As parents there are certain conversations we dread: explaining divorce. Explaining sex. Explaining death.
They strike fear in our hearts and send shivers up our spines. We avoid them until we can’t. We try to water down topics to age appropriate language and comparisons in order to tell just enough without guaranteeing our children are blaming us for their future adult therapy. Some go better than others and some are told out of necessity. We offer the comfort we can and we love our children through it all, hoping it will be enough.
I had one of these conversations this week.
My third grader came home with an “I Survived” book. These historical fiction vignettes take a moment in history and retells it through the eyes of a young boy survivor. T loves facts and adventure and escapes, so I wasn’t surprised to see the “I Survived the San Francisco Earthquake 1906” come home from the school’s media center. I was, however, surprised when “I Survived 9/11” appeared on my dining room table.
I read it while he was at school. It stuck to the facts. It focused on the firefighters and their bravery. And I died a little inside knowing that if he could read this book, I needed to talk to him about it. I needed him to know things. Understand. This wasn’t just another adventure some fictional boy survived. This one touched his family and this nation in unique and permanent ways.
And so while the little guy was at a play date, I sat my nine year old down and we talked. I let him ask me questions. I had to explain why the plane crashed in Pennsylvania. I had to confirm that no, it didn’t just land nicely when the good guys took over the plane. That they died. That they were heroes. That they saved so many more people.
I shared what it was like to leave DC. That people helped each other. That my friend took me home with her when I didn’t want to get on the train. That I saw the smoke from the Pentagon. That firefighters and police did their jobs in New York and went in when everyone was trying to get out. That people helped carry colleagues and strangers down numerous flights of stairs. That someone that went to my high school helped people. That he lived. That he helped other people live, too. That they have built a museum where the buildings once stood to honor the lives lost. That there is a new building there now that is taller and stronger and maybe one day we’ll go see it. That they fixed the Pentagon. That planes are safer now.
Then I showed him pictures of a trip I took on a high school band trip to New York City in 1992. We went to the top of the World Trade Center. It was a cloudy day. In the photos you can see the heavy mist hanging in the air between where I stood on the top of the world in that observation deck and the tops of tall buildings below.
We talked about doing something on 9/11 to honor the day. And so we are making brownies today that we will take to our local fire department this afternoon.
And then I cried. Alone. In the bathroom. The farther away it gets, the easier to distance myself from the visceral memories. But honestly, I don’t ever want to lose that pain, that grief. I can’t afford to. None of us can. We have to remember. We have to honor those we lost.
This year, in addition to remembering, I am sharing it with my child. Not sharing too much. He doesn’t need to see too much, understand too much. But now he knows. He knows that 9/11 was real. That 9/11 is still real. And as hard as that conversation was, I’m glad. How we teach our children what we learned that day will define how they handle their generation’s event in the future. Because it will come. Whatever it is. There is no stopping it. Something horrible will happen. And if my guy remembers the kindnesses, the comfort and the bravery that outweighed the fear and mitigated the tiniest speck of the grief in one of our nation’s worst moments, then he will be well prepared.
Remembering and sharing.