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At 9:30, my daughter comes downstairs—she can’t sleep. She’ll be seven next month and the world is expanding around her, I can see it. She’s more aware of other people now, more aware of adult conversation, more aware, in this instance, of volcanoes.
“Volcanoes?” I repeat, settling down next to her on the couch. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’m just worried about them. I read about them in class today and I . . . “. I know that she sees it clearly, whatever she read that day, as real to her as I am. A definite fear shapes the set of her mouth and she gives into it for a moment before drawing away and finishing lamely, “I’m just worried about them.”
I want to offer her comfort—immediate, tangible comfort—in the shape of a promise. They’re far away. We don’t have to worry about that here. Things like that don’t happen anymore. Or the great silence-killing assurance, “It’s okay.”
But I can’t say any of that.
We live at the foot of a volcano. I can see it from our kitchen window on clear days and it is beautiful—white and graceful, edges pink and softened by the morning light. It’s such a fixture in our county that my high school was named after it. Every so often the mountain sends up plumes of steam, and the local newspaper does a piece on it, chronicling the overall health of the mountain with a particular emphasis on any strange behavior.
The mountain, gentle as it looks there slumbering, will one day erupt.
I found this frightening as a child and still do as an adult, when I remember to think about it. So I cannot offer my daughter the false comfort that volcanoes only erupt in other places, but I dare not give her the full truth yet: that a live one slumbers at our backs while we sit on the couch in silence.
Instead, I say this: “Who made you?”
She knows I’m up to something and gives me a look that says plainly, What does this have to do with volcanoes? before before answering, “God did.” A slight smile—so slight—touches the edge of her mouth.
“And who made volcanoes?”
“And if one erupted while we were nearby, who would take care of us?”
“God would.” Her cheeks are pinker now, her shoulders soften.
It is hard knowing that we are not in control, I say. Knowing that there are big things like volcanoes reminds us that we are small, and that is scary.
But, I ask, who controls volcanoes?
Yep, God controls the volcanoes and anything else we could be afraid of. And he loves us, so even when we are scared or when scary things happen to us, we know that he will take care of us. He has said so.
“Does that help?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says, and she looks relieved. So I pray for her and walk her back upstairs past the window that frames our volcano. I come back to my book and the couch feeling satisfied, like I’ve done my work well for the day.
She is back ten minutes later.
“I still can’t sleep,” she says.
It wasn’t enough to banish her worries: her mind must run on something other than fear. So I try a new tactic. I try beauty. “Okay, then—think about treehouses.”
Again, the eyebrows go up. “Tree-houses?”
“Yeah,” I say, like this is something we talk about all the time. “Tree-houses.” Obviously. “If you lived in a tree-house, what would it look like?”
The eyebrows come down a notch, and I see something—the slightest glow—come into her eyes.
“Would it have curtains?” I ask, in my most beguiling voice. “Who would live there with you? Where would you eat? What would you eat?” I’m getting carried away now, almost caught up in my own imaginings of a Mom tree-house with a table by the window and a tea kettle always hot and so many books to the ceiling. “Would you sleep in bunk beds or hammocks or right out on the porch, where you can see the stars through the leaves?”
Her eyes sparkle outright now, and I’m not sure she sees me at all. Gone is the volcano, and in its place stands a private tree-house, but whether it has bunks for all her sisters or is a cozy hideout for one, I don’t know. I don’t dare interrupt her vision to ask. Instead I add softly, “Are there neighbors in the next tree? With bridges that connect to yours?” She sits down on the couch next to me, too wrapped up in the construction of her new home to remember that she’s in her pajamas and meant to be headed back to bed.
I pat her back gently. “Go on upstairs,” I say in my best hypnotist’s voice. “Go back to bed and think about your tree-house.”
She does. I don’t see her again until morning.