Mother and Child and War

What can you tell your kids? Anything but the truth.

"Mama," my older son said to me yesterday on the drive home, "could my heart break?"

It took a few seconds to realize that he was listening to the car stereo, which was playing Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," and another second to remind myself that three and a half is a very literal age.

"Your heart can't actually break, Sweetpeeps," I began, anxious to reassure him and clueless as to what I might say next.

"When people say their heart is broken, what they really mean is that they're sad."

Third Avenue turned into 26th Street and then into Blaisdell as we conjugated reflexive verbs. He broke her heart. You broke mine. I don't want to ever break your heart. For once I was able to divert him and we ended up playing a word game instead of having to talk about the aspect of love that is swallowed disappointment.

On Valentine's Day he'd pestered his father about the difference between the heart as metaphor and the heart as vital organ. He didn't ask it just like that, obviously, but he wouldn't be put off until Pops got the encyclopedia out of the basement and showed him a drawing of the chambers and assorted valves, veins, and arteries.

"Mama," he said on his way up to bed that night, "my heart has four rooms in it."

 

A couple of decades ago when I was an earnest and very young reporter in Central America, I covered the first round of cease-fire negotiations, which took place in El Salvador. I stayed in a small pension that employed a boy of about 15. During the course of my stay he spent a lot of time answering questions.

Why, with the world's finest coffee marching up the sides of mountains just outside the city, did everyone drink instant Nescafe? Why were the restaurants and bars open after curfew? Why were members of this brutal, U.S.-backed regime flocking to see Cry Freedom, a liberal tearjerker about South Africa?

And, one day, Why don't you ever leave the house?

The boy explained that he never went out because he didn't want to find himself "conscripted"--drafted on the spot by the men on either side of the conflict who roved San Salvador in pickup trucks looking for the young and able-bodied. He was poor and had the bad luck of not being related to the so-called 14 families who comprised the oligarchy. Consequently he knew one side or the other would get him eventually. One of these days he would probably just give in and join the military.

We were in sensitive waters at this point, but I couldn't not ask: Did he really want the Salvadoran Army to win? I expected a whispered discourse on Third World economics, or human rights, or maybe even Marx's alienation of labor.

The boy just rolled his eyes. Of course he wanted the guerrillas to win, but he figured the army offered his best chance of living through the conflict. If he became a guerrilla and they lost the war, the army or the death squads would kill him. But if the army got him, he'd either be on the winning side, or the guerrillas would see him as a hapless victim and spare him any retribution.

I never saw that boy again, but I've thought about him a lot during the last few days. I've been trying to make sense of the chasm separating anything I might say to my own children from that teenager's understanding of a war that had been going on for three times as long as he'd been alive. My kids, you see, are in the enviable position of needing to ask about war. It's an understanding they haven't been forced to absorb on that subconscious level where you just know things, like the warmth of skin or how to measure the sincerity of a smile.

 

It's a ridiculous fantasy, the notion that I can shield my children from cruelty, but anyone who's ever fielded a question like the one about broken hearts knows how hard this illusion dies. When the World Trade Center was bombed, my youngest was little more than a blue line on a home pregnancy test, and his brother was two. I declared a moratorium on TV and current events discussions in his presence, and still he built towers and blew them up.

So there you are. One way or another we are going to end up talking about the monster at the end of Grover's book.

I've been astounded by my son's ability to engage with tough ideas. We talk about why some grownups aren't nice to their kids. About the kids in his class who don't know how to be nice to each other. About how bad I feel when I'm not nice to him, and how important it is to apologize. He's resilient, thoughtful, and remarkably empathetic. It's a gift he brought me when he was born--this vibrant, constant reminder that most people are intrinsically good.

"Amid talk of war," a headline in the Los Angeles Times advised last week, "parents must balance honesty with caution." According to the article that followed and a dozen more like it, I am to give simple answers and be reassuring. I am to encourage him to talk so that he will continue to bring me his concerns, but should respect his desire not to talk if that's what he wants. They're so well-intentioned, these experts, and so much more chickenshit than your average little kid.

Let's just breeze right by the cognitive dissonance that allows the major media to declare its concern for my children while marching in lockstep with the White House. Let's go straight to the impossibility of heeding that advice. What can I possibly say about this war that is both honest and cautious? Nothing--that's what. Everything I might tell him is profane, bitter, ugly. Honesty will bare the places where I'm completely unable to reassure myself, let alone a child whose sense of well-being is more vital than my own breath.

As far as reassurance is concerned, I think that the best I can do is tell my boy that I don't want him to worry about it, that it's my job to make sure no one hurts him. I'm going to have to leave out the part about being unable to make it so.

Here's another problem: He's going to ask why this war is happening--and as befits a kid his age, he's going to keep asking until everyone within earshot is numb. What shall I say? We're mad at someone else who lives half a world away? The president's father didn't beat Saddam Hussein all the way up? Bush doesn't want anyone looking too closely at what his friends in corporate America are up to, and this is a fail-safe distraction? There's a whole lot of oil under Hussein's sandbox?

I'll bet the parents of that Salvadoran teen never had the luxury of teaching him to ask questions and to think things out for himself. Like parents in most of the world, their priority doubtless was teaching their kids to survive. And small wonder: The cease-fire negotiations I attended in 1984 were a failure. Officially, the war went on for another four years, and although it's over now, pretty much nothing has been done to address the injustices that sparked it.

I worry that my kids are going to grow up with the same programming as that teenager. When I decided to have children, I didn't imagine any of this. I knew Rob and Laura Petrie had always been a lie and that little kids don't walk to school alone anymore, but terrorism was a horror visited on people in El Salvador and other faraway places. I didn't think about soft targets or pray that no one would ever figure out that a slow, steady campaign of blowing up school buses and Dairy Queens would cripple Americans far more effectively than that Irwin Allen-style assault on the Twin Towers.

And that's the nasty, dark core of my fears. That the world has just changed dramatically enough that I won't be able to equip my kids to live in it. And when I think that they can grow up to be curious and self-reliant and to trust themselves, and it still might not be enough, well, then it's my heart that's going to break.

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