The conversation was getting pretty deep when an ear-splitting scream shattered the evening. Ani darted up from her rest, confused but barking on the general principle that anything that could cause that sound from one of her boys needed attacking. Then there was silence at the other end of the phone.
Should I get in the car and break the speed limits with a five mile dash to my son’s home to see what was wrong?
No. I recognise that particular tone of scream.
“I’ll give you three guesses…” He was breathless, audibly shaken. I got it in one.
“Spider.” It wasn’t a question. Although the arachnophobia of his childhood has abated to manageable proportions…I had indeed been forbidden to take down Ian the hall-spider’s webs last year for a while… there is only one thing that causes that reaction from either and both of my sons. “Big, was it?”
“Where is it now?”
“Under a glass. That’s your first job in the morning.” I had thought it might be. The transformation of house-spider to garden spider…
The conversation revolved around the terror of arachnids for a while, as the trapped spider attempted to exit the upturned glass with, said my son, a view to attacking its captor. Eventually we moved on to the triumph of the swimming pool and the day’s bike ride, until, “How long do spiders live?” I checked online. “And what does that equate to…?” I made the calculation, translating the spider’s overnight stay in the glass into its human equivalent in months. It was not, he thought, too bad… he’d been through a much longer ‘imprisonment’ in hospital during his recovery. He could see the comparison… the spider would be safe till morning and then be released… better than being squashed, even if it did not realise its luck. We continued discussing the bike and its new gears.
“It’s stopped moving…” The spider had ceased its desperate attempts to exit the glass. “It must think it is going to die in there…” There was an odd note in my son’s voice. His only other option would be to take the little creature outside himself… Not easy when you first have to slide a card beneath the glass, invert it and carry it to the door while using both hands on the walking frame… And anyway, it was a monster… It would have to wait till my arrival in the morning.
“It doesn’t know we’re going to set it free, does it?” There was a note of compassion there. “It can’t know it is for its own good….” Then determination. “I’m going to do it.” He hung up. I waited. Ten minutes later, the phone rang. “I did it.” And then, he told me why.
He’d felt what the spider must be feeling. Not just through his own experience after the brain injury, but from somewhere else. Somewhere he didn’t really recognise. And it moved him. It wasn’t sympathy, as he wasn’t looking on and feeling for the spider… he was feeling with the little creature. And empathy is a completely different thing.
Sympathy would have sent him to bed feeling sorry for the spider, but happy in the knowledge it would be released next morning. Empathy made him act and compassion made him face and conquer a very real fear, as well as the logistical difficulties of getting the spider to the relative safety and freedom of the garden. The one emotion remains distant and detached; the other is involved and has to act to help a fellow creature in trouble.
We can’t know if it was the right thing to do… the house spider may have preferred the night in the glass to the night air… but at least it was free to seek its own path. Even if that path led it to find another way straight back into the house… but in deference to my son, I won’t mention that.