September 30, 2001
IN THE IMMEDIATE aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon explosions, I had one thought, and I bet it was almost universal.
It wasn't "those poor people." It wasn't even "my husband," and he works next door to the Pentagon. It was not even a fully formed fear. It was more like a flash across the brain.
Some part of me recognized pretty quickly that they were safe - I didn't think suburban public high schools were high on the terrorist list of symbolic targets.
And I wanted them to stay in that sprawling fortress because, on some level, I was waking to the certainty that I could no longer protect them.
In the days since, those seeds of powerlessness and helplessness have taken firm root. The old rules of public safety no longer apply, suicidal terrorists have seen to that.
How can we protect ourselves when you know madmen are willing to die turning a stadium, a subway, a bus or a mall into a mass grave?
The fundamental illusion of parenthood - that we could protect our children and keep them safe - has been shattered. It was never true, I know. But now we can't even kid ourselves.
As rumors began to swirl of impending biological strikes against us, my husband suggested that we stockpile drinking water, buy gas masks, get vaccinations. But those seemed like naive reactions to the diabolical.
"What is the point?" I asked, sighing with defeat and resignation. "We can't outthink these guys."
We would cheerfully throw ourselves in front of a car to save a child, but that is cold consolation when we realize the danger is not a speeding car, but a drinking fountain or a movie theater.
And, as if to underscore our powerlessness, a tornado glances against the ground at the University of Maryland and kills two sisters moments after they have left their father. Tornadoes and suicidal terrorists. Can danger be more unpredictable? Can death be more random?
What do you do when it doesn't seem to matter what you do?
I have a couple of suggestions.
Before investing in bottled water and gas masks, buy everyone in your family a cell phone. Schools need to lift their prohibitions against these things because they aren't just for drug dealers anymore. No end of comfort was delivered via cell phone in the hours after the explosions.
Don't miss a chance to be kind.
To the store clerk, to the stranger asking directions, to your neighbor, to your mate. Our atmosphere is as thick with anger as the concrete dust that floats above the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Do not add to it with petty grievances.
Say "I love you" when you say "goodbye."
Say it before the front door closes, before the car door slams, before you hang up the phone. If there must be last words, let "I love you" be the last words.
Embrace one another without restraint.
I have confessed to my teen-aged children that these calamities have made me feel insecure.
"As a result," I said with authority. "I am going to require long and frequent hugs from you both, to be delivered on demand and without protestation. Understand?"
They looked at each other, rolled their eyes and screwed up their faces, but they know better than to laugh when their mother is in such a state.
Instead, they yield obediently to my embrace, and I am reassured. My kids, I think, can still make me feel safe.
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