'Do Kids Die, Mom?: Parenting in a World on Fire
Facing the future with trepidation during the Age of Trump
As a mother and an activist, here’s what I’ve concluded as 2018 begins: it’s getting harder and harder to think about the future -- at least in that soaring Whitney Houston fashion. You know the song: “I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way...” These days, doesn’t it sound quaint and of another age?
The truth is I get breathless and sweaty thinking about what life will be like for my kids -- three-year-old Madeline, five-year-old Seamus, and 11-year-old Rosena. I can’t stop thinking about it either. I can’t stop thinking that they won’t be guaranteed clean air or clean water, that they won’t have a real healthcare system to support them in bad times, even if they pay through the nose in super high taxes. They may not have functional infrastructure, even if President Trump succeeds in building a yuge gilded wall on our southern border (and who knows where else). The social safety net -- Medicare, Medicaid, and state assistance of various sorts -- could be long gone and the sorts of nonprofit groups that try to fill all breaches a thing of the past. If they lose their jobs or get sick or are injured, what in the world will they have to fall back on, or will they even have jobs to begin with?
The country -- if it even exists as the United States of America decades from now when they’re adults -- will undoubtedly still be waging war across the planet. Our Connecticut town, on a peninsula between Long Island Sound and the Thames River, will be flooding more regularly as sea levels rise. And who knows if civil discourse or affordable colleges will still be part of American life?
What, I wonder all too often, will be left after Donald Trump’s America (and the possible versions of it that might follow him)? Will there, by then, be an insurgent movement of some sort in this country? Could Indivisible go rogue (please)? Maybe they’d have a nonviolent political wing the way the Sandinistas did in Nicaragua in the 1980s? With the help of volunteers from all over the hemisphere, they eradicated illiteracy, brought in the coffee harvest, and vaccinated against diseases (while their armed wing fought against the U.S.-backed Contras). Maybe in our city, my grown-up kids can harvest potatoes -- no coffee grows here, not yet, anyway -- teach reading, and write revolutionary propaganda.
And when it comes to dystopian futures, I’ve got plenty more where that came from, all playing in a loop on the big screen in the multiplex of my mind as I try to imagine my kids as adults, parents, grandparents. Please tell me I’m not the only one in America right now plagued in this fashion. I’m not fixated on passing our modest family house down to my three kids or making sure that our ragtag “heirlooms” survive their childhood. What preoccupies me is the bleak, violent, unstable future I fear as their only inheritance.
It’s enough to send me fumbling for a parental “take back” button that doesn’t exist. I just don’t know how to protect them from the future I regularly see in my private version of the movies. And honestly, short of becoming one of those paranoid, well-resourced doomsday preppers, I have no idea how to prepare them.
Recently, I had a chance to school them in the harshness of life and death -- and I choked. I just couldn’t do it.
Death and Breakfast
“When will I die, mama?” Madeline asked at breakfast one day recently. She’ll be four next month. Her tone is curious, as if she were asking when it will be Saturday or her birthday.
“Not for a long time, I hope,” I responded, trying to stay calm. “I hope you’ll die old and quiet like dear Uncle Dan.”
“I want to die LOUD, mama!”
I’m not sure what she means, but already I don’t like it.
“I want to die like a rock star!” her brother Seamus interjects. He is in kindergarten and thinks he’s both wise and worldly.
Great, I think, just great. What does that mean? “Yes,” I say, my voice -- I hope -- neutral, “rock stars do tend to die, buddy.”
“Do kids die, mom?” he asks suddenly.
“Yes,” I reply, “kids die sometimes.”
My head, of course, is suddenly filled with images of dead kids, little Syrian bodies washing up on Turkish beaches, little Afghan bodies blown to bits, little Yemeni bodies brittle with starvation or cholera. There’s no shortage of images of dead children in my head as I talk with a kind of painful calmness to my two small ones on a school-day morning in southeastern Connecticut.
“Do teenagers die?” Seamus asks. They love teenagers.
“Yes,” I say, my voice heavy and sad by now, “teenagers die sometimes, too.” New images swirl through my head of teenagers drunk, in cars, on drugs, in stages of undress, in mental anguish, dying because they don’t believe they can. I keep all of this to myself.
“People die,” I say, trying to regain control of the conversation. “We all die eventually. But you don’t have to worry. You have a lot of people working hard to make sure you have what you need to live long, happy lives.”
Long, Happy Lives and Other Lies
And that was the end of that. Their existential, morbid curiosity satisfied for the moment, they moved on to an argument about the fantasy character on the back of their cereal box.
I, on the other hand, haven’t moved on. I’m still right there, sitting at that breakfast table discussing life and death -- the when, the where, and the grim how of it all -- with my three-year-old and five-year-old. And wondering if I’ve already failed them.
When I was a kid, my own parents, Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister, Catholic peace activists who spent long stretches of time in jail as nuclear weapons disarmament activists, never missed a chance like this to knock some hard lessons about the power structure’s monopoly on violence into my head. Innocent queries about life and death were regularly met with long discourses on nuclear weapons and how such Armageddon weaponry threatened to ultimately cheapen all life, including mine and those of my brother and sister.
To this day, I can still replay those homemade history lessons that regularly began with tales of rapacious white colonizers landing on these shores, wiping out Native Americans from sea to shining sea, and launching the succession of seizures, invasions, and wars that built the United States into an imperial power and guaranteed its future global dominance. (At a certain age, we could even follow along in our own copies of A People’s History of the United States by their friend Howard Zinn). Those lessons were an education in violence and its bloody, brutal efficacy, at least in the short term. They were also an introduction to its fundamental failures, to the way such violence, deeply embedded in a society, requires an accompanying culture of pathological distraction, fearfulness, and deep insecurity.
