By Erica Sternin
In memory of my father
November 21, 1936-May 18, 2012
When I was four years old I had a lot of nightmares. Tootle the train wouldn’t stay on the tracks and, after bursting out of the hall closet, would chase me down the stairs. The Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood stalked me through fields of flowers, increasing the pace until the only way I could escape him was to wake up screaming. At the time, my father was studying anthropology and psychology at Goddard College and it amused him to try out little experiments on his young daughter. One day he learned of a culture that had a technique for managing nightmares, which he taught me. More than 45 years later, I am being treated for breast and thyroid cancer. Without a doubt, this is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced, a living nightmare. One day, my counselor suggested that I have a chat with Fear. When I did, who should show up but that Big Bad Wolf from my nightmares many years ago.
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Once upon a time there was a Little Girl who was the daughter of a woodsman. She lived in a cottage at the edge of a big meadow. The Little Girl loved nothing more than to roam the meadow and explore the forest near her father’s cottage. Her father had warned her about a big, bad Wolf that lived in the vicinity, and advised her about what to do if she should meet him, but the Little Girl was comfortable and competent in her world; she didn’t worry about that big bad Wolf at all! Not one bit.
One particular day, the Little Girl was carrying a basket of goodies to her Granny, who was in bed with a summer cold. The Little Girl had to cross a field of grasses that were nearly as tall as she was. Insects hummed and she smelled the pungent smell of crushed yarrow in the grass tunnels of the meadow. The Little Girl walked slowly, chasing and catching the grasshoppers that were buzzing all around her. Gradually, she became aware of a shadow keeping pace behind her. The Little Girl walked faster through the tall grass – which she now realized was very easy for wolves to hide in! Her throat tightened and her breath flattened like the grass beneath her bare feet. She ran as fast as she could, but the Wolf swam effortlessly through the grass, unseen and invisible other than the wake of his passage through the meadow. The Little Girl could only hear the susurration of the grasses and the rapid blowing of her breath over her tight footsteps.
“Make your enemy into your friend,” the Little Girl heard her father’s playful voice teaching. “Make him give you a gift.” Panting with fear, the Little Girl whirled to face the Wolf. Her breathing slowed. It nearly stopped, and the buzzing sound of the grasshoppers rose in a cacophony and then abruptly faded away. The Little Girl’s vision narrowed until all she could see was the whorl of fur at the top of the Wolf’s snout.
The Wolf growled and pulled back his lips from his teeth. It occurred to The Little Girl that he had very clean teeth.
“You have to give me a gift,” the Little Girl demanded shakily, wondering what she would do if he refused, knowing that she MUST prevail. An insect landed on her arm. It made an annoyed buzz when she brushed it away. She waited. “You must give me a gift,” she repeated, firmly this time. She realized that THIS was the moment, that she had to stand in her authority and face that Wolf. She wondered what the gift could possibly be – he just wore fur, he had nothing to give. Reluctantly, slowly, the Wolf broke her gaze. He turned his hairy back to her, crouched down and began to gather daisies and yarrow and milkweed into a pungent bouquet, which he handed her.
The Little Girl barely breathed while the Wolf retreated through the swishing fibers of the meadow. Only then did she continue to Granny’s house with a basket of goodies and a large bouquet of flowers.
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My father passed away May 18, 2012, four days after I started radiation treatment. We have not been close for the past many years and I never told him I had breast cancer.
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