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Look For Helpers-- Or Don't Look At All

How Much Do We Tell Young Kids in Times of National Tragedy?

It's a promising April morning in a spring that's been twenty degrees cooler than last year's, and we are feeling that hedged in feeling that islanders get after a long winter and our bodies literally beg us, like dogs, to be taken outside.

We are on a mission to get to the park, with a quick detour to the airport in search of my son's hat-- a cherished hand crocheted cap his aunt on the Cape made him-- last seen when we were dining there earlier in the week. Then we'll go straight to Children's Beach playground. We have C's Skuut bike and helmet in the trunk, along with his Curious George soft bat and ball.  The hat is not there but we leave lucky anyway, so lucky that a missing hat is the extent of our worries.  Cayce plays on an old sign with a tire base.  The words are faded, but I read them to him, "Do Not Leave Luggage Unattended."

I start with him on a discussion of the word "unattended", but in the back of my mind I think how outdated the sign seems now.  Does anyone really care what you do with your luggage? I wonder. My son doesn't seem much interested in the subject of the words. He just thought it was something cool to play on.

A few minutes later, we are playing in paradise. We are walking over the storm hardened sand at low tide, etched with seagull's footprints and dotted with strewn shells. "I like to make footprints," my three year old says, clutching two fistfuls of sand as he heads to the water line. "I'm going to throw some sand into the water."

Two ducks sit to our east, their heads pulled into their chests, feathers wet and seemingly napping. Seaguls fly overhead, and in the water, a motor boat pushes a piece of docking toward South Wharf.

Then my son turns around and runs up the beach to the rope pyramid. It's a holiday, Patriot's Day, and lots of kids are here playing with their families. It's also spring vacation week so there are families visiting. The energy and vitality and variety of play going on is wonderful. Kids playing soccer and baseball on the grass field. Others circling around it on bikes and scooters, Mothers pushing strollers. The playground with its slides and swings and the beloved fireman's pole.

It is a perfect morning. After an hour the big dilemma becomes teaching my son that he cannot just take off his pants and go to the bathroom in the middle of everything. We drive over to the Steamship Authority, a block away, to use the bathroom. I park in front of a yellow sign, that reads National Threat Level Elevated.  I wonder how long it's been since it was orange.

I think how 9-11 feels like a lifetime ago, over a decade in the past and long before my child was born, or even a thought in our minds.  I think how it has come to mean for me the date my son was born, nine years after the tragedy. A day of life, of joy, of hope.

Later on, while my boy naps, I go online and learn about the breaking news in Boston. Two explosions at the Boston Marathon and mass casualties. The city on lockdown.  Soon the details will emerge. The three young lives lost, each one beautiful and filled with promise.  The limbs lost, the nearly two hundred injured. The terror brought upon a city in its moment of joy.

So here we are again, four months after Sandy Hook. Here we are, brought to our knees, our sense of safety ruptured. Here we are again with three precious lives lost in an act of unspeakable violence. Here we are again as parents of children wondering how much to say, how much to tell.  On Facebook the Mr. Rogers quote goes around, "When I was little and scary things would happen my mother would tell me to look for the helpers." We can indeed be profoundly grateful for the helpers, the first responders and the bystandings who helped victims in horrific circumstances. But while we are feeling grateful for the helpers, we can choose not to look at all at these scenes of tragedy with our young kids..

As a parent of  a young child, I can still choose not to look. I can choose not to let him see the news. We are not there. We are here, and here I can shed tears, and take my son out to play. I can choose to prolong the bubble a little longer. It doesn't make me naive or lacking compassion. It just makes me a mother. 

I think sometimes at times of national tragedy we can all get sucked into the ambulence chase. It's hard not to be upset. But as a parent, I need to guard against sucking my preschooler into something that, so far, god willing, doesn't have to impacet him. What he needs is to go out and play, and to be able to trust in the world.

But one day not far off I know the discussion will have to happen-- the discussion of how bad things can happen in a good world.  But when I look at the gleam of joy in my three year old's eye, the utter innocence, I don't know how I'd even begin, and it breaks my heart to even think of it.


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