Notes on a Son Born in a Time of Tragedy
by April Falcon Doss
On Tuesday morning, September 11, I lay in a hospital bed recovering from the birth of my second child. As I held my three-day-old son close against the skin of my breast, the phone rang.
Did I have the television on?
Why? I asked.
Two planes have just hit the World Trade Center towers.
My fingers fumbled for the TV controls as my other arm cradled my son. Again and again the video replayed: metal birds in motion, the flash of impact and explosion, the graceful turn of a second airplane; a scene that could only have come from a screenwriters imagination. I turned as a nurse entered the room. I turned back. In that instant of conversation, one of the towers had collapsed on the people within.
The unfolding facts and mounting uncertainties tumbled across the airwaves, stunning me with their magnitude and my disbelief. From the unbearable scenes, I glanced out the window. The sparkling weather, the blue sky and brisk breeze, seemed so incongruous. The skies should be leaden, the clouds should be weeping at the devastation below.
The day was so perfect and the air so clear, the new life in my arms so fresh and warm. How could these reports be true? The TV drew my attention once again. My son dozed. Peter Jennings voice soothed him to sleep.
So many times since September 11, I have reached for my sons hand. Each time I do, it is balled into a fist. When I try to coax his arm away from his side, he pulls it more determinedly against him. As I try to unfurl his fingers, he clenches them more tightly. Does he guard himself against the world into which hes been born?
Each child arrives here unique, to be sure. But I am struck by the contrast with my daughters openness since birth, the way her fingers drew languid strokes across my chest as I held her. Not this child, this boy who will grow up in a less secure world than the one his sister has enjoyed so far, this boy whose chances are statistically greater of becoming a policeman or firefighter than are his sisters, this boy who will one day register for military service and feel a need to protect family and home. I fear for all our children, but am more keenly aware of the dangers that face my son, this boy, three days old, who clenches his fists.
On Friday, September 14, the day set apart for prayer and remembrance, my husband walks our daughter to the community park in our working-class beach neighborhood. An American flag has always flown here; its colors have faded a bit with the years and its edges have frayed from countless storms and high winds. They carry with them a replacement flag, a much larger one, whose brilliant hues and triple-stitched seams were designed to withstand weather and time. They unwrap the flag from the plastic casing that has protected it for 31 years.
Where did we get that flag, Dad? my daughter asks.
It was my daddys, he replies. How do you explain to a three-year-old that her daddys daddy, who she never met, was killed in action fighting in a conflict that may not have been so different from the one that threatens, looming, ahead?
She chatters cheerfully as my husbands eyes tear. He raises the flag to half-staff above the playground, where the flag casts its shadow across the sandbox and swings.
I reach for my sons tiny hand. He clenches his fist.
As I try to assemble my scattered thoughts, writing this, I am once again sitting in front of the news. My son sleeps beside me. He is my refuge from the barrage of suffering on screen; it is his new warmth that makes the numbing accounts bearable.
A recent poll indicates that seven out of 10 Americans are feeling depressed, and nearly half have trouble concentrating since September 11. I nod as the headline crosses my TV screen.
I glance at my son, feeling guilty once again that his young ears have endured so many hours of these sobering reports. Nonsense, I tell myself, a bit too forcefully. The volume is so low as to be nearly imperceptible. And unlike our daughter, this new child is too young to comprehend what he hears. What harm can it do?
This, then, has become our ritual and pastime, our mother-son bonding moment: while he nurses, my hands lay still; my thoughts race. My mind turns to Virginia and Pennsylvania, to New York, Afghanistan and the future. His warmth offers me comfort more, I suspect, than I offer him. CNN sings his lullaby.
I reach for his hand and stroke his clenched fist.