This Is Real.
SALINE, MICHIGAN -- The decision to let Brandon, my four year-old son, see the World Trade Center towers collapse on television wasn't really a decision at all. I didn't consider how it would make him feel and none of the 'what about the children' experts had appeared on CNN to advise me.
Brandon and I were sitting in Dan's Downtown Tavern, a little place on a corner, when he first saw the television images. I pointed to the screen and told him to watch, explaining that it was important. He began to oh and ah as the towers burst into flames. He jumped in his seat when they fell and laughed, "This is cool, momma. An explosion, like in my games."
I grabbed him gently by the arm, leaned into his face so he noted my seriousness and said, "Sweetie, remember when we talked about the difference between real and pretend?" He nodded. "Your games are just pretend and cartoons are just pretend." He nodded again. "This is real."
His eyes darted up to mine, checking to see if I was teasing. His face turned serious and he asked, "You mean those buildings really exploded?"
I further explained that the people inside and around the buildings were gone. I asked him if he understood what it meant to be gone and why it was sad. I tried to put it in terms he could understand. "How would you feel if your best friend, Gregory, could never come back to school and talk to you? That's how it is for all the people that were in there. They can never talk to their moms, dads, best friends, or children again." I could see his mind processing the information.
Brandon said, "I'd be sad if I couldn't see Gregory again." Then he asked, "Why did the buildings have to explode?"
I was silent. Why did they have to explode? All I could do was tell him was that bad people did it, but he shouldn't worry about bad people doing that to him and that he was safe.
Later that night, I did what I always do when an important event happens: I wrote a letter to Brandon for him to read as a teenager, because I believe history texts are flat and because dates and facts are not even half the picture. In the letter I tell Brandon about my reactions to and feelings about September 11, so, years from now, he can understand that it wasn't simply a case of, "On this day, this happened." He will know that I jumped at the sound of sirens and, for a brief moment, thought about putting him in a friend's dad's bomb shelter for safety.
The following evening I left Brandon in the care of my mother so I could console my sister. My sister is a financial advisor and worked on a daily basis with people in the Trade Center, considering many of the people in the offices her friends. Earlier in the day she had called and said she was heading to work to find out how many of her friends were dead.
Before leaving my house, I said, "Brandon, Momma has to go be with Aunt Kristin. She's very sad."
He looked at me with his big, wise four-year-old eyes and asked, "She's sad because of all the people that died yesterday?"
I nodded and added, "Yes, a lot of those people were her friends."
He said, "Like I'd be sad if I could never see Gregory again?"
"Yes," I said, relieved I'd explained things well enough.
"Tell Aunt Ki Ki I'm sorry she's sad."
Two weeks later, while Brandon and I ate oatmeal and watched Good Morning America, a breaking news story jumped across the screen. A gunman ran into a regional government meeting in Switzerland and killed fourteen people. Brandon listened to the story and then turned to me and said, "Fourteen, that's not too many, is it Momma?"
I saw this as a good opportunity for a simple but necessary lesson, in sensitivity and perspective. So I explained to Brandon then that even one life cut short is too many, but as I was talking, the news story ended, really only lasting long enough for us to determine it wasn't related to the attack on the Trade Center. And although I know deaths shouldn't be judged by quantity, is it possible not to rank one tragedy beneath another, when comparing fourteen to over six thousand?
Brandon's initial reaction was not all that different from mine.