That was my childhood. Some version of that once-upon-a-time-in-America, no-sleep-for-you nuclear nightmare of a bedtime story was always playing in my house. And thanks to their clear-eyed, full-disclosure approach to parenting, I grew up feeling prepared for a brutal, unequal, unfair world, but in no way protected from it. At least as I now remember it, I felt exposed, terrified, and heart-broken too much of the time.
If Madeline and Seamus were 10 years older and asking such questions, what would I have told them? If their big sister and my step-daughter Rosena (who lives with us half the time) were there, would I have been less circumspect? Could I have shared my fears of the future and the myriad ways I dread the passing of each year? Like my parents, would I have held forth on the long-term consequences of our settler-colonial origins, the ways the use of force and violence at the highest levels have come to permeate society, corroding every interaction and threatening us all? Could I have lectured them on guns, drugs, and sex -- on the cheapening of life in the era of the decline of this country’s global version of a Pax Americana? Would I have pulled back the curtain to show them that everyone is not working hard to make sure that they -- or any other kids -- have what they need to lead long, happy lives? I don’t think so.
All these years later, I’m not convinced of what such rants -- however well reasoned and well footnoted -- truly accomplish. I’m not convinced of what such demoralizing verbal versions of a Facebook scroll of bad news and hypocrisy do for any of us, which is, of course, why I’m sparing my kids, but dumping all my fears on you.
A World on Fire and on the Move
As for my kids, I tried my best to keep that breakfast of ours in the upbeat realm of death-is-part-of-life. That’s where I want to live with them. That’s how my father died -- as he lived, surrounded by the people who loved him. His two closest brothers died that way, too. When I imagine the deaths of those I love, I hear a last gasp of breath, feel a last grip of fingers, witness a peaceful slumber that doesn’t end.
But the peace that I treasured in my father’s death, the joyful stability I want for my children, these things that I can tell myself are the bedrock of a meaningful life, are already denied to so many people on this planet. In fact, in a world engulfed in flames (both the literal and figurative fires of war), increasing numbers of them are running as fast as they can in hopes of somehow getting away.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, 1.7 million people are reportedly displaced, mostly fleeing from one part of that vast African nation to other regions to escape spreading violence. In total, four million people are displaced within that fractured land alone. Similarly, in Myanmar, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group subjected to terrible violence, have been on the move in staggering numbers. In the wake of a deadly crackdown by that country’s security forces, 647,000 Rohingya fled into neighboring Bangladesh where many are now living in fetid, desperately overcrowded refugee camps. And that’s just to mention two countries on an increasingly desperate planet.
Last year, an estimated 65.6 million people were displaced, a record for the post-World War II period, and tens of millions of them crossed a border, becoming refugees as they fled war, poverty, persecution, and the destructionof urban areas (from major cities to small towns). They regularly left their homes with what they could carry, kids on their hips, in search of imagined safety somewhere over the horizon, just as people have done for millennia, but increasingly -- with a twenty-first-century twist -- consulting Google maps and WhatsApp, while constantly sharing intel on social media.
And scientists are predicting that this world in motion, this world already aflame, is just the prologue. As the effects of global climate change become more pronounced, the number of displaced people will double, then triple, and possibly only continue to grow.
Charles Geisler, an emeritus development sociologist at Cornell University, predicts that two billion people may be displaced by rising sea levels by the turn of the next century. Coastal peoples will press inland, while farmland off the coasts is likely to be increasingly compromised by drought and desertification. He concludes: “Bottom line: Far more people are going to be living on far less land, and land that is not as fertile and habitable and sustainable as the low-elevation coastal zone... And it’s coming at us faster than we thought.”
Madeline and Seamus will be in their eighties (god willing) when Geisler's predictions come to pass. They can’t, of course, know about any of these possible catastrophes, but I already sense that they’re picking up on something subtly fragile and vulnerable about our relatively settled lives together. How do I respond to them? What do I as a parent do in the face of such a potentially bleak future? How and when do I break news like that? Am I supposed to help my children cultivate a taste for crickets instead of hamburger or start building a solar powered hydroponic farm in our basement? Worse yet, whatever I could imagine suggesting wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t protect them. It wouldn’t even prepare them for such a future.
I’m No Fireman
In 1968, my uncle, Dan Berrigan, called Vietnam the “land of burning children” in a beautiful polemic he wrote to accompany a protest by a group that came to be known as the Catonsville Nine. He and eight other Catholics -- including my father (long before he was a parent) -- publicly burned hundreds of draft files at a selective service office in Catonsville, Maryland, a symbolic attempt to obstruct the sending of yet more young men to the killing fields of Vietnam. My father served years in prison due to actions like that one. Throughout my life, my family drew hope from such creative acts of resistance, elaborate and effective performances of street theater that extended right into the courtroom and sometimes the jailhouse. My uncle, a poet and Jesuit priest, turned that Catonsville trial into an award-winning play that’s still performed.
And yet, despite their sacrifices, almost half a century later, children are still on fire and I’m no fireman. I’m not breaking into whatever the equivalent of draft boards might be in the era of the all-volunteer/all-drone military. I’m not sitting in at my congressman’s office either. I’m nowhere near a “movement heavy” (a Sixties-era term I often heard applied to my dad). I’m just a gardener who tries to be a good neighbor, a mother who tries to look after a whole community of kids. I’m just one more set of hands. And even though these hands of mine are working hard, my efforts feel ever more paltry, inadequate, token.
Still, I’ll get up tomorrow morning and do it again, because if my efforts don’t matter, what does? I’ll hug my kids tight, answer their endless questions, and try to equip them for a future that scares the hell out of me. Even if I can’t see that future clearly, I do know one thing: it will be desperate for love, humor, some kind of balance, and the constant if distracted probing of inquisitive children.
This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.
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