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The Hard Part

When I held Simon as a baby, I sometimes pondered what the hardest part of parenting might be: Potty training? Whining? Teenage angst? Giving him car keys? They all seemed like good bets, and I still don’t like thinking about the last two. But the one that I dreaded the most was telling Simon about some of the awful things that happen in this world.

I just got my first taste of this unpleasant task, and it was every bit as awful as I had anticipated. It centered around my friend Gabriel. Simon has heard tiny bits of Gabriel’s story before. He knows that Gabriel is from Sudan, that he moved here a long time ago, and that Alek and Agotich moved here just a year ago. Last week might have been the first time I used the word “war” with regard to Gabriel’s story. I told him that people were fighting in Gabriel’s country when he was a boy, and that Alek moved north to be safe while Gabriel moved south.

Tonight, for who knows what reason, Simon asked more. Did Ms. Alek move north to be safe? Yes. Did she move with her family? Sort of. She went to live with her Aunties. Did her family know she was OK? Yes, they did, and she talks to them all the time. What about Mr. Gabriel? Did he move south with his family?

Stop. I don’t believe in lying to kids. I believe in evasion and simplification, but not lying. So when he asked me this, I drew in a long breath and answered him.

“No honey, he didn’t. Mr. Gabriel didn’t know exactly where to find his family, so he went south with other boys.”

“How did they [his parents] know he was OK?”

“They didn’t, Simon. Mr. Gabriel’s story is very sad. He just ran and ran with other boys until they got to Kenya and could be safe. He was able to talk to his mommy later, and five years ago he visited her in Sudan. She knows he’s OK, and she’s seen pictures of Agotich and Anyieth. But he didn’t get to move south with her.”

I was almost hoping he wouldn’t understand the profundity of what I had just told him. One look at his stunned face and wide eyes told me he was taking it in, and soon enough he was shaking and sobbing. I cried myself, hugged Simon, and then did my best to manage the scene.

“Simon, I know it’s sad and scary. But look at me; I have to tell you two important things. First, Mr. Gabriel is fine now. He has Ms. Alek and Agotich and Anyieth, and the girls will always be with their mom and dad. Their family won’t be separated, and this makes Mr. Gabriel and Ms. Alek very happy. Second, this will never happen here. We’ve never had a war like that, and we never will. We are some of the luckiest people who have ever lived, because we live in a safe place and at a safe time where we will always be together.”

It worked for a time. But between lights out and Simon’s falling asleep, he cried out twice for me because he was scared of “phantoms”. I have no doubt that those phantoms were a projection of the fear Gabriel’s story aroused. When I suggested he put a happy thought in his mind, he explained that “I can’t get the scary thought out of my brain. I’m trying, but my brain isn’t working too good.”

What in the world could I say to that? He’s sleeping now, and I can only hope he doesn’t bring up the subject—or worse, ask about Gabriel’s father—again tomorrow. If he does, I’ll give an abbreviated version of today’s story, focusing on the happily ever after part. Still, such delay tactics won’t last forever. And worse still, explanations of other atrocities loom in the future. Because I am Jewish, it is the prospect of explaining the Holocaust that looms the largest. Because I still don’t understand these things myself, I worry I won’t have the right words. Because having the right words won’t make any of this less terrible, I worry that all my worrying won’t do any good.

Anyway, sometime after the worst and before I tucked him in, Simon began asking me about Mr. Gabriel’s houses. Did his get knocked down? Did they rebuild it? Does his mother live in a new house? Will she get to stay there? Innocent questions that led my own brain to recall some lines by my favorite poet James Fenton:

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
It is not the houses. It is the space between the houses.
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.
It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.

(James Fenton, “A German Requiem”)

If only forgetting were an option.

2 Responses to “The Hard Part”

  1. Amanda says:

    Poor Simon. Life is going to be hard on him because he *feels* so much for others. A lovely quality but a rough one. And there is no understanding of some things–the Sudanese war, the Holocaust, Rwanda…so many bad things. I think it’s okay to tell him that too, when the time comes, that there is no understanding of it, because it is not understandable.

  2. blg says:

    Some things even Mommies and Daddies don’t understand.
    Sometimes we just have to believe very hard that everything will turn out OK, if we are patient.

    Good luck, Jess — keep trusting your instincts. Clearly you and Matt have good ones.

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