“Monsters are not real,” I told my son while hugging him tight. “Monsters are not real.” He wants to believe me, but I know that no matter what I say, the monsters feel real to him. So, we contain them in stories, chase them with make believe “scary spray”, and sing lullabies to keep them from coming back. But, later, sitting alone in the dark, I see monsters, too. They roar angrily in my mind. They jump from my memories. I feel afraid. I wake up, trembling, from dreams that seem so real that I wonder if sleeping might actually be waking. I scream out in the dark. I tell myself the monsters are not real, but I do not believe my quivering words. I flip on lights, but I still see them. I exercise at times meant for slumber, but the monsters run faster.
The monsters frequently bludgeon me with reenactments of past horrors, but lately they have taken to haunting me with futures unknown, morphing into shifting silhouettes of people I love lying unconscious in hospital beds attached to ventilators. In desperation, I try to hold a hand or kiss a cheek, but locked doors, temperature checks, and “Quarantine – No Visitors” signs restrain me. I try to fight my way out of the shadow world imposed upon me, but while my hands grasp only air, the shadows twist and turn binding tighter around me.
Aimlessly, I move through my home searching for a distraction. I pick up books one by one that I have read countless times and toss them aside. The pantry only reminds me of the monotonous repetition that has been the past six months. I wander down the hall and stop to stare at the family pictures on the wall of people with wide grins standing shoulder to shoulder uninhibited by worries of contamination. In that foggy-brained space between midnight and morning, I wonder. Are we all still here or are we losing tangible form, slowly fading, becoming a part of the nightmare, ghost faces with nothing but eyes behind these cloth coverings?
“Monsters are not real,” I told my son. But, what if we are the monsters, out of touch with the love we once shared and projecting our inner fears onto the masked people surrounding us? Our anxieties growl at us uncontrollably, so we growl at each other as if we can contain the torment within us by intimidating those around us. When waking feels like the bad dream, where do we run for comfort to touch, to hold, to feel the breath behind a whisper, and to see the smile behind a laugh? I need crushing embraces and stinging high-fives. I crave the warmth of love, but cold screens do not hug back.
Do you see the monsters, too? What do they look and sound like to you? Echoing hallways and empty rooms? The growling stomachs of your children? Homeschooling? Virtual schooling? In-person schooling? Someone coughing at the grocery store? Your boss requesting an unexpected meeting on a Friday afternoon? A conversation with your doctor that begins with, “I’m sorry…”? Wondering where you will call home and who will share that home with you? When the morning light grips your soul more than the restless night, where do you turn? Where do we all turn?
Last week, orange signs of “Accident Ahead” and “Lane Closed” diverted me off the interstate, and I ended up on a slow-moving detour through a middle-of-nowhere small town. As we inched closer to the traffic light, an elderly woman stumbled repeatedly as she tried to balance herself on the uneven grocery store pavement while waiting to cross the road. Suddenly, the van in front of me pulled into the parking lot, and a young man stepped out, left his van running, and kindly offered his hand to this silver-haired woman to assist her across the road. The gesture might have been the handsome prince asking the princess to dance for all the grace and compassion it contained, and it touched my heart in a way that I physically felt.
This young man’s kindness reminded me that we are not the monsters. We are people, scared, lonely, hurting, and sometimes stumbling, who in these masks can appear like scary shadows in the present darkness of our world. Someday, this pandemic and its associated nightmares will end, and hope and love will shine in a way that vanquishes the overwhelming fears we now carry. We will cast our masks aside. We will smile, we will laugh, and we will touch. Until then, where do we turn when reality feels monstrously frightening? The lanes ahead of us are closed, and the world feels like a massive traffic accident. The passage of time feels too slow and repetitive as we navigate through towns unfamiliar. But, even here, kindness and love prove more resilient than fear. May the love from our hearts and the actions of our hands sing the soothing lullaby someone else needs to hear in a dark moment. After all, monsters are not real, but love is.