away, not rashly like a balloon, but with color and panache, transformed and brilliant. If a nightlight can go out, if a suicidal balloon can abandon its young caretaker, if a ring can be broken, if sunglasses can repeatedly fall by the wayside, where does that leave us, aside from lying alone in the dark, balloonlessly, with no sunglasses? If a nightlight can go out, then anything can. Dorian may not have had the words for it, but he experienced his first intimations of mortality. Everyone’s nightlight goes out. It is, in the end, the very dread that leads many an adult to lie in bed awake well into the night, or to keep a small light on, just in case. Parents included.
Time: another explanation. I wrote this a few years ago before I started blogging and timing myself, but with the attention WordPress gave me by Freshly Pressing Transference, my last entry, I wanted to follow up quickly with something in the same vein that I’ve never posted. Thanks to the WordPress editors and all of the new readers who found me. So maybe now is not the time to continue my 2013 hiatus.