“Why is that flag only halfway up?”
I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw my seven-year-old son tapping on the glass and pointing at a flag pole outside the retirement community near our house.
“That’s called ‘half-staff,'” I said. “They do that when something sad has happened.”
He stayed quiet for a few beats, leaving me thinking that maybe my answer was enough for the moment.
“Like what?” he asked. “What kind of sad thing?”
I paused and took a deep breath.
“When someone dies, baby.”
“Well…” I trailed off, trying to figure out how far I wanted this conversation to go–and, more importantly, how far it needed to go. Honestly, I also kind of hoped he’d get distracted by something else and drop the subject.
“Who was it, Mama? Was it the President or somebody?” my son bellowed up at me.
“It wasn’t just one person. It was 49 people,” I answered, stammering out that number I can’t begin to wrap my brain around.
49 futures cut short.
We pulled into the school parking lot, and I shut off car’s the engine.
“How did that many people die at one time?” he asked.
Welp, I thought to myself, here we go. I turned and looked at my son and told him the truth.1
“Someone killed them. A man shot them.”
“Why on Earth would he do that?!”
In other circumstances I would’ve smiled at how appalled he sounded; I would’ve found his intonation and word choice funny. But his response was exactly correct. Why on Earth would someone intentionally and violently take the lives of 49 other people? And how on Earth do you explain that person’s motivations to someone who hasn’t even been on Earth for eight years yet?
I pared it down to one word for him: “Hate.”
He responded with a look oozing with admonishment; if my son knew the F-word, “hate” would rank right up there with it in his book. As it should–such an ugly word leaving such an ugly wake when left to stew and explode.
“But,” I asked, “what beats hate every time?”
“Love,” he said without an ounce of hesitation.
“Right. You ok? Do you have any other questions?”
“Not right now,” he said.
“If you do, just ask. Ok?”
We got out of the car and walked into school. I kissed my baby goodbye, made my way back out to the parking lot, and said a prayer for the children, teachers, and staff in the building, as I do every morning–as I’m sure many parents do when they drop their kids off at school. Because we can’t even be 100 percent sure that those institutes of learning–sacred ground, in my opinion–are safe. Because this is the world we live in. Because hate is real, and it is devastating.
But love is real, too. It is real, and it’s life-giving. My son believes that in his heart. For me, that is life-giving.
My son is seven. There’s not much he can do to change public policy or shift the culture like adults can.2 But right now that kid can love; he can love like nobody’s business. He believes that it wins, that it can change the world.
I need to believe that, too. I need to believe that it’s at least a start.
1 Was this the right call? For my child, in my opinion, yes. He does not live in a vacuum. None of us do. The first step to ending evil like this is acknowledging that it’s there, and doing so is an on-going conversation.
2 And should. Take that statement to mean whatever you want. Wherever you stand on gun control, I think (I hope) we can all agree that 49 people should not have been slaughtered on June 12th.