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Simple Questions Children Ask

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“Mommy?” Johnny’s big blue eyes shift towards me. He is in an “earnest contemplation mood”—common to six year-olds, people on hallucinogenic drugs, and physics majors. I gear up for the next question. Already, I have confirmed that starfish do not give birth the way people do. (It takes me a moment to recover from the image of a starfish delivering vaginally.)


John continues, his voice surprisingly husky for a diminutive six year-old. “Did Daddy hit his friends too or did he just hurt us?” Those blue eyes lock onto mine, searching for truth. Crushed velvet fills my mouth.


“No, John, he didn’t hit his friends.” (Just petite women and innocent children, I think silently.) “Why?” John voices the question. His wounded expression shreds my heart. I set the nerf football down and pull my son into my lap.


My pulse thunders. “Why, why, why?” An echo of accusing ravens’ cries. The question rushes through my veins. I solicit the recesses of my brain to explain something for which there is no rational explanation.


“Daddy lashed out at us because he hurt inside. I’m so sorry, Johnny. We were just smaller than him, and we were just … there. We were like the trees that get struck by lightening.  It was not okay, what Daddy did.”


A woman nearby, Sheila’s mom, looks at John and her lips compress; She averts her eyes but her spontaneous tears evince the ache in my throat.


John is indifferent to everyone in the stark prison visiting area. He is determined to unravel the mystery of his personal history. Chris’ parents undermine his sense of reality by pushing their own false agenda. John is seeking clarity, a way to make sense of his conflicting memories.


“Mama?” Johnny presses on. “Did the knife that Daddy tried to kill me with have a wooden handle? Mommy, I have bad dreams that Daddy has a knife with a wooden handle.” I pull John closer and rub his back.


Everything fades to black. There is an intense wrenching in my viscera, the same sickening sensation I felt that night. The memory is burned indelibly into my brain. I fight the panic that rises, three hundred miles, three years gone by.  


“Yes, John,” I whisper. “There was a wooden handle.” I am looking past his backlit halo of curls. It is not the wooden handle I see, that my eyes focus on. It is the slender, eight-inch blade attached to the wooden handle of the boning knife in Chris’ hand. The blade is drawn back, and then is plunging toward our son. The blood gushes from the gash on my hand when I deflect the blade away from John. I vow silently, then aloud, that John will not spend his life like this.


John’s older brother, Peter draws me back. “Mama, why don’t they believe us?” Why don’t they let you go?” He is mad.


He is one person who will never ask why I didn’t just leave. Peter watched Chris’ strangle me when I put the boys in the car and told him it was over. Peter was there when Chris said he’d kill us all and burn our bodies if I ever tried to leave again. Peter’s unreleased screams, when Chris was alive, manifested in stomachaches, fingernails bitten to the quick, a baseball bat kept next to the bed and soaked sheets. All of these disappeared within a week of Chris’ death.       


“Mom,” he says, “what did they expect you to do? Just let Chris kill us?”


Before I can get into the flaws and injustice of the legal system, John interrupts, declaring, “Dad was EVIL.”


That just in: from the black and white world of small children, right-wing activists, and tele-evangelists.


Peter asks, “Was Chris evil, Mom?” He has seen enough of the world in eleven years to know most things falls where in the gray shades of the continuum. A wise child, he wondered how someone good could be as cruel as Chris had been. I am tempted to lighten things up with “Let’s just call Chris ‘Voldemort.’” But I resist. My boys have asked a serious philosophical question that deserves a thoughtful answer. It’s possible my answer could impact their views for the rest of their lives.


When I was six, I sat on the edge of the tub and watched my father shave. I asked him nonchalantly what the word “fuck meant , a word I had heard for the first time at school the day before. After ascertaining that the ensuing and unusually large cut on his face was not serious (although it required lots of little toilet paper tabs to treat), he explained equally nonchalantly his views on sex. I can quote, verbatim, every word he said that day. Those words forever reverberate in-my mind, affecting my sexual policy. Even as an adult, I see my Dad’s startled, toilet paper-covered face whenever I hear the word “fuck” in an unexpected context.


I considered my words carefully. On the one hand, Chris shattered our psyches. He destroyed the wonderful life we’d built. He tried and threatened to kill us. He battered and abused us. He terrorized us sadistically. Because of Chris, we lived in constant fear. The only reason we were able to escape was because I shot and killed him. He still terrorizes us in our nightmares. By definition, Chris certainly did evil things, but was he evil?


A dozen wonderful things about Chris flashed through my mind. There was as much good in him as there was bad. Actions are evil. Is anyone evil?


“No, guys,” I began tentatively. “Chris was not an evil person. No person is. Everybody has the potential for making harmful or helpful choices. Every single day we make decisions that are good or bad, sometimes a bit of both. The problem with Chris is that he kept making choices that were evil. That’s not a good thing.”


I could see both of my children considering the difference between evil and making decisions that were evil.


I tried to convey the fact that if they sometimes had thoughts or even made mistakes that might be considered evil, they themselves were not evil. I wanted them to know that they have the power every day to make the choice. I encouraged them to make decisions by thinking, “Is this action going to be helpful or harmful in the long run? Are these words going to he beneficial or destructive? Is this going to cause suffering and pain, or is my action going to bring joy”   


“You both already do a very good job of making good choices,” I commended them. They needed to know, absolutely, that they are not evil, that they were not destined to be evil, that they were in charge of their choices.


I saw Peter nod knowingly. The wheels were spinning beneath John’s curls. He squinted.


“Why did Dad choose evil, Mama?”


Why does anyone? Lack of humanity, desire, intent, lack of courage? I was ready to talk about starfish giving birth again.


“It takes guts, John, to face harder choices. Both of you are brave. I have no doubts that you and Peter will choose a different way and make good choices every day.”

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