The email my son won’t get

Hey, buddy.

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.


Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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6 Responses

  1. Merry says:

    What great words and meaning. You should be a writer! 🙂

  2. Amy says:

    I love your posts about your family. I also love knowing there’s at least one other committed family man in an industry that tends otherwise.

  3. I appreciate this. I do wonder if there isn’t one really core “how” that is right in front of you. Yes there are these terrible things, these problems, these selfish things, this greed & hate. But also, there is what you speak of & feel more directly, rather than see out there and judge. There is a love for something innocent, and also a bewilderment with these forces of war and destruction.

    From a relatively comfortable place you can engage these things and feel a sadness and bewilderment. But in this same feeling you may be already quite directly in touch with the “how” that evades you. It may be that there are many people much like you, only in a bit more of a pressure cooker, and having a sense right or wrong) of the dilemma of “it’s their children, or mine”. When we face this question we fight hard to find some way around it. We have compassion. We don’t want to be evil. We don’t want to believe it’s come to that.

    But they ask themselves the same questions about what they see — how could anyone do this? What could possibly matter enough to do this to children?

    But once they start to believe that it is going to happen to them or their children, or once they see it happening to others around them, or once it happens to them, then yes, one of the purest kinds of love we know, can drive people to look straight at you, and summon the purest kinds of hate.

    I daresay that if this is any kind of fuel in war at all, it is one of the most powerful and coveted fuels there are. I daresay that other quite incidental blips of selfishness and greed can also hijack and grow quite wildly riding on the back of this basic vulnerability.

    Because we all understand, with sadness, that it’s natural to choose me over you, and mine over yours, all things being equal. At our core we can’t judge it if we are choosing between honoring what we know we love, and what we don’t know at all. It’s like a coinflip where we are welcome to choose which side the coin lands on.

    So we understand how deep this dilemma goes. All we can do is fight to make sure that this is NOT the dilemma we are in, and fight to assure others that that is not the dilemma YOU are in, and fight to show others that THEY are in no such dilemma, because you care about them and theirs. All it takes, is for them, under some kind of stress or some kind of viral persuasion, to miss that, or to fail that challenge themselves, and then all manner of war is on the table, and men will commit foolish atrocities in good conscience. They will do these things in great sadness and under great stress, even destroying their own soul, believing it’s necessary in service of what they love. Yes sometimes what they love may be masked and encased in bigotry, in religious or nationalist slogans, but there is always some kind of rooting, and the strongest most persistent rooting, I expect to be, at some level, still a love for something innocent and vulnerable.

    So I think we have a chance to show compassion and identify the “hows” that we most deeply understand, and let go of the ones that seem utterly senseless, that ask only to be destroyed, that put some kind of “lie” to all that we expect of humanity.

  4. Scuba says:

    Thank You! And I say that on two levels! From the personal – about the conversation you had with your oldest, because we are being asked the same questions by a little boy! And also from an Australian point of view as the plane had about several Aussie residents on board and it has really shattered our comparatively small population to the core.

  5. Da Goddess says:

    You will always have great kids who look to you for answers. Answers about the horrible stuff and answers about the good stuff and answers about the confusing, personal stuff. You’ve set the tone and you’ve built the foundation of trust that they know they can always count on you for anything, even if you don’t know or have every answer. In turn, they’ll raise their own children that way and there’ll be yet another generation of strong young people.

    Kudos for knowing when to send information, when to hold on to it for a while, and for knowing this is what our children deserve from us.

    Lucky kids to have you as their father!

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