When my son was two, he asked me whether Santa was real. He sat on our green couch with his legs straight in front of him, his orange and blue striped t-shirt stained with the grape popsicle he had been eating. His feet barely reached the edge of the cushions. I didn’t want to lie. And I didn’t want to take away the mystery and innocence of childhood either.
“Do you think Santa is real?” I asked.
He was quiet for a minute. Then he put a finger under his chin saying, “I think he’s real and he’s not real.”
Now he’s six years old, and it’s getting harder to answer his questions and it’s getting harder not to lie.
We live three blocks north of Ground Zero in Tribeca. Even five years after the event, September 11 remains a fundamental part of the world we inhabit. It cannot be ignored and it cannot be forgotten. We walk past the deep cavernous hole that used to be the World Trade Center twice every day on our way to and from my son’s school. Threading our way through crowds of tourists, snapping photos of themselves in front of something that is no longer there, we see bouquets of flowers some days, and people shouting about conspiracy theories other days. We see photographs and postcards of the burning buildings being sold at tables along the sidewalk. We see tears and hugs. We see throngs of people looking up at the empty sky and down into the pit of dirt and construction vehicles.
Over the past year, my son has asked me many questions about September 11. Each time, it seems less clear how I should respond.
One day as we walked home from school he asked, “Did the bad guys use guns to crash down the buildings?”
“No. They used knives,” I said.
He looked down at the cracked sidewalk and thought about that for a few seconds as we kept walking.
“Oh so did they have huge knives that were sticking out of the airplanes so that they stabbed up the buildings?”
“Because knives can’t crash a building, right?”
“So how did they do the knives?”
I reached for his hand. He let me take it.
“They used the knives to scare people in the planes so they could crash the planes into the buildings.”
“Yep, on purpose.”
I squeezed his hand.
“So there were two bad guys in two planes?”
“No more than that. More like twenty bad guys.”
We walked a few more paces before he picked up a tattered newspaper page that had gotten stuck between the bars of the wrought-iron fence that separates the old graveyard at St. Paul’s Chapel from the sidewalk.
“Quinlan, don’t pick up garbage. Come on. Let’s get home.”
He didn’t release the newspaper, poking a hole through one side with his index finger. Then he crunched the paper in both fists.
“If the bad guys crashed down those buildings, do you think they could crash down my school?”
And there it was . . . the moment when your child verbalizes your worst fear. I wanted to scream, “Don’t say that. Take it back.” As if his words alone made it possible.
I have a friend who will not play NPR in front of her children because the talk so often turns to killing and war. I have a friend who will not let her son see the front page of a newspaper. I have a friend whose daughter thinks that the same hamster has been living in its cage for three years.
Sometimes I wonder how many years I could fool my son into believing that the construction at the World Trade Center site is just a special new building. Or that the bag checks at the subway are to make sure nobody brings something messy onto the train. I wonder who would be the one to tell him I lied to him.
We see guards and police officers on every corner, in every subway station. We see the machine guns they carry and the German Shepards that sniff cars and trucks in the financial district. School buses and trucks cannot drive across the Brooklyn Bridge. All of these sights would tell him that he wasn’t getting the truth from me.
So I stopped walking and looked at him. His blonde hair stuck up in the front from taking his shirt on and off for gym class. He couldn’t keep his feet still, kicking the edge of the sidewalk with his brown scuffed school shoes.
“Remember all those guards near your school? And remember the dogs and the police cars? They are all there to keep the people and the buildings safe. It’s their job to make sure nobody can crash down your school.”
It was true, even if it didn’t completely answer the question.
He nodded and then leapt up on the fence in front of St. Paul’s. The old grave markers, some sunken and askew, most almost rubbed free of their lettering, seemed such a contrast to his twisting, childish energy. He hung onto the fence and placed one foot in front of the other, until he wobbled, tripped and landed with a thud on the sidewalk next to me.
Later that night, he asked me, “Do the bad guys know how many police we have in New York? Because they definitely won’t want to come back if they find out how many police we have. Zillions.”
There have been more questions since then, “Will our apartment building fall down if all of the glass breaks?” “Can the bad guys flood New York?” “Does everybody die?” “Do bad guys ever crash buildings in California or Minnesota?”
On September 11, 2006, I will take my little boy, with all of his questions, to the place we walk every day, and I will stand in the crowd with him while police officers and fire fighters, wearing their clean dress uniforms and white gloves, salute the people who didn’t survive that day five years ago. I will listen to family members read the names of their loved ones. I will hold my son’s hand and I will answer the questions he asks. I can’t make this world a place where the World Trade Center never fell and bad guys never attack. I can only hold his hand and answer his questions. I hope it will be enough.