SARAH SMILEY

Child’s tough question teaches parents

Posted Sept. 11, 2011, at 5:45 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 11, 2011, at 9:48 p.m.

Children’s tough, often unanswerable, questions rarely come at convenient times. In the middle of the produce aisle at the grocery store, or through the stall of a public bathroom, they say, “Mommy, how did I get out of your stomach?” Or, “Did my pet fish go to heaven?”

In an ideal world, these “teaching moments” would happen on a schedule, or, at the very least, at a better time (for instance, after you have just read an article about how to be a better parent). In reality, however, we smile nervously at passers-by, or at the person next to us at the sink in the restroom — all of whom are thinking, “Glad it’s not me!” — and we say something really profound to our child, something like, “You didn’t come out of my stomach, dear. A stork left you on our doorstep.”

We try to pick up the conversation later, after we’ve banged our head against a wall for being such a lousy parent, but then, again, the timing is off. No child wants to talk about the miracle of life when they are busy playing with toy trains. They wanted to talk about it while you were using the bathroom at Target.

At least, this has been my experience.

On a recent car trip, however, my luck began to change. From the back seat of the van, Ford, 11, asked, “Is there any truly selfless act? Can anyone really be selfless?”

Dustin and I looked at each other. Finally, an insightful, life-changing question asked within the privacy of our car.

But wait! I had not yet read anything about how to answer this one.

I deferred to Dustin.

“Servicemen and women do selfless acts all the time,” Dustin said. “There have been many soldiers who threw themselves on a grenade to save their fellow soldiers.”

“But they did that for a medal, right?” Ford said.

“No, they were already dead when they received any medal.”

“Oh.”

The car was quiet again. I stared at the crossword puzzle in my lap. I had waited for this, a teaching moment not inside a public restroom, and yet now I was speechless. I didn’t want to think about what Dustin had just said, especially because he is leaving for a deployment soon. I wished that Ford had asked about babies being born. Not that I’ve handled that question any better. Clearly.

A year ago, before leaving for one of my night classes, and while the rest of the family sat down to plates of spaghetti, I laid a book titled something like “Where Babies Come From” in front of the older boys. Dustin, midbite, looked like he would blow noodles out his nose. He seemed helpless and desperate, sort of like I was dropping a bomb and then fleeing. Which is exactly what I did: flee. And that was the “easy” topic, far easier than “sacrifice” and “selflessness” on the heels of a father’s deployment.

Ford’s question and Dustin’s response hovered in the car like a thick cloud. Ford is a smart kid. He knows his father is paid — and provided excellent benefits — for his job. So is being away from us for 13 months selfless? Would he do it if he weren’t compensated? How loosely should we define “selfless”?

The crickets chirped. Not every story — not every question — wraps up with a “happily ever after.” I wondered: Can we just get back to the whole babies-coming-out-of-my-stomach thing?

I knew I had fumbled this teachable moment. I was neither acting, nor thinking, like a selfless person. I didn’t want to consider Dustin being gone, and frankly, his positive attitude toward service members and their selfless acts made me a little angry. “What about us?” I wanted to say. I was being selfish.

At some point later, Ford said, “What I’m hearing is that it’s hard to be truly selfless if you have a family.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Wellllll …” Dustin countered.

More crickets.

I thought about the question again. Was Dustin right? Is it actually the reverse? Are some acts selfless specifically because someone has a family?

On Sept. 11, 2001, many men and women made sacrifices. And some of those sacrifices are infinitely more incomprehensible and awe-inspiring because the person had a family.

Ford was just 10 months old that morning in 2001. I remember feeding him mashed bananas and singing “Happy Birthday” to our family dog just before my mom called and told me to turn on the news. Dustin was on deployment. During the months that followed, baby Ford was like an oasis from the sadness. He smiled and cooed, blissfully unaware of how the world had just changed. I delighted in that.

Now, 10 years later, Ford is offering me, albeit unintentionally again, a new perspective on sacrifice and his dad’s upcoming service. From the back seat of the van, he reminded me to be less selfish and more selfless. He answered questions for himself, in spite of my ignorance and previous failed attempts.

I am glad the stork brought him to me.

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