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Crossing the ocean

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The evening of Sept. 11, my 9-year-old son had trouble sleeping. He kept tossing and rolling, coming out of his room to say he saw flashes of light in the sky.

He awoke two hours early the next day and rushed out to tell me, "Dad, I don't want to go into the BBT Building." He was referring to a tall tower in downtown Raleigh, a building which we had never entered. "I'm glad we go to the credit union," he said as he spun his toast on his plate. "Because it's short and no plane will crash into it."

The next day, when the director of the FBI appeared on television as part of a report questioning the effectiveness of our intelligence system, my son insisted the director was a spy working for the terrorists. I soon realized that, for him, it was safer to believe that the head of our FBI was in league with terrorists. He couldn't face the more terrifying truth that our intelligence community, our big metaphorical father, was not able to keep him safe.

It's a new world we live in now, just as certainly as if we had all boarded a boat and crossed an ocean. We don't know the language of this new place, what habits of culture to develop, how to talk, how to think, how to behave. In watching my son's response, I felt I was witnessing the remaking of a person, gaining insight into how some might adapt to these new circumstances.

His fears themselves changed. Within four days of the attacks, he was talking about wanting to go to Washington, D.C., to see the monuments and the White House. When I asked him why he wanted to go to the capital now he said, "Well, because the terrorists are going to bomb it and I want to see it before they get destroyed."

By the fifth day, he showed signs of boredom. Even survivor stories, or tales of people searching for loved ones, failed to generate any emotional response. This from a child who was so moved when he saw images of innocent children being killed in the bombing of Kosovo, and before that Iraq, that he insisted we had to do something--at least get outside with a sign and protest.

When he went to Sunday school, his teacher spoke of how the United States didn't deserve to be attacked. My son raised his hand and said, "It does deserve to be attacked because we've been bombing Iraq for over a year."

His teacher said nobody remembered what happened a year ago.

He raised his hand again. "I do," he said. "I remember a year ago."

Last week, as we drove home from school, he noticed a tent set up in the parking lot of a convenience store. He called out, "Dad, let's stop." A man sitting on a metal folding chair inside the tent was selling small American flags stapled to a wooden stick. "Let's get one," he said. He wanted to bring it home and hang it on our front porch for all to see.

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