On the night before President Obama’s speech at West Point, my 10-year-old son, Will, padded downstairs long after he should have been asleep.
“What’s the matter,” I asked as he sat beside me on the couch.
“I keep having bad dreams,” he said. “I dreamed that I went to war and got killed, and when I try to get back to sleep, it’s all I can see.”
I pulled him close, breathing in the scent of his freshly shampooed hair like I did when he was a baby.
“You don’t have to worry about anything like that,” I said. “What you need to worry about is getting enough sleep so you have a good day in school tomorrow.”
He lingered a bit before his dad took him back upstairs.
At dinner the next day, the day of Obama’s speech, Will wanted to talk about how the military draft works.
“What happens if you don’t sign up when you turn 18,” he asked.
“There are legal ramifications,” I told him. “It’s the law that you need to register.”
“Do girls have to register,” he asked.
“I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so,” I told him.
“When are you too old to get drafted,” Will asked, and on and on the conversation went.
“Why are you thinking about all this,” I asked him.
“Afghanistan,” he said.
“What do you know about Afghanistan,” I asked.
“It’s on the news,” he said. “It’s everywhere.”
It’s also a hot topic in school. It seems the fifth-grade boys have been sitting around the old lunch table, talking about joining the military and going off to war.
“Why are we going into Afghanistan,” he asked.
I told Will we were already in Afghanistan, and launched into an explanation starting with 9/11.
“Yeah, I know all about the Twin Towers,” Will said. “But why are we in Afghanistan.”
I explained about al Qaeda and how Osama bin Laden is hiding somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan and that the U.S. wants to find him.
“Will they kill him if they find him,” Will asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe they’ll capture him and put him on trial. But they have to find him first.”
“Do you think it’s a good idea,” Will asked.
“I am not entirely sure,” I answered him as honestly as I could.
As we finished dinner, I told Will not to worry so much about the future, that he had eight years before he would have to register for the draft.
“A lot happens in eight years,” I said.
Then I realized just how quickly eight years go by.
It’s hard to believe that 9/11 was just over eight years ago. I remember making it to work after an early morning meeting just in time to watch the second hijacked plane slice through the World Trade Center on the newsroom television.
As the horror of that morning unfolded, all I could think of was my kid. I rushed the six or so blocks from my office to my son’s daycare; I needed to be sure my little boy was OK.
When I peeked into my then-2-year-old’s “classroom,” there he was, absorbed in play with the other kids, oblivious to what was going on in the world. Watching him was comforting.
He saw me and came running, arms outstretched. I scooped him up and held him close, breathing in the scent of baby shampoo as I buried my face in his neck.
Then, I knew I had to let him go.
My kid happily went back to his play; I don’t think he even noticed that I left.
Now, eight years later, my baby’s in fifth grade, looking toward middle school next year. He’s smart and funny, the master of procrastination and disorganization.
“Oh, I forgot I have homework,” is a standard line of his, always coming close to his bedtime. I’ve finally caught on that what he’s really doing is stalling bedtime until his father gets home from work. Will likes to go to sleep knowing both of us are home, safe and sound.
With a bedtime of 8:30 p.m., stretching the evening out on the nights his dad gets home at 9 or so isn’t all that difficult.
Tuesday night, as it got closer to 8 p.m. and as I readied myself for President Obama’s speech from West Point, my son “remembered” he had math homework.
When he finished the work, he joined me on the couch as I watched the pre-speech punditry. He didn’t want to go up to bed; his dad wasn’t yet home and I knew he was full of thoughts of going off to war.
“You don’t have to watch this or the speech,” I told him. “You can go to bed early if you’d like.” (I knew full well he would much likelier choose eating vegetables at dinner than early bed.)
“Or, you can watch TV in the guest room.”
As Will watched SpongeBob in the other room, I listened closely to Obama’s speech alone, hoping for some clarity and reassurance.
I didn’t bother Will about his bedtime. I let him enjoy the thought that he was getting away with something until his dad got home right at 9.
As his dad took him upstairs to tuck him into bed, I found myself feeling sad and helpless.
You see, when I held my baby boy in my arms for the first time, I promised him that I would always keep him safe from all the wild in the world.
It just keeps getting harder and harder to do every day.