“Mom, what’s that?”
Seven years have passed since my five-year-old son asked me that question. Since my clock radio jolted me awake with news that could only have come, it seemed, from the mind of Orson Welles. This had to be a sick joke, another “War of the Worlds,” I remember thinking, as I rubbed my eyes and grabbed the T.V. remote.
Just as the image of the burning twin towers appeared on the screen, Matthew walked into the room.
“Mom, what’s that?”
We stared at the television for a few moments. Then, afraid of what else Matt might see, I turned off the T.V. I wrapped my arms around him and we sat on the bed and talked. About how a few bad people had hurt others in a horrible way. About how a great number of good people would be coming to help the people who got hurt.
“How many bad people, Mom?”
I held my thumb and forefinger close together. “About this many,
compared with all the good people, like the policemen, the firemen and everyone else in the world who’s trying to help.”
“How many good people?”
I spread my arms wide. He did too, and smiled. “Our arms aren’t long
enough to show all the good people. Right, Mom?”
He thought for a moment.
“But what if the bad guys win?”
“We won’t let them,” I told him — and myself. “All the good people just won’t let that happen.”
Over the next few days, all manner of things red, white and blue blanketed our southern-California beach town. Neighbors erected a large flag by the local pier that first Friday night, surrounding it with tiny white candles nestled in the sand. The stars and stripes fluttered from hundreds of car windows where, so recently, purple-and-gold Lakers flags had waved. Matthew made a construction-paper version, which we taped to our living-room window.
As the President talked of war, my husband and I struggled to find a balance between shielding our kindergartner from the reality of evil in the world and letting him take in more than we felt he could handle.
But despite our parental high-wire act, America changed on September 11, 2001 — even for little boys who live thousands of miles away from the flying ash and the screaming sirens. We kept the T.V. news turned off when Matt was nearby. But he couldn’t help but wonder why his Dad, whom he and I had so casually kissed goodbye at LAX just 14 hours before the first attack came, had driven home from his business trip instead of flying. He couldn’t miss the somber tones of people chatting with grocery checkers and postal clerks; the overheard conversations of adults who looked suddenly quite serious and who told each other, “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to our country.”
As the days and weeks passed, I asked my son if he had any worries. Was there anything he wanted to talk about?
“No, it’s OK, Mom,” he said as he pulled his red-white-and-blue t-shirt over his head and told me about the upcoming school assembly where the kids would “sing about America.”
Then, one morning at breakfast, the dinosaurs arrived.
“Mom, look at this,” Matt said, handing me the Dinosaur Babies book that had languished on a shelf for months, untouched. Now he studied it intently. One illustration showed how, when threatened by a predator, the adult dinosaurs formed a circle, with the baby dinosaurs in the center, to protect the youngsters from harm.
“It’s the grown-ups’ job to protect the kid dinosaurs from the enemy. Right, Mom?”
“Yep,” I answered. “The grown-up dinosaurs protect the babies until they’re old enough to go out on their own.”
“But the baby dinosaurs grow up and have their own babies to protect,” he argued. “So they stick together. No dinosaur is ever really alone.”
As he finished his milk, Matt kept the book close by, staring at the picture of the big, ever-watchful dinosaur moms and dads who kept the circle unbroken and secure. And I worried: What kind of circle can I promise my child — when I’m afraid, too?
Then I thought of the candles carried by neighbors on our sidewalk that first Friday night. The small ritual that pulled us away from CNN and out of our homes — out of ourselves — and brought us together.
I thought of the hastily organized potluck dinners with friends that
followed, with children laughing in the next room while parents shared their stories, their fears, around a kitchen table.
I thought of the teachers at Matthew’s school who brushed away tears as they stood at the foot of a huge flagpole and joined several hundred small voices in singing “America The Beautiful.”
And I realized that in the uncertain months and years ahead, the strength of the circle around my child — around all our children — will come not just from a parent’s arms, but from our common strength: All of us working and praying, loving and guiding our families through these days. Each of us grasping a hand and doing our part to keep the circle strong.