by Patty Dobbs Gross
Eventually all parents will be in the position of having to explain something to their children that defies the simple explanation. It happened to me on a particularly lovely September morning, one with hardly a cloud in the sky or a thought past dusting the shelves of the little gift shop where I worked part time for the college fund. Danny was freshman that year, his older sister Jen a junior, and both at E. O. Smith high school right across the street from the little gift shop by design. If the worst happened, I wanted to be close to where they were, and it may sound odd to you that I took such precautions before the towers even fell, but when you have a child with autism you tend to think deeply and carefully.
September 11th ended up a terrible day to be alone in the shop, with no one but paying customers to keep me company in my despair when the second tower unbelievably crumbled. A car came down Main Street then, going very slowly; it crawled past the high school and the little gift shop where I stood behind a cash register, trying to understand. There was a loudspeaker on top of the car that shouted a fuzzy message at me, and I don’t remember a single word of it. I only remember thinking that this must be what Danny felt much of his days on the autism spectrum, to be struggling to understand what’s going on around you and have the words blaring at you remain entirely unprocessed. It was just confusion and raw emotion for me on a day that still doesn’t make much sense, even after all this time.
I later learned that Jen got a pass from her teacher that morning, found out where Danny’s class was and went to check on him; she told me she peeked in through the rectangle on the classroom door to be sure he was alright, and said he seemed to be looking up. I later asked him why and learned that some classmates thought it would be funny to make him believe bombs may well be raining down on their classroom ceiling next, right on top of their own heads, and any moment now.
I don’t blame them as much as you might think for telling Danny this, as I believe it was what they themselves were most afraid of; we are all connected in ways we’re just beginning to understand, and this is especially true when faced with having to explain the inexplicable. Anything terrible you are trying to talk to your child about likely has a community of other people involved, as the big events of our lives usually involve more than our personal circle. In our case, the bullies as well as Dan’s sweet sister and a few kind hearted teachers and friends reached him even before me on this terrible day, and they all laid the groundwork for his understanding of terrorism for my son that I would later build upon.
My own sanitized explanation of what had happened went down a bit too easy with the brownie fudge sundae at Friendlies, and I found it difficult to convey the tone of what I wanted him to absorb. I struggled with this until one morning shortly after we began bombing Iraq, when the front page of the Hartford Courant posted a picture of an Iraqi baby killed during the “shock and awe” campaign. You could see the baby’s individual eyelashes in the black and white picture as she was gently cradled in her father’s arms; he was grieving as any father would grieve, and it was this picture that sparked a teachable moment for me to explain best why violence can never be the true answer to violence, for the simple reason that babies and children tend to get hurt when any violence breaks out or escalates, and so this should be completely unacceptable to any civilized society.
Politics will always be hard to explain to kids, as so much of it is puffed up posturing, ego saturated drama and groupthink, with some of it bordering on true insanity (you need only crack open a history book or unfold your morning paper to scan the headline to know that this is true.) All this is hard enough to convey to older children who want more answers following an act of terrorism, but violence on hometown soil is even more difficult to put into any kind of context. The shooting at the Inland Regional Center is a place where so many children in San Bernardino have been served for their developmental differences, along with their families. The removal of their security is an extra layer of cruelty on top of the extreme violence of this day, all generated toward those gathered to celebrate their shared work to make things better for our most vulnerable children. This is terrorism at its most dark, twisted and cruel form, and even if it makes us angry, it still cannot be fought by way of retaliation, which can only serve to perpetuate the insanity and the violence, and continue to hurt the innocent.
But I believe there is something we can say to our children now, a way we can explain how to move forward from such a terrible act. We can tell them that we hate the violent acts and loss of precious life this act of terrorism took from us, but that we also need to remind them that there is a baby living in San Bernardino now who lost both of her parents. She is an innocent soul, as innocent as any baby on earth and down through time, whether they slept in a cradle, a crib or a manger. She is grieving now, too, in the primal way babies grieve their parents.
We need to embrace this baby now with our compassion, as much for our own children’s sake as for this one baby’s, as it will help us all to heal together. Your children can come to care for her, to write her letters of their wishes that she grow up knowing love, and to draw her pictures of their fears, as well as their hopes, for a better life for all of us. To mail this homemade package of tender missives to this baby seems the opposite of the bombs we could send in retaliation halfway across the world.
We won’t be solving any of our problems in the world directly by creating empathy for this baby girl, but we will be doing the most important job we have in America on the home front: raising our children to become men and women of great wisdom, tolerance and compassion. They will ultimately inherit our world and our age old conflicts; we need to be sure they are given the tools they will need to fix them.
Every parent should leave such a legacy of love for their children, and when they don’t, as is the case with the shooters in San Bernardino, we should include their orphaned children into our own kind care. We need to do this if we want to call ourselves a civilized society, for it is a mark of any civilized society to care for its most vulnerable members.