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On Kids and Bombs (or How To Be a Hummingbird)
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Providence, Rhode Island, 2005. The rain had been coming down in sheets for nine days straight. Seriously. Seeping through the walls in our basement, leaving puddles beneath the oil tank. We needed to get out of the house and we drove fast, just barely tethered to the asphalt, headed for a movie in Massachusetts, a movie about a giant were-rabbit ravaging the village gardens. The red and green and yellow lights flowered in the moist fog. They twinkled and blinked intermittently with green. It was too much sometimes, too heavy. This place. This moment in time. The white noise of water spray competed with the radio voices. Our three-year-old son blithely chattered away in his car seat, conversing with his invisible friend, Tum-Tum the elephant.

Meanwhile my wife and I talked openly about recent bomb threats to subways in New York City. We said whatever we wanted—things like, “bound to happen,” and “nothing we can do,” or “just gets worse and worse.” We admitted that this was our reality now. But a claymation movie about a giant were-rabbit awaited us, and we were happy about this. We were out of the house and not thinking, just driving and living. We were good Americans. It was early October, 2005, and we’d already decided not to go to New York before the bomb threats were issued—mainly because we couldn’t afford the trip. But when we’d heard the reports of threats to subways and public transit, we were both honestly relieved to be anywhere but the city.

“Can you imagine that?” she asked, responding to another NPR update on the car radio.

“Getting bombed?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Or living with that threat every day like they do in so many other places.”

“No, no. I can’t imagine.”

I suddenly realized that our son had gone silent; and the moment began to stretch and expand, distended with silence. He was listening to everything we’d said. He was paying attention to all the words and possibilities, looking for the suggestion of violence or fear or conflict because he had Doppler radar for such drama.

“Who’s getting bombed, Daddy?” he asked.

“Nobody, honey,” my wife said, “Daddy and Mommy were just talking.”

“It’s a figure of speech,” I chimed in, but I was kidding myself.

He understood. He listened to NPR every morning and heard me ranting at the voices. I didn’t want him to be afraid of war and bombs. I didn’t want him to feel targeted. I wanted him to stay young and innocent and fearless as long as possible. But I also didn’t want to shelter him from the truth or from real danger. I had to prepare him to live in a world where people bombed trains or sporting events or buildings. But how was I supposed to do this? I was in the midst of a full-on parental pause, a seizure of language, and I didn’t know what to say.

Then my wife swooped in: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

He paused for a moment, letting the possibilities balloon.

“Hmmmm,” he said, “maybe a hummingbird.”

A hummingbird.

I’d clearly underestimated our son’s capacity for hope and dreams of the future. He wanted to be a hummingbird and wasn’t it my job to make that happen?

Fresno, California, April 15, 2013. My son the hummingbird, born almost nine months after 9/11, will soon turn eleven. He’s just a few years older than Martin Richard, the youngest victim of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. My son is a bright boy who takes painting lessons, plays the trombone, and dreams of being a filmmaker. He still likes birds but he doesn’t want to be one when he grows up.

His mother now has a house a few blocks away from me. My son and his sister live with me half of every week. Things have changed a lot in eight years. Our understanding of family and home has changed. But my son tells me that he still likes listening to NPR in...



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