On this day of solemn remembrance and reflection, we had a small awakening in our family.
I am still processing it.
As part of our stellar parenting, we don’t really have rules like ‘no TV before school’. Gavin’s an early riser (think 6 a.m., like clockwork!), and trying to keep him electronics free while we get through the morning routine (which more often than not includes a handful of conference calls for me!) is, quite frankly, more of a struggle than it’s worth. He enjoys catching ESPN’s Top Ten Plays of the Week while eating breakfast, and this morning was no different.
Well, today, as you’d expect, most news outlets are airing stories about 9/11. And in some twist of fate, Grace was out of bed before 7:30 a.m. I was on a call for work while Kenny and Gavin were finishing up some math homework together while Grace was eating breakfast and watching ESPN, and apparently, learning about 9/11.
I’ve still not had the courage to broach this subject with either of my kids. I just can’t find the words to explain that level of evil in a way that wouldn’t scar their little 8- and 7-year-old souls. I struggle with this. Because while I don’t want to purposefully steal even a small sliver of their childhood innocence, I do want them to know the importance of honoring those who have made sacrifices. As they get older, I recognize the inherent risk in my “say nothing” approach – they are exposed to more things, and what they hear and experience on a day-to-day basis is increasingly out of our control. Perhaps the most impactful risk I was taking was not getting out in front of the message to present the information in a way they can handle. Fast forward to today, and the risk was realized.
As I was helping Grace get dressed for school after my call, she said, “Mom, I heard a bad story. But don’t worry, it happened a long time ago.”
I had no idea where this was going. I said, “Oh no. I don’t like to hear bad stories, do you?”
She said, “No.” and paused. She sat for a minute while I pulled her socks onto her feet. She said, “Do you not want me to tell you about it?” I asked her who she heard the story from. She said, “ESPN.” Ha! Oh my.
I said, “Sure, why don’t you tell me about it?” She said, “Well, I don’t think you will like some parts of it.” She took a quick breath as she launched into the story of Welles Crowther’s final heroic hour.
She started off with the details about the buildings and the planes, and I felt a pit in my stomach. I quietly started to panic while I willed my face to stay soft and open as I listened. But no sooner than she said that, she said, “But there was this guy with a special red bandana. He died, but he did a lot of things to help other people not die.” I sat quietly and watched her recount incredible details about this young man’s all-too-short life. And I was taken by her compassion. How she focused on the good and shared back a story of heroism from one of our nation’s darkest days. She explained that he carried this special red bandana “for his whole life”. How it was special because his dad gave it to him. And how he had it with him when saved 12 people and helped other people who needed it, “even though he only had one hour to live”. And how, even though he was “old”, his parents loved him so much and they missed him every day. And that lots of people wear red bandanas now to remember him because he was so helpful.
And though she did ask me some tough questions that I had to carefully answer, it struck me that perhaps the narrative lies here for now – that the story for where they are in their young lives is that yes, bad things happen, but there are always good people helping in bad situations. I know I can’t shield them forever. And honestly, I grapple with whether or not I should, as I imagine many parents do.
Two years ago today, I wrote about how I was searching for clarity and courage to tell the stories of those we lost on 9/11 to my kids in a way that instills pride over fear, unity over divisiveness, tolerance over anger. Two years later, I haven’t quite found either. Perhaps Grace will continue to reflect on what she saw this morning, and the conversation that followed. And perhaps our dialogue will continue, and together as a family, we can remember and honor the memories of those who gave all. There’s no right or wrong answer here – as with almost all things involving raising a family, the answer is what works best for that family.
Today, our young Grace is a little wiser to the ways of the world. And she also has her first hero.