Use your words

How do we explain the inexplicable to our children?

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Published September 14, 2001 10:49PM (EDT)

We will look and we will find some expert advice about what grownups should say to children about what happened on Tuesday morning. This will be helpful but it will be too late for most of us. The moment when we first had to tell the story and deal with the response will have passed. And lots of us will feel as if we failed.

The details are going to be different in every instance. Age and proximity will define or refine a child's experience of the disaster. So will everything else that we can think of or haven't thought of yet. But in the telling there will have been an element of surrender, of powerlessness that we never anticipated. After we march with poker faces through details of varying specificity, we are called upon to explain, and this is where things get away from us and rip big black holes in the tidy universes that we try to maintain for our children. Where is our complacent spin? What makes it possible for us to end with the traditional coda, "I will keep you safe," and mean it?

My dad died of lung cancer. I said: "His body stopped working, mostly because he smoked cigarettes for 50 years." My 98-year-old grandmother died. I said: "She was tired and ready and her doctor loved her so much that he rode his bike to her house when she was sick to see how she was doing." I have said in recent weeks that sharks bite because they're hungry; that cars crash on slippery streets. I have said lots and lots of times that playmates hit because they have forgotten to use their words, that mothers can never not love their children. I have been able to be scientific and omnipotent and to make promises about the way things are.

As long as I have been able to hide the images and stories of suicide bombings and panicked Belfast school-children and bloodied Israeli wedding parties, I have not had to explain acts of violence that involve the kind of passion and recklessness that my children probably have only associated with love. I haven't had to reveal that people who don't know us can wish we were dead -- and then kill us and themselves to prove it.

I have been just as blinkered and aloof and unrealistic as everyone else who has believed until now that there are some things that always happen to other people, that my children were protected by a culture in which zealous citizens with a bone to pick could be counted on to occupy trees or lie down in front of bulldozers or throw rocks at riot police. I figured, like a squishy, politically correct fool, that if I didn't have a TV, I didn't have to remind my children of their vulnerability, didn't have to go beyond the precious advice that their bodies are their own and that no one else can touch them without their permission and that they should run and scream if they are bothered by a stranger.

Now we have to add to our parental repertoire a mantra that covers the unthinkable. I need one that will address the amorphous terror of bad guys and fire that plague a 5-year-old, and the flip, self-protective assumptions of a quietly petrified high school sophomore. And as usual, I will have choices. I could go the blue sky route, talk about the $40 billion and missile shields and the end of curbside check-in. I could prepare them for war, explain the necessity of revenge and its potentially devastating but necessary fallout at home. I could crow about American invincibility and know-how, emphasize the safety of living in a suburb with no distinguishing characteristics. I could suggest that we think pleasant thoughts.

But I have done none of those things so far. Instead I have tiptoed, hidden newspapers, asked about feelings and pronounced all of them valid. A little blah, blah, blah; a lot of omission. Meanwhile, a vague outline of my instinctive advice starts to emerge from the inner blather, ideas that I can live with and hope that I will be able to show, not tell, my children.

And then the Rev. Eugene Sheridan, a teacher at St. John the Baptist school in Manhattan, was quoted in the New York Times this morning and he said this about what he said to his students:

"My final message was that something that happens to the whole world can begin with a disagreement between two people. So we have to begin by being kind to each other right here in our school."

I am the agnostic issue of smarty-pants socialists, but this is the gospel that I had begun to believe, guided not by my faith in God, but my faith in people. To hear Rev. Sheridan also say that we can be angry, that we can perhaps find a way to forgive the hijackers, stokes these secular stirrings of belief. To see the miraculous pride and optimism of widows, to know that one survivor from the World Trade Center now says hello to every person that he passes on the street -- these are reasons to believe that the best thing to tell my children is that we have a choice and a reason not to be afraid: We can hate and ignore or we can care and engage, and if we choose the latter we can expect to be safe.

On Tuesday, at my house, we rode a roller coaster and found ourselves reeling from the extremes that we confronted at a seemingly safe distance from "ground zero." My eldest made the varsity team! My kindergartner mastered the monkey bars! We were lucky and we knew to say this, over and over again. Now we will show our thanks by understanding our responsibility, by believing that the things we want can be as real as the things we fear, if we are willing to practice what we preach.

Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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