Letter to My Son, Ten Years Later

I slept poorly last night, dear child. I didn’t hear the news until this morning, after I had drifted asleep to a dawn chorus of birds on our living room couch. I didn’t know what had happened. But something kept me up and anxious, almost like a ghost bird, pecking at my brain.

It’s hard to talk about news after the fact. I won’t claim I could see or feel the future, son, not last night. I couldn’t. But once I knew, the feeling was so familiar: the cascade of my worry and anticipation, my hope that some small happiness might result from the wreckage, my grief.

You were born in 2002, my dear son, but I didn’t know you then. You were born in January in Vietnam. On September 11, 2001, your father and I were in Boston, and you were growing in your birthmother’s belly—you were alive—somewhere near Saigon, and we had begun the adoption process.

September 11, 2001, in Boston was a beautiful day, and today it’s a glorious spring morning, the trees budding, tulips and daffodils in bloom. Today, May 2, we have just passed the thirty-sixth anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.

This morning, when your father raced down to wake me up, to hustle you to school—he wasn’t smiling, he was distracted.

“I’m late,” he said. “I was listening to the news. Osama bin—”

“What news?”

“He’s dead. Bin Laden is dead. There are demonstrations in front of the White House, at Boston Common.”

What? Against the U.S.?”

“In joy,” your father said.

I looked at him, and I knew your dad didn’t know what to feel. I’d asked all this, without thinking, still too sleepy to comprehend, yet knowing you were near. You were quiet, shaking out cornflakes at the kitchen table.

Your dad turned on NPR in the kitchen, another radio chiming in. You’re used to ignoring the news, all that adult stuff, you might say, boring politics. But just as I knew your father was stunned, I knew you were listening.

“It’s good,” I said. “Of course. But I wouldn’t be leaping for joy.”

“I know,” your father said.

I looked past him and saw you, son, your head bent over the morning cartoons. I lowered my voice and told your dad to talk to you, to explain.

All those voices on the radio were talking about a dead man and people celebrating that fact, yodeling, punching their fists at the sky—in Times Square, one of your favorite places, near the home of the President.

You’re nine years old, and you already know so much. We’ve been back to Vietnam. You know some of the story of that war, of the long, still-healing scars on your homeland. I think you know more about Vietnam than 9/11, although you must have heard the term a thousand times. Just last week, when we flew to Wisconsin for a memorial, I’d joked about what a veteran of airport security you’d become. How quickly you took off your shoes. How you grabbed for the gray rubber bins and made the security agents smile.

Yet you’ve never asked me about September 11, at least not that I recall. When you were still in a stroller, you and I visited the pit of Ground Zero in Manhattan, me almost bursting into years, your little body twisted around to look at me. You had laughed. I’d told you to shush, and that must have been confusing. I’d tried to explain, but how could you understand at that age?

How much do you understand now? What do I want you to understand?

Everything. Nothing. Please forget.

This morning, I turned to look for you, son, and for an instant, I thought you were gone. No. You were in the bathroom, brushing your teeth, getting ready for school—just as you were supposed to—but you didn’t usually move so fast. You rarely close the door.

I almost yelled through that blank surface: Do you know what happened?

Of course you do. And don’t. Neither do I. But I want you to know this isn’t a video game. Don’t listen to your friends, especially the kid who plays Halo with his father. Don’t laugh or talk about killing, don’t think this is a joke.

Something terrible happened before you were born, and it’s been a backdrop for your entire life. Many terrible things have happened. Yet today the sky is brilliant blue, the birds are singing.

We exist amid joy and sorrow, that’s what I want to tell you—and I think your father will try to tell you, my sweet husband. I don’t know your birthparents, but I do believe they would tell you that, too.

Maybe someday you’ll read this, son. You’ll read “Saigon Surrenders,” this report from the BBC about April 30, 1975:

"The President, Duong Van Minh, who has been in office for just three days, made the announcement in a radio broadcast to the nation early this morning…. In a direct appeal to the Communist forces, he said: ‘We are here to hand over to you the power in order to avoid bloodshed.’

"The announcement was followed swiftly by the arrival of North Vietnamese troops. Their entrance was virtually unopