Return Week: Questions and Questions


“Where do babies come from?”

It’s an easy question. One of the easiest, really. If you’re a parent, you know where babies come from, and the answer really is quite simple, no matter how squeamish you may feel in talking about it with your children.

My wife and I have no problem with that question.

It’s the questions with difficult answers that trip me up.

Every year, my family attends the Memorial Day service at the cemetery near our house. We hear “The Gettysburg Address” from a sort-of Lincoln impersonator, listen to a quartet sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and clap for the men and women who stand and salute when their respective military-branch theme songs are played. As parents, my wife and I are upfront about death.

But as easy as it is to explain to our kids that lungs or a heart or a brain can stop working, it’s difficult to explain why someone would make that happen to someone else.

How do I answer my newly 5-year-old secondborn when she asks, “Daddy, why do we have wars?”

I hate not being in control, not having the answers. I hate it when that same daughter asks me why her stomach is hurting and what I can do to stop it from hurting. Every night. Short of continuing to take her to the doctor for tests, there’s nothing I can do. I don’t have an answer.

I’m still asking questions myself: What drove a frustrated 22-year-old to kill six people in Santa Barbara? Why do gunmen attack children in schools? What will I tell my children when they first hear such reports, when they first receive and comprehend the news that in another school, another classroom, kids just like them were killed—for no reason?

After the ceremony at the cemetery, my firstborn, just about to turn 7, told me that she wants to join the Air Force, like my dad. I told her that if that’s really what she chooses to do with her life, I would support her, but in the meantime, I would try to talk her out of it.


I struggled for an answer.

“Because I would be afraid,” I finally admitted. “I would be afraid that you would die.”

She was undeterred—because Grandpa didn’t die—but I’m not too concerned. She only recently wanted to be a fashion designer/entomologist, which was a career choice that may or may not have involved her creating dresses inspired by insects. I was never clear on the specifics.

I’m not clear on a lot of things.

What if my secondborn’s stomach doesn’t stop hurting?

What if the tests reveal something bad? Something terrible?

What if one of my children does join the military? Sees combat? Disappears from my life?

What if not all of my children outlive me?

What can I do that I’m not already doing?

These are the tough questions. Or, more accurately, these are the tough answers to find.

“Where do babies come from?”

Please. Sperm and an egg are a walk in the park.

Fight Week: Veterans Day

Fight Week: Veterans Day

My 6-year-old daughter has a particular interest in military holidays. While we’ve sometimes forgotten about fireworks on the 4th of July, we’ve made a point over the last several years to visit the nearby cemetery for Memorial Day services. This is the same cemetery where she’s waved at kids we can’t see, but it’s a different section, across a busy street—which, apparently, ghost children won’t cross, because she’s never indicated seeing anyone her age running around this particular stretch of headstone-dotted grass.

My daughter enjoys the Memorial Day music and ceremony. Maybe it’s because our schedules and home and lives are so chaotic, there’s an appeal to the order of a military operation. Everything is crisp: the salutes, the barked orders, the folds in the immaculate uniforms, the flag snapping in the breeze.

Veterans Day has caught her attention, too, particularly since she learned that her grandpa, my dad, served in the U.S. Air Force, as therefore is a veteran. She was blown away a couple years back when she learned that. To her, it was like finding out she’s related to the St. Patrick’s Day leprechauns. I think she used to think of veterans as semi-mythical beings—and was probably disappointed that they didn’t magically steal into and out of our house at night on Nov. 11 to leave presents, like little stars-and-stripes lapel pins.

She doesn’t understand war—who does, really?—but she’s also very interested in combat and death, so she wanted to know whether she could visit Grandpa Fish, as she calls him (because my parents have a fish tank and often go fishing), so he could teach her how to properly use a sword.

My dad’s main weapon was actually Morse Code, which he intercepted and translated while stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam War.

As a kid, I could never remember whether my dad served during the Vietnam or Korean War, probably because we watched reruns of M*A*S*H a lot, and it was set in Korea.

Actually, as a kid, I had a hard time grasping that my dad had any kind of life before I came along. I wouldn’t have put it this way then, but I think it’s because he wasn’t my dad before that. He wasn’t anybody’s dad. He was just a guy, like me.

I’m older now—much older—than my own dad was when he was memorizing, then living and breathing the “da di da dit” sounds he would make when talking about his post years later. As a kid—even a teenager—I couldn’t imagine my dad as being my age. And really, he didn’t exist as my dad until after I was born. My arrival changed him into something new, as my children’s births transformed me.

He’s never taught my daughter how to use a sword. He’s never taught her Morse Code, either, but he and Grandma Fish have taught her how to fish, and she caught her first trout this past summer on an annual family camping trip.

That’s the veteran she knows, and I’m thankful for him. She is, too, as she was sad that we live five hours away, because she wanted to give him a hug on Veterans Day.

I did too.