“Who?” Phoebe asked when she heard her parents talking (rather animatedly) about the death of Osama bin Laden.
“Osama bin Laden,” Andy said. “You know? The guy who made those two buildings come down? He’s dead.”
To hear Andy oversimplify the most harrowing day in both of our lives like that made me think that maybe by now we should’ve talked about it with our kids a little more comprehensively. Because to express someone’s death, out-of-context, with even the slightest hint of satisfaction has got to be confusing for a nine-year-old. I was four months pregnant with Phoebe when the towers came down. I spent the day tracking the news of my best friend’s husband Michael, who worked on the 81st floor of the first tower to be struck. He survived by picturing his wife and six-month-old son living their lives without him, as he clawed around in darkness and rubble trying to escape.* How could we expect anyone (let alone a kid) to wrap their head around that one — or any of the other far more traumatic details of the day for that matter? But at the same time, how can it possibly be that neither of my children have any visceral reaction when they walk by our favorite 1997 wedding photograph: Andy and me and all 142 attendees standing on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, the towers gleaming in the sun behind us like two honored guests themselves.
In other words, I was grateful when I saw my friend Claudia’s facebook status update announcing that she had just posted about OBL on her news website for kids Here There Everywhere. Claudia isn’t just someone with a passing interest in the news — she was a producer for the Today show until she became a mom seven years ago (on 9/11, while I was watching the news, she was in a gas mask at Ground Zero helping report the news) but in some ways never left the job. She’d read the headlines to her kids when they were in the bath (calling this “The Bathtub Report”) and later started discussing current events in her son’s second grade class. On the site, Claudia writes to elementary-school-aged students without talking down to them (“The world’s number one bad guy was killed yesterday”) and gives just enough information to spark a kid’s interest. So now, when I’m making dinner and Phoebe asks if she can play on the computer, lately I’ve been going all Joe Kennedy on her (official Kennedy family dinner table policy: If you didn’t talk world affairs, you didn’t talk) and tell her to pick a topic of conversation for the table from HTE. That way, even if we don’t figure out how to explain all the answers, at least we can say we’ve started the conversation.
Illustration is by Catherine Ormaeche and is from the book The Day Our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11 (Abrams).
*Andy, who was working at Esquire at the time, somehow convinced Michael to tell his amazing story to the world two months after the attack.