This morning I told my beautiful bambinos about the Charleston shootings. Sadly, for me, but mostly for them, we’re getting quite accustomed to these conversations. I’ve become — again, sadly — strangely adept at discussing these things in age-appropriate ways with my children. And let’s be real: when I say “these things” what I’m talking about is the tragic loss of black lives and the horrific racism all too often at the root of current events.
We can’t shield them from reality. And I want them to hear the truth from me first — before they overhear someone talking about it, catch a glimpse of a tv somewhere, or see the front page of a newspaper or website.
I knew I had to tell them today; I had tried to sort out my own emotions enough yesterday to prepare myself for talking with my kids about it today. So I got up early to make them their favorite muffins. And then, one by one, over muffins and milk, I had three separate conversations in our kitchen.
“I have to tell you something,” I began, and then I told them. 9 black lives lost, an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, 21-year-old white male killer, gun, police search, caught and in jail, families and communities and me mourning, racism, the battle is not over, so much progress has been made, still a long way to go, and we — each of us in our family — you and me — need to be part of the push for change-for-the-better, we need to use our lives for good. And you are so deeply and enormously loved and cherished and valued.
Kyle couldn’t contain himself as his angst spilled over. I just looked up the word “angst” to be sure it was precise. It is the perfect word for Kyle’s reaction: “Angst: a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.” This kid, more than anyone I know (for real), gets it. In a rooted, comprehensive, overwhelming way, with — as C. Wright Mills would say, a complex intersection of history and biography — he gets is.
I had barely finished my first sentence, “Kyle, sweetie, I need to tell you something horrible, on Wednesday night nine people were killed—” when he first said it, “Again?” I nodded as I continued, and he repeated it over and over in the short three minutes it took for me to tell him. “—in an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina—“—-“Again?” I’d nod and keep going, and he’d say, “Again?” and I’d nod and keep going. My throat felt constricted, like a thick choking feeling, looking him in the eyes — noticing for the millionth time how deep dark brown my boy’s eyes are, how gorgeously creamy his dark brown cheeks are — and having to tell him this sickly thing. He seems way too beautiful for this ugly truth. But I know with every part of me that I have to tell him, and I have to do it right. I finished, waiting for his response, and he said again, simply, “Again?” And I just stood there with him in a long silence. He finally said, “And in Charleston again? Why does it have to happen in Charleston? I love Charleston.”
We’ve been traveling to Charleston every summer for the past four summers. And we’ll be there again in just a few days. It is our family’s happy place. No place is unscathed.
Owen is much more cut and dried. There isn’t a lot of complexity to it for him. There is no gray area, things are right and things are wrong, and he calls it like it is. His reaction: “That. Is the definition of racist.”
Meera, at age seven, is and has always been the consummate family girl. There is nothing she values more than her family, and no one on earth she adores more, or craves the love and affection of more, or — as a healthy set of siblings — is more annoyed by, than her brothers. She knows no life without them, she knows no different, and the concept of racism is about as foreign and detached for her as could possibly be. If there is a white child on this planet who is less intrinsically racist than Meera, I’d be curious to meet them; there is not any tiny fraction of her that can understand how something like the Charleston shootings could possibly happen. But she understands family and she understands love and loss, and I think that she feels those things — at times like this — more powerfully than many others, at least in part because of her unique family and thus her unique perspective on life.
I felt sick to my stomach as I watched her sweet pink-cheeked face go slack and pale as I told her. The color literally drained from her. She said nothing. I asked her what she was thinking. She said, “I know this probably sounds weird, and maybe bad, but I am happy for the ones that died that they at least get to be in heaven.” I said, “That doesn’t sound weird or bad. I’m happy for that too.” I asked her if she wanted to ask anything, or say anything more. She said, “Not really.” I said, “I saw your face get really pale. Do you want to tell me about your feelings?” She said, “I was just thinking mostly about their families. I just feel so bad for the families.”
We hugged. Her pink cheeks came back. She ate a muffin and drank her milk. The boys got ready to run off to basketball camp for the day. All was ok. Sort of. Again.