"Moooommm?" It's five minutes past bedtime. Stories have been read, water fetched, lights turned out, soothing classical music is playing. But all is not well in my son's world: "I hear a tapping noise, and I think it's coming from the CD player. Could you turn on the light and see if there's a spider there?"
There's no point in citing the infinitesimal odds that there actually is an eight-legger in wooden clogs doing the cha-cha in his room. At eight and a half, he's going through an arachnophobic stage - "the more I know about spiders, the more I'm afraid of them," he says. I know it's best to respect his young fears, keep the ceiling corners clear of cobwebs and conduct the occasional CD-player spider check.
Later that night, my daughter wanders into our bedroom. "I had a bad dream," she confides. "There was a crocodile, and I fell into the water, and it was going to eat me, but then it ate you...can you come sit with me?"
Crocodiles show up in her nightmares often; she grabs my hand while walking through the zoo and aquarium just in case we happen to pass a croc tank. Sometimes it's ghosts, but the toothy reptile is tops on her terror list.
Soothing these nightly terrors is costing me a bit of sleep these days. But I just gulp an extra coffee (or two) and say a prayer of thanks that the only bad dreams they have are normal childhood fears of scary animals, which will go away in time. I'm grateful they don't have to live with the memory of the day far more evil monsters attacked their city and took away a nation's sense of security forever.
Born a few years after the attacks, my children are only just starting to learn what happened on that clear-blue September day. We use simple language, taking care not to overwhelm them with grim details, and offer reassurances that Mom and Dad will always do their best to protect them. For now, it is enough.
In years to come, they'll hear and understand more from the family members who actually lived through the horror. They'll learn how their father saw the towers collapsing from his office window and how he later saw coverage of 7 WTC - where he'd worked just a couple of years earlier - turning to rubble. They'll hear how their mother saw the buildings burning on her commute to midtown, spent a morning trying to get through to family on lines that went dead, then later joined the hundreds of panicked, tearful and stunned people walking across the 59th Street Bridge, hoping to get to a safety that no longer existed. They'll hear even more sobering memories from their paramedic aunt and Marine reservist uncle, whose son is named for a firefighter and former Marine lost in the attacks.
But my children have the blessing of distance. They and their peers will be shocked and saddened by what they learn, but it will never have a visceral impact on them, just as my generation can't fully comprehend the enormity of Pearl Harbor, Vietnam or the Kennedy assassination. (I'm told that after RFK was shot, I tried to comfort a sobbing aunt by saying, "Don't worry...there'll be another Kennedy.") Only a special subset of under-10 children will feel a true personal connection to relatives lost before they were born. For the rest of these 21st-century babies, September 11 will be a history lesson, not a part of their life story.
We parents, along with all who can and do remember, have an obligation to share the story and lessons of 9/11 to this new generation and the children who will come after them. We can't force them to mourn losses they don't truly feel - nor should we. But through our words, and more importantly, through our own actions, we can instill in them a pride in their country, a respect for those who serve it, a deep love and respect for all their fellow human beings and a passion for peace.
If we tirelessly make this our mission, then perhaps future generations of children will have nothing to fear but an imaginary spider in their bedrooms.