Sharing information, tempering fear: a parent's story

Her eyes held the questions that soon tumbled from her lips.

"What happened? What happened today?" she demanded as she stepped into the car after school on Tuesday.

Here it was. The moment I'd been simultaneously longing for and dreading.

All morning, as I watched the nation's worst nightmare unfold on live TV, I wanted her home. As images of kamikaze commercial jets, movie-like explosions, crumbling skyscrapers, and human horror unfolded relentlessly, I wanted my fourth-grader, Alexandra, home with my husband, Rob, and 20-month-old son, Zachary.

I resisted the urge to go and get her. Instead, I watched news footage and knew the ripple effect of this horrific act could claim the innocence of children like mine.

Now, here she was beside me in the car, safe, but not so sound. She held out a letter from the school, explaining that the children had been told there had been terrorist strikes in New York and Washington, but had not been allowed to watch any television at school.

The principal asked that parents talk through the events of the day with the students, answer questions, reassure them, and make them aware that counselors would be available at the school Wednesday.

"What is going on?" Alex asked again, as we pulled away from the school. "We are all wondering what happened. We want to know."

No, you don't, I thought. Not really.

Throughout the emotional onslaught of this day, I had kept my emotions in check. No tears - just shock, disbelief, horror, and unexplainable sorrow. Now

I was telling my daughter that some unknown group of people had commandeered four airplanes and managed to fly three into occupied buildings.

Alex asked questions that parents all over the country were faced with as children came home from school on Sept. 11: How could bad people get control of airplanes? Why would someone do this to our country?

She watched some of the coverage when she got home, did her homework, and commented occasionally about what had happened. Her softball game was canceled. She got ready for bed. I didn't know the hardest moments of the day were yet to come.

We summoned her at 8:30 p.m. when President Bush addressed the nation, thinking it would be something historic for her to see and remember. After it was over, she sat silently, tears starting to fill her eyes.

"I'm scared," she said, beginning to sob. "I'm really scared." We told her to climb in our bed, and I went to join her, not quite sure what I was going to say.

Still in tears, Alex released a torrent of emotions that must have been building over the hours.

How did we know a plane wasn't coming right now to crash into Georgia or somewhere else in the United States?

What if a plane was taking off right now from the Middle East to bomb us?

"What if I go to the bus after school tomorrow and see a plane in the sky? It might be them."

So her father explained about US airspace, and how the military can protect us with aircraft carriers and Air Force jets, and how President Bush surely wouldn't open the airspace unless he was certain it was safe. No planes would even get close to the United States that night.

"I have to trust President Bush more than I've trusted anyone else in my life," she said, still crying.

Her thoughts turned to those guilty of these unspeakable acts: "Why did they have to do this? We didn't do anything to them. Why did they have to scare so many little kids?"

How do you respond to that, I wondered. No one knows those answers.

"I hate them. I hate them," she said in angry sobs. "I want to go kill them."

"Kill them?" My sweet, church-going, cries-when-her-little-brother-cries daughter wants to kill? Not really, of course, but in her innocence, she gave voice to what so many were thinking and feeling.

I took a deep breath. "I know how you feel. I imagine almost everyone feels that way tonight," I told her, as we lay there in the darkness, holding each other. "I feel that way, too. I can't believe what has happened today." As hard as it was, I said, we had to try not to think about hating and killing because that would give the terrorists an even bigger victory.

"Think of all those brave firefighters and police officers who, at this very moment, are trying to save people," I continued. "Think of all the people who are donating blood or money to help. We saw the very worst of people today, but we're also seeing the very best. That's what we have to try and think about."

The conversation and her tears continued for maybe 20 minutes more, her immediate fears assuaged. We lay there, her head on my chest, my arms holding her close.

"I'm so glad Zachary is too young to know what's going on," Alex said. "This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me."

She was right. Though she was unhurt, and her family and friends were safe, it had happened to her, to children around the country.

A few seconds of silence passed in the darkness, and then a little voice, humming softly "The Star Spangled Banner." At first I smiled. Then I cried.

"That made me feel better, humming the national anthem," she said when she finished. "Especially the last part - 'the land of the free and the home of the brave' - that really made me feel better."

Me, too.

A version of this article first appeared in the Monroe (Mich.) Evening News.

Cindy Chapman lives with her husband and two children in Sugar Hill, Ga.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to home@csps.com.

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