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Concern for pet hid child’s anxiety


On my desk today sits a wide-angle lens photo of the New York skyline taken from the deck of the ferry to the Statue of Liberty two years ago when my family visited the city. I retrieved it from the barely tamed pile of photos seeking albums in my office closet. In this picture the twin towers are just a bit left of center, anchoring the composition, balanced by the Staten Island ferry in the right foreground. I try to picture those buildings gone. The photo would lose its composition entirely; it would be without a focal point.

We are searching for something to balance the newly disordered composition of our lives. For some, it involves doing something concrete to right that precarious balance: giving blood, donating socks, serving sandwiches and coffee. Mental health professionals say this is good.

They also say talking is good. My 10-year-old said that he felt a little scared, but his class discussed the situation “for about an hour” and he felt better. Another fifth-grader I know put pen to paper and wrote an impassioned plea for a nonviolent response. She wrote: “All I hear about now is how people want to strike back, give them a taste of their own medicine, but if we do, we won’t just be sinking to their level, but we will also be hitting innocent people with a hand that’s meant for someone else. And, as my friend Clare pointed out, ‘Two bombs don’t make a right.’ ”

Adults who share her viewpoint have begun to circulate petitions decrying war moves or to protest in front of federal buildings, calling for peace in a world shaken by violence.

Others are rallying around the flag. It’s up in windows of homes, in front of businesses, on T-shirts, even formed in assemblies of people holding red, white or blue cards and positioning themselves in the design of the stars and stripes. It is a potent symbol for many of the glory days past, of the patriotism that surrounded domestic war efforts during World War II, of a time we perhaps only imagine in which a simpler, more innocent world order prevailed.

Lots of people, especially young children, are having a hard time knowing what they feel. A classmate from Fordham now living elsewhere on the East Coast frequently visits New York with her husband and sons, ages 8, 6 and 5; in fact, they’d been there the week prior to the attack. “My boys loved those towers,” she said. Yet, when she picked them up from school and carefully explained what had happened that day, that the towers they loved had been demolished in a terrible plane crash and many people had died, “They said, ‘Oh. Can we go out and play now?’ ”

Just because some children aren’t talking doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling. The night after the attack, my friend’s oldest boy crawled into bed to snuggle with his mom and confessed that he was “a little scared.” My youngest child said very little about what happened in the ensuing days, but was uncharacteristically edgy and whiny. I wondered if she was coming down with the flu, but the real problem was eventually diagnosed. As we brushed teeth before bed she suddenly turned to our 12-year-old cat, picked the animal up and said, “Poor kitty doesn’t know where her mommy and daddy are.” Addressing me, she pressed the point: “Mama, where are her mommy and daddy? How can she know where they are? Everybody needs a mommy and daddy.”

Her transference of anxiety about her own security was crystal clear. I assured her that she was safe and that her daddy and I are here, but she’d heard in church about the hundreds of New York City children who weren’t picked up from day care on Tuesday evening. “I’m scared,” she said, “that things will change.”

I’m scared, too. But we parents have no choice but to carry on, pushing our fears and tears aside as the present moment calls to us. As it happens, Sept. 12, the day after the attack, was my daughter’s sixth birthday. That morning I dragged myself away from the radio and television to the grocery store to buy a cake mix and ice cream. That night we had her relatives over for her request -- homemade pizza -- and birthday cake. She opened her presents. We sang the happy birthday song, celebrating her young life, pushing our grief and preoccupation aside for the time being.

I, too, have been searching for a tangible focal point. I found it in a necklace I’ve never worn before, a silver crucifix I unearthed from a jewelry box on my dresser. I’ve never chosen to wear that symbol so publicly, because I believe it is my actions and words that should speak for me. But I’m wearing it now, for myself. I am using this symbol to ground myself in a small, tangible way in the gospel values that I have decided supersede even my deep-rooted American values. I’m pledging my allegiance to a Middle Eastern man who came to transform the world in peace and nonviolence.

The night of the orphaned cat discussion, my necklace caught my daughter’s eye. She touched it and to my great surprise, said, “I’m glad he’s still here,” pointing to my heart under the silver crucifix and her own, “even though we can’t see him.”

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001