I was out taking a walk Friday afternoon when a friend’s text asked me if I was watching the news? “Multiple terrorist bombs in Paris,” it read.
My daughter is studying abroad this semester in London, only she doesn’t stay in London much on weekends. She doesn’t have Friday classes so she’s been to eight countries in the last twelve weeks. Paris, France was one of those destinations just a few weeks ago. My friends know she is somewhere abroad and immediately became concerned. Numerous texts begin to come in and I was glad to report that my child was safe in London this weekend. At least in the moment I felt gladness and safety. When we think about the randomness of what happened in Paris, does anybody feel safe anywhere?
I did send her a message to make her aware of what was going on across the channel. It had flashed through my mind that it could easily be London or New York, or anywhere else within moments or months. She had seven friends in the city of Paris that night. Eventually we learned they were all safe; but I couldn’t help but fear for them and empathize with what those parents, stateside like me, must be feeling in the first few hours after the news broke.
As the hours passed and the tragedy unfolded on my TV screen, my body became increasingly wound up on the inside while being fatigued at the same time outwardly. I noticed an unsettled feeling in my stomach, a weakness in my legs, almost a magnetic pull toward something that I couldn’t locate. I couldn’t seem to get a deep breath in or swallow very well. Finally I recognized the sensations as being familiar in a “been here before” kind of way. My body remembered something. When else had I felt like this, I asked myself.
And then it hit me. In 1991. My husband was a navy flyer, stationed in the Red Sea during the 1991 Gulf War. When the first bombs were dropped, I was driving home to Virginia Beach from my job in Norfolk, listening on the radio. CNN was covering it live, Bernard Shaw reporting from under a desk.
I pulled in the driveway and was met by a neighbor who insisted I come over to their house and watch the news with them. As the hours passed, I found myself with my legs not only crossed but twisted around each other and wound so tightly they hurt when I tried to unfold them. I had no script for what was happening in front of my eyes. The Navy had all kinds of protocol and I’d been through my obligatory ‘spouses’ school’ to learn about how notifications occurred, but nobody foresaw and thus trained us wives on how we should watch a war our husbands were fighting happen live on television during the dinner hour. It would be a few days before the military and the media could get in sync on reporting downed aircraft before families were notified.
This was the familiar feeling I felt Friday night. My body recalled it before my mind did. I’m watching the news tell us during the dinner hour that college-aged adults at a rock concert in Paris are being summarily executed while my own child sits a few hundred miles away in another of the world’s major cities. There are numerous students just like her in Paris and the other major cities of Europe. Geraldo Rivera’s daughter, whom he talked to live on television, is one of them. Studying in Paris for the semester, she was at the soccer game when the explosion occurred.
It was just too close. Hearing him tell her that he had a plane standing by to come get her the next morning but the airspace was closed, I broke into tears. My daughter was a first grader, six-years-old, when 9/11 happened. She processed that though the eyes of her parents, which meant that her daddy would take care of her and our family. He was strong and brave, like most daddies of six-year-olds, and she needn’t worry. What do we tell her now? She is not a little girl. She’s a grown woman living temporarily on the other side of the Atlantic and we cannot shield her or protect her.
What do I tell my students, not yet to adulthood, about the world they are soon to enter?
The fact of the matter is that the control we think we have when they are with us, under our roofs, in our arms, in our classrooms, is but an illusion. None of us have the power of life and death in our hands and none of us can really ever keep our children safe, though we are designed to die trying. The challenge I find before me is how to instill courage without denying reality. My daughter isn’t six. She is twenty. My students are seventeen. And the world is not a safe place.
But we can’t retreat in fear and let evil have its way, so I will trust in Divine Love and I’ll give it to them, as far as I am empowered to do so. 1 John 4:8 says, “Perfect love cast out all fear.” Words, flimsy as they feel sometimes, can communicate love. The smallest deeds towards one another can translate love. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a place to start today. A thing to give our attention to in the midst of confusion and tragedy. Drive out fear by loving someone a little better today.