The email my son won’t get
We dropped you off at camp yesterday. We watched you sit on your bunk in a cabin you’d never seen before. We met your counselor. You mimicked his Australian accent and called him, “Mate.” You promised me you would come home safe, and it’s here that I’m waiting for you to make good on that promise.
You probably didn’t know until today, but your camp lets us send emails to you every day to update you on what’s happening here at home. You should have gotten the first one when you woke up today. It let you know that the house is too quiet without you here, to listen more than you talk, to respect the people who are trying to teach you.
Mom and I will be sending more emails this week. We want to make sure you know what’s happening here while you’re gone. This email, though, won’t end up in your inbox. The news, as you know, isn’t all good.
When we dropped you off yesterday, I watched the bars on my phone creep from five to four to the tell-tale NO SERVICE. Your cabin has no TV. It has no radios or iPods. You have crickets, streams, rain, and your snoring bunkmates to keep you entertained. You don’t have to walk in on what you saw me watching this week.
“A missile shot down a plane?” you said.
I asked you to go upstairs and put on your shoes.
“A missile. Shot down a plane full of people. Why would somebody do that?”
“Shoes,” I said.
“That’s terrible,” you said. And then you went up to find your shoes.
We’ve talked about a lot of terrible things, more, in fact, that I ever thought I’d discuss with a child who hasn’t yet turned ten. You’ve always been emotionally mature enough to talk about things a lot of kids couldn’t understand. We’ve talked about racism, assassinations, war, sex, hate, love, fate, crime, and all of their terrible intersections. Along the way, some of those things have bothered you. Sometimes you asked, “What if that happened to us?”
“What if an elephant sat down at the dinner table?” I’d ask in return.
I always meant for my question to mean, “Those terrible things are pretty unlikely to happen to us, and I’m always doing my best to keep you safe.”
But more than anything, I just wanted you to picture an elephant eating your spaghetti. I wanted you to laugh in the face of horror. I wanted you to understand that I don’t have an answer for a lot of the bigger questions.
I don’t know why there are train cars full of bodies that rotted in a field for two days. I don’t know why a reporter picked through a dead person’s luggage to find a story. I don’t know why planes full of vacationers get shot out of the air by war machines. I don’t know why missiles made of sewer pipes are falling in the streets. I don’t know why there are dead kids on the beach. I don’t know why parents leave their kids in four-wheeled ovens. I don’t know why kids like you are pawns in every political fight.
Or maybe I’m wrong. I know why.
I know hate. I know greed. I know lust. I know misplaced pride. I know selfishness. I know all of those things. I know the why.
I just don’t know how.
I don’t know how anything is so important that it’s worth killing someone like you. I can’t think of a single thing so necessary as to leave you alone, without a place to go, without anyone to protect you. I don’t know how people can bring themselves to look past your innocence and see you only as potential collateral damage in a fight no one will ever win.
I pride myself on being honest with you. I’ve told you things in recent months that I didn’t learn until much later in my life. I told you to protect from bad things and bad people when I’m not around. I trusted you to be mature enough to handle what I told you, and you’ve not disappointed me.
But for every dead kid that shows up on TV, I find it harder and harder to talk to you about it. Not because I don’t think you’re mature enough to handle it, but because I can’t think of one rational thing to say for how it could ever happen.
Yesterday, when we dropped you off, your little brother—without any prompting or need for attention—wrapped you in a hug and wouldn’t let go. The same kid who will argue endlessly with you about anything didn’t want to leave you behind. Even though it meant he would get all the attention at home for a week, he couldn’t imagine you not being here with us. It was pure love.
I know you have to learn about the real world, and I’ll help you deal with it as well as I can. Someday we can talk about the dark elephants in the room just as easily as I talked about the elephant at the dinner table.
So, you won’t get this email about the news from home. I hope you don’t blame me for shielding you from the worst of it for a while. I want to linger on these years where the love is easy to see no matter how dark it gets outside.
Come home safe, buddy.