“I have a stomachache,” he said from the warm confines of his bed. He was covered in blankets, stuffed toys, and dog. His face was the poster child for staying home.
I glanced at his brother who remained fast asleep, then at the clock which never stops ticking.
“You can rest a bit longer,” I said. “Then you need to go to school.”
“He’s probably scared,” said my wife on the phone. She was right. Despite being quick with emotion he tends to internalize information, and a weekend of questions and concerns woke him up with a punch to the gut.
I gave him a few minutes. I needed a few more.
There are a number of conversations I have always seen coming, the topics mandated by parenthood. Someday we will talk about Santa, then drugs, sex, and other things that need to be discussed despite any awkward reluctance to the contrary. However, I had never prepared to preach away the demons of troubled souls or the wounds of a world haunted by horror to a 9-year-old as he hid from the stories he had heard and the seeds they had planted. I needed a moment.
Some mornings, after I have dropped the boys at school, and if there is a reasonable space between deadlines and paychecks, I will stop for coffee on the way home. The spot is situated among a cluster of shops set between the school and a firehouse somewhere in the distance. Each visit, without fail, finds every bitter cup of coffee sipped beneath the soundtrack of sirens starting and the synchronized swish of heads on a swivel. More than once I have stood and watched the lights fly by, willing them not to turn toward the place I had just left, until they fade against whatever lies forgotten beyond the horizon. Then I smile sheepishly at a room of like-minded parents and wonder why the hell I even go there.
We were touching, not a breath apart, and he was shrinking in his pajamas. I held tight to the bedstead to right my balance and give him the smallest semblance of anchor. I needed to stay in character.
I could feel his heart bounce in time between the beats of my own. A few feet away his little brother began to stretch and yawn, ready to face the day fresh and free of fear. Smiles were exchanged and yawns gave way to some soft sort of mumble about rain and reindeer.
“Is this about Friday?” I asked my oldest. There was no reason to be more specific, he knew what I meant despite his having only the most basic of details, and he nodded slowly.
“You are anxious,” I told him. “It’s okay. I am anxious, too. Are you afraid to go to school?”
“Listen,” I whispered, because a whisper was all I had. “There is nothing wrong with being scared. I’m scared. That’s what happens when you can’t explain terrible things, but if we let that control our lives then the terrible things become bigger than us. The bad beats the good, and that isn’t how life should be lived.”
“The good guys always win, right?” he asked.
It was my turn to nod.
“Almost always,” I said. “Or they try their hardest to do so, and that is worth doing, too. Something terrible happened, but it happened, it is not happening. Your school is safe. The mall is safe. The movie theater is safe. We can’t let the fears caused by a few destroy the peace made by the many. Does that make sense?”
He pulled me closer into his arms. His blankets were warm and the dog didn’t budge.
“Do you think there is more good in this world or bad?” I asked him.
“Good,” he replied without hesitation.
“Good,” I said. “Now hurry up and we’ll stop for breakfast.”
I glanced at his brother, all wild hair and wide grin, then again at the clock which had moved quickly and quietly forward.
We took our time at the coffee shop. The rain seemed appropriate.