On New Year’s Eve, my 6-year-old son saw 15 seconds of The Walking Dead, the grotesquely violent zombie series. At the neighbor’s annual gathering, he and his buddies were watching Despicable Me 2—the much more age-appropriate movie starring a reluctant dad, Gru, voiced by Steve Carell ’84. When the movie ended, they had innocently stopped the disc and turned on the TV only to see a woman breaking the legs of chickens and tossing them into a barn filled with the ravenous undead. Sam wandered in to tell the adults that zombies had taken over the TV. We turned it off, and I thought that was the end of the trauma. But after the ball had dropped, and we headed off to bed, he started screaming, violently—the kind of scream that sends chills up a parent’s spine.
As I ran up the stairs two by two, he ran toward them and me, his eyes wide. And in that moment, I knew he had lost a little bit of innocence, and his world had now opened up to include chickens thrashing about in a barn, unable to fly away from their predators.
I curled up with him that night, but my husband and I had decided early on not to let him milk this. The quicker he got back to his routine, we figured, the quicker those images of zombies would fade away. Let’s just wrap this whole thing up fast, we thought, before it gets out of control.
But every night was the same. Just the mention of bedtime for this little boy would send him into a panic. He talked about zombies while brushing his teeth and through the door of the bathroom when he needed privacy. He talked about zombies while peeling off his clothes and stepping into his pajamas. He talked about them while choosing his bedtime book and while crawling into bed. To combat the fear, my husband and I tried everything. We showed him a video of a make-up artist creating a zombie out of a regular Joe. We talked to him about the zombies and suggested he dress them up in tutus in his mind to make them funny. We even played the children’s board game, “Hi Ho! Cherry-O,” with an imaginary friend (our conjuring) named “Chicken Zombie” to make the zombies seem less threatening.
CZ won, of course.
In the daylight, Sam would laugh at these ideas, and I thought for a brief period that Chicken Zombie might be a new family member, but by nightfall, the zombies took to their evil ways, invading Sam’s brain and threatening to devour the poor boy. We worked hard to force adult rationale into his mind: “Do you have any idea how many zombies live on planet Earth? Zero.” “Do you honestly think we would ever put you in a dangerous situation?” “The dogs bark when one of us changes our shirt, don’t you think they would let us know if a zombie were in the house? Seriously. Think about that for a second.”
In the end, nothing worked except crawling into bed with Sam and holding his hand until he went to sleep or, when he was feeling really brave, sitting in a chair near his bed and staring at him—begging, pleading for him to drift off so we could slip down the hall to watch House of Cards or check Facebook before bed. Impatient, I would roll off his bed every few minutes with little to no grace and wake him. Or I would stand up from the chair, which would elicit a terrible creak, and he would reach for me.
One night, sometime around Day 13 post-Walking Dead (this is how we define our lives these days), I was sitting in his dark room just looking at him curled up beneath a quilt made of his grandfather’s old work shirts (for protection, of course). It occurred to me that my frustration was not with Sam, or the Walking Dead, or the geniuses who decided to run a Walking Dead marathon in prime time on New Year’s Eve. It was because I had things to do—laundry to fold, articles to write, emails to answer, a House of Cards cliffhanger to solve. I was wishing my son to sleep—or sneaking off early after promising to stay until he was safely in dreamland—not because I thought it would help him, but because I thought I needed the time for things that could wait.
As I sat in his room that night, I regretted every way I had handled the great zombie attack of 2014. Had I just slowed down, and crawled into bed with the child for a few nights, it wouldn’t have grown into the Zombie Apocalypse. I decided to slow down right then. I looked at him for a long time, curled up in his Pap’s blanket of shirts. I listened to the rain fall against the windows and the dogs snoring down the hall. And I thought maybe those zombies made an appearance in 2014 for a good reason. They’ve reminded us to slow down this year and to comfort those who need us most.
I vowed to thank Chicken Zombie when I saw him next.