There are some parents who believe you should talk to your children, however young, about terrorism. Some parents will tell their toddlers and their elementary-aged children about what happened on Friday in Paris, as is their right. But I won't explain to my child what happened in Paris, and I won't teach her about terrorism — at least, not quite yet. Because on September 11, 2001, I watched the world burn not from some stream on the Internet or through the curved lens of a network news camera, but from my home. Of course it wasn’t “the world” I was watching, but at 17 years old (and on the day of the worst terrorist attack I'd seen in my lifetime), it may as well have been. I was a just kid myself, how could I have predicted that one day I'd worry about when or how I'd explain what happened to my own child?
I watched the Manhattan skyline — the one I know and love like the back of my own hand — fill with fire and grey smoke, understanding everything and nothing about what I was seeing. I watched that grey smoke turn black; I watched our own sky darken in New Jersey, and before long, I couldn’t watch any longer. That perfect, picture-perfect view I had of the city was gone, consumed by a cloud so thick and heavy it wouldn’t lift for nearly two weeks.
I saw the Towers burn, and fall, from exit 12 on the New Jersey Turnpike, and I watched for months — and years — as the rubble was hauled across the water and sorted on our shores. Then, and even now, there are pieces I don't yet understand: How could people kill so easily? How could we have lost so much? How could hate hit us so hard?
On November 13, 2015 I watched the world burn again. This time was different, of course. I was six times zones away, watching the tragedy unfold through pictures and headlines; through Facebook status updates. I watched a city descend into chaos and fear. I read about the soccer stadium, the Stade de France. I read about the bars and restaurants and I read about the hostages at the Bataclan all while my daughter ate dinner. My daughter — my sweet, gentle spitfire — was eating shells with red sauce that night. I watched her take bite after blissful bite and I listened to her “mmhmms” and “yums” as I stared at my phone in silence, scrolling through each and every story in stunned disbelief. It felt like a lifetime ago that I had navigated life after 9/11. Now my daughter, 15 years earlier than I had, would be introduced to a world of fear.
“No want it!” she said as she pushed her plate away.
“You don’t want anymore?” I said, barely glancing up from the small screen in my hand. “No want it.” She pointed to the meatballs. “But you love meatballs, babe,” I said.
“No.” She paused. “Me want up.”
I remember sighing, not only was she refusing to eat dinner — again — but I wouldn’t have time to read more. To find out more. To try to understand what was happening. To try and piece the insanity together. And so, like any good parent, I offered her cookies. I offered her crayons. I offered to turn on Sophia or Mickey or anything to keep her occupied for five more minutes, but she turned it all down. She wanted me.
She just wanted my arms, my embrace, and the cool kitchen floor.
It was in that moment that I decided I wouldn’t talk to her about the attacks. When my 2-year-old daughter laid her curly blonde head in my lap, I decided I couldn’t tell her about the Bad Men across the Atlantic, or about radicalism, extremism, or about hate “in the name of love.” I couldn’t tell her about the lives lost. I couldn’t tell her that we are now on the verge of war. I couldn't tell her maybe that we're already in the war.
I decided I wouldn’t say a single word about it — at least not yet.
How could I explain something so insane? How could I tell my toddler — the one who has yet to grasp trick-or-treating and toilet training — about what was happening overseas? How could I explain something so tragic, so sad, and so senseless to someone so small and innocent? How could I explain something to her I couldn’t explain to myself? How could I explain to her that on this night, thousands of miles away, more than 120 people lost their lives? Mommies and daddies and sisters and brothers and friends and loved ones. How could I tell her that more than 300 more were injured? How could I tell her that 99 more may not make it through? How could I tell her that some people are proud to hurt each other?
It’s not that I don’t want her to know the truth. I do. I have taught my daughter about depression and addiction and — most recently — about death. I do not keep her sheltered, and I am rarely one to shy away from difficult conversations. But this was different. Somehow (and I cannot explain how) this was different.
The line between fact and fantasy is fuzzy for young kids. Telling her sometimes people do bad things, not nice things, could be confusing when I use the same language to describe her “bad” behavior: when I tell her to stop climbing on furniture or pulling on our cat's tail. The line between childhood and adulthood is already so very thin. I couldn’t rob her of her happiness, her ignorance, or her innocence. I couldn’t rob her of her youth. It was something I simply could not do — at least not yet.
As my daughter lay eerily still and quiet, I took a deep breath in before exhaling loudly, awkwardly, and painfully. Before pulling her small, soft body a little closer. Before holding her a little tighter.
I know someday I will have to explain terrorism to my daughter. Someday I will have to answer tough questions openly and honestly. Someday she will see me cry for the children lost, the mothers and fathers who are missing, and the friends and families of those grieving. Someday.
But today I am going to choose life. Is it ignorant? Perhaps, but today I am going to let her be a kid. Today I am going to let her stay up late, play tent under the dining room table, and have that extra cookie. Because she can. Because she — because we — are lucky. And because she is still a kid. She deserves to be a kid.
I want to let her be a kid.
Images Courtesy of Kimberly Zapata (4)