BY JARED LEMUS
My children wake up to watch cartoons and I burn the newspaper. They can’t read yet, but I’m afraid some of the ink that says “shooting” “bombing” “racism” will leak into their cereal. I’ve called to cancel my newspaper subscription twice now, but it keeps coming. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be informed, but I’m also trying to keep this from my children for as long as possible. As if postponing it will make it less harmful. I know it won’t.
“I want to watch monster trucks.” My three-year-old. Destruction has already made its way into his life without him knowing. He enjoys watching the trucks destroy smaller cars. He claps when one of them catches on fire and says, “Dad, look.” I tell him I know and avert my eyes. How can I explain that the rest of the world looks like that, too? How can I explain that people have made it okay to expect and accept violence? How to explain survival of the fittest without saying that it means adapting and that adapting means building bigger destructive machines? I still don’t know.
I picked him up from pre-school the other day and found him sitting at a table by himself. “Is he in trouble?” I asked the teacher. She told me he wasn’t sharing toys with the other children. Get more toys, I thought. But that night, I sat down and tried to tell him how important it is to share, how important it is to always get along with others. Since then, I have never found him sitting alone at that table again. How easy was it to instill that in my child? How easy is it for other parents to say, “Just take them,” or “Push them to get what you want”? This worries me.
Now he looks up from his cereal to ask, “Why do you put fire on that paper?” I tell him it’s easier to start the chimney with the kindling of words. Fire already exists on the page, and fire fuels fire. I tell him to grab his backpack and drive him to school.
“I shared just like you told me to,” he says, right before he gets out of the car.
“Good. That’s how humans should be,” I say. “Caring, compassionate, loving.”
“Other kids don’t share,” he says.
“I know,” I say. “Set an example.”
I watch his backpack bounce up and down as he runs into school: a building almost as dangerous as high security prisons. Only three years old, and I’m already worried about middle school, high school. Soon, I’ll be dropping him off with a bulletproof vest and instructions on what to do in case of a school shooting, a bomb threat, a racist comment.
Step one: do not engage.
Step two: hope for the best.
My wife hates reading me type this, but I ask, “Am I wrong?” Her silence and tears tell me that I’m not, but they also tell me that she’s almost regretful for having brought such beautiful children into this world. Our one-year-old on her hip looks at me wondering why my eyes look the way his do when he trips and hurts himself, and I tell him, “All humans look like this when they’re in pain.”
In the afternoon, I pick up our son from pre-school and he asks, “Dad, what’s a snowflake?”
“It’s what falls from the sky when it’s cold,” I say. “It’s millions of snowflakes that allow us to make snowballs,” I say.
“They’re white?” he asks.
“Zack called me a snowflake today,” he says. “But we’re not white, right?”
“No,” I say, “we’re Hispanic.”
“Then how am I a snowflake?”
“You’re one of these many snowflakes,” I say. “They’re all different, but if they come together, they can cause an avalanche.” My son. Only three and he’s already dealing with people labeling him. Because he’s sharing? Because he’s being kind? Because he says, “I think hurting people is bad”? “I’m one of those snowflakes, too,” I say. He smiles. Content to know that he’s not alone.
“Yes, and we’ll always stick together.” It’s hard to explain what a label is. How can I say, “We melt, we evaporate, but we make it back to the ocean and come back again”? How to explain that global warming is being perpetuated by The Orange Sun in the White House? That it’s destroying icecaps and glaciers, but that snowflakes become water, and that when they’re all melted away, they will drown the White House in waves taller than the Empire State Building? The thought of this being a possibility brings me momentary happiness.
“How was school?” my wife asks, when we walk through the door.
“Good,” he says, and throws his backpack on the couch as he runs to his room for his dinosaur collection.
I kiss my wife, and my one-year-old’s face wants to know, “What’s up with this whole no-one-picking-me-up thing?” I scoop him up and point at items on the kitchen counter: zucchini, squash, peppers. “Knife,” I say, “chop-chop.” And imitate my wife chopping an onion. It’s funny how many ingredients it takes to make this quiche, how many different herbs and spices go into one thing to make it work. What would this quiche be if we left out the eggs? The olive oil? The cheese?
The garbage disposal startles the child in my arms, and I tell him it’s okay, not to worry. “Daddy’s got you,” I say. He calms and stares at the place from where the noise is coming. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I lie. “Nothing’s going to hurt you,” I lie harder, and he believes me. At least for now.
Over dinner, my wife and I talk about our day. She tells me how difficult it is to balance housework, watching a one-year-old, and working on an MBA online. She tells me about some financial thing I don’t understand. “QuickBooks,” she says, “ugh, it’s the worst.”
“The worst,” our three-year-old says.
We laugh, remembering why we’re working so hard: we want our kids to have the best life possible. Sometimes we pull all-nighters, we apply for new credit cards, we take out loans. But sometimes we drink a glass of wine and watch TV while the kids sleep. We hold each other on the couch and I read her poetry from famous writers. She jokes asking if I want her to read me some of her statistical data analysis. On some nights, nights like the one I know we’ll have tonight, regardless of what we’re doing, I’ll compare her skin color against mine. I’ll wonder if she made the right choice. I’ll think about how our children have my complexion and not hers. I’ll wonder how much longer The Orange Sun will cast a shadow that makes it difficult to see anyone that isn’t holding a torch.
I feel my wife’s hand on mine and realize I’ve been zoned out. I see her hand juxtaposed against mine and smile. I know we can make it in this world. I know there are many others like her who want to make a difference. I know that every time she heads out the door with a poster in her hand, she’s trying to bring about change. I’ll worry all day, all night, and when she gets home, I’ll ask her not to go back again. But she won’t stop. “Not until I know the kids won’t have to be doing this instead of me.”
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“We will be,” I say.
After we bathe the kids, brush their teeth, and put them to sleep, we hover over them. We watch their chests rise and fall. “I wonder what they’re dreaming of,” my wife whispers. It’s a rhetorical question, but I don’t know the answer. Does our three-year-old dream of the bedtime story we told him that night? Does our one-year-old dream about us? And how much longer until they start dreaming of war and famine? Of poverty and political divides? Our three-year-old is already getting bullied even if he doesn’t know it. The words spoken to him by children are just regurgitations of what their parents have said. They don’t understand. The children don’t understand what it means, and the parents don’t understand the effect of their words on developing minds or how it will affect the future.
We go to bed tonight and I’ll dream. I don’t know about what. Maybe small nothings or short-story plots or bill due-dates. Or maybe I’ll dream of the day I’ll wake up and won’t have to set the newspaper on fire.
Jared Lemus is the Associate Editor of the Jabberwock Review and was previously the Managing Editor of the Equinox. His work is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, and his work has appeared in the Mochilla Review, The Crambo, and elsewhere. He thanks his wife and children for this publication.