“Mommy, What Happened To Those Towers?”

Update: This is one of those posts that I often hear from readers about. I thought it was only appropriate to repost it today. (Originally published Sept. 11. 2013).

Buddy has been into non-fiction lately. He’s been especially fascinated by this book called “Where?” that my mother-in-law picked up sometime last year or two at a yard sale.

I remember the first time we looked at it together. We breezed through, learning about things like “Where does dust come from?” and “Where do kangaroos live?”

But then we got to this page.

If and how do I explain 9/11 to my 6-year-old? www.keepingmommysane.com #NeverFroget #Sept11

At first, Dr. G. and I didn’t know what to do. The book was published in 1985, well before Sept. 11, 2001, so this was factual at the time, but we were conflicted. It just felt wrong to pretend that the words we’re reading aloud are true and simply continue with the book. But on the other hand, how do you explain the terrible tragedies that unfolded that day to a then-6-year-old … especially when it’s something so many us are still struggling to comprehend ourselves, 13 years later?

In the end, we didn’t want to lie to him, even it was only a lie of omission, so we told him that because the book was published a long time ago, some things have changed and those two buildings don’t exist anymore.

“Why?” he asked, curious.

“Well, many years ago, two planes hit the buildings and they fell down.”

He paused. Then asked, with a serious look on this face, “Did people die?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“A lot?” he pressed.

“Yes.”

Another pause. “But who would do such a thing?”

Now we were stumped. Do I really want my innocent little boy to know that there are truly evil people out there? How do we tell him there are terrorist groups — both here on our soil and in far, far away countries —  that hate Americans and want to hurt our country because we believe different things? That’s a tough concept to grasp for a kid who associates the word “hate” with things like spaghetti sauce and spicy food.

But he answered his own question. “Was it bad guys?”

“Yes,” we answered, slightly relieved.

Being a 6-year-old boy who was, at the time, obsessed with superheroes and villains, that response seemed to make sense to him. So we moved on to, “Where does chocolate come from?”

So now, whenever we read the book, he tells us, “Those are the towers that the bad guys knocked down with airplanes.”

I know as he gets older and 9/11 becomes something they learn about in school, he is going to have more questions for us. Maybe he’ll ask why we never mentioned the Pentagon and the heroes of United Flight 93. Maybe he’ll want to know if this could happen again, and I’ll have to reassure him that our government is working really hard and has taken steps to keep us safe. Maybe he’ll ask us where we were when this happened, and what did we do.

I still vividly recall so many details of that day, like how I frantically called my friends in New York and Washington (two cities I used to live in) to make sure they were safe. How I watched the second tower collapse live on television. How I left work early, and a friend and I walked the five miles from my office in Boston to my apartment in Brookline because we were too scared to take public transportation. How we were all glued to the news for days and weeks and months after, desperate for more information but also finding it unbearable at the same time. How terms like “Homeland Security” and “Terror Alert Levels” and “Al Qaeda” have become part of our vernacular. How we came together, united as a country, to mourn and, eventually, to heal.

Basically, how our world changed forever.

Today I remember those lost on 9/11 and those who have sacrificed their lives to protect and defend our freedom and the country that we love. But I will not be turning on the TV or radio. I don’t think Buddy is ready for all the disturbing details of 9/11, including the images and video, which I think would be terrifying to him — and a far cry from the colorful drawing of the World Trade Center in his “Where?” book or the cartoon-like idea he surely has in his head when he imagines what happened when the planes struck the towers.

Instead, when we read the “Where?” book tonight, I’ll tell him how it was 13 years ago that this terrible event happened, and while it was a sad and scary time for our country, there were so many amazing heroes who risked everything to help people, and we all learned to appreciate our lives — and each other.

I think that’s all both of us are ready for at this time.

Have you explained the events of 9/11 to your kids?