Shaving Cream and Heart Attacks and Learning When To Fear

October 21, 2010 | 3 4 min read

These are the things my son James has been afraid of in the 16-months that he’s been alive: The grinding blender, the roaring vacuum, disembodied voices on the speaker phone, the time I pantomimed a broken leg, being put to bed alone in his crib.  Most recently he ran in fright from shaving cream.

It happened late in the afternoon last week. James was playing happily by himself in his bedroom and I snuck off down the hall to address three days worth of stubble.  After I’d worked a lather across my face I leaned out of the bathroom to check on James. He was sitting amidst a spread of colored blocks and when he saw my meringued-mug his eyes went wide and his lower lip began to shake. He stood up and advanced halfway down the hallway that separated us. Then he came to a stop.  It was as if his world had suddenly become too uncertain to venture even another step.

James did not cry and I went back to shaving. I leaned back out to check on him twice more and each time he stood rooted in the floor, exactly where he’d been; his face looked like it would shatter at a whisper. After I’d rinsed my face and patted it dry, I went over to James. His terror mutated into something closer to disbelief as I approached.  “Dat?” he said, pointing at my face. “That’s right James,” I replied, “It’s just Daddy.” He touched my nose and my cheeks, and then he turned on his small heels and went back to playing with his blocks.

Afterwards I thought about what this encounter might mean for the evolving way that James looks at the world.  He experienced two intense, competing emotions—first, the terror of seeing his world upended and second, the relief of discovering that the horror was really no such thing.  I wondered which feeling, the terror or the relief, would do more to shape his expectations the next time an unexpected event came his way.

A second story, this one from almost a decade earlier when I was 21-years-old. One evening a message came in on my dorm room answering machine. It was from my mom telling me that my grandfather had had a heart attack and was in the hospital.  I called her back and she was sitting at his side. She told me my grandfather was conscious and alert, but that he had what was described to me as a hole in his heart and that surgery was imminent.  My mom passed the phone to him. He called me “my boy” the way he always did and asked me how my classes were going.  I skirted the topic of his health, not sure what to say about it, and as the conversation wound down I offered some cheery words about how much I was looking forward to seeing him a month later at Thanksgiving.  Not once while on the phone, or in the hours afterward, did I worry in the slightest way that I might never talk with him again.  It turned out I was wrong.

After the eulogies had been delivered and my grandmother had been promised that we’d all be back very soon, I went back to school. Still, in the weeks that followed and even a little bit to this day I was unsettled not only by the loss of someone I cared about, but also by how blind I’d been to the possibility that something real and serious might have been afoot when I’d last talked with my grandfather. And it wasn’t just that I’d misjudged the odds of a 76-year-old man surviving heart surgery.  It was that at the time my view of the world took no account of the fact that there is such a thing as a worst outcome, or even just worse outcomes, and sometimes they are the ones that happen.

How exactly I came to that point is clearer to me now, that I’ve watched James confront one unfounded fear after another.  If I were to generalize about the relationship he has to knowledge and fear, I’d say that the more he knows, the less he fears.  This is how it should be in a healthy childhood; I want James to feel emboldened to explore the world around him.  But in a childhood where nothing goes terribly wrong—where fears consistently turn out to be more appearance than reality—it makes sense to me that when I heard the news that my grandfather was in the hospital I’d think, “Here it is, the world crying wolf again.”

As a child I was afraid of many things, and in my early twenties I was not afraid of enough.  My current place in life, 29-years-old, recently married, newly a father, building a career, has its fair share of worries.  Many of them take a form that only a few years ago I would not have been able to anticipate. If you were to tell a nine-year-old boy that in just a couple of years he’d develop something called self-consciousness and spend endless hours agonizing over how other kids perceive him, he’d say you were a fool.

A similar discontinuity took place for me in my late-twenties.  Instead of self-consciousness, the new realization was that there are better and worse ways to live a life and no guarantee about which side of the line mine will fall on.  Just a few years ago time felt limitless, and in that view any mistake could be redeemed. Now it’s clearer that something actual is lost, maybe for good, any time I act ungenerously to my wife, or sit down to write and surf the Internet instead.  It’s exhilarating to play for real stakes, but it’s terrifying too. There’s also a creeping awareness of how vulnerable I am to events that lie beyond my control.  If anything were ever to happen to James I recognize that I would bear it forever, like a scar.

Sometimes I feel up to the chore of carrying out a good life and other times the task feels overwhelming.  Even as increasingly I recognize the size of the project that lies ahead, I question whether the choices that seem like the right ones to make in the context of a day or a year will scale to produce a happy and meaningful life.  And I wonder whether in the future I will look back at the year when I was 29 and find that I was afraid of too much, or not afraid of enough.

Image Credit: Pexels/Supply.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. What a wonderful essay. I identify completely with your experience of losing your grandfather. I was struck by your sentence where you wonder what part of your son’s experience – the terror or relief – would do more to shape his reaction the next time around. I thought about how after many of the unexpected and scary events in my life, I’ve resolved to not take life for granted and to be braver about figuring out how to live a good life, but then there are intervals later on when I feel like my outlook has become more fearful and my decision making more timid, maybe as a result of these events or just the generally frightening experience of aging. Bad outcomes can give us a healthy dose of fear, but if taken too far we might find ourselves anticipating the worst outcomes too strongly (and in that case, in a perverted way, relief might come from the realization of our fears). You make a good point that there really is no point in warning a 9-year old about the fears he will face in a few years time – he can’t understand these fears because he hasn’t felt even the possibility that they could be realized – and I wonder if it would have been similarly pointless to warn your 21-year-old self to anticipate your grandfather’s death if you’d never experienced anything like it. I agree with you in the abstract that it is better to be able to anticipate loss, but I have a harder time pinpointing in reality why that is.

  2. I really liked this. I also find myself viewing the small actions of each day as a battle in the war of living a good and meaningful life. That loose, subconscious tally of wins/losses has a weight to it. Thanks for a nice essay.

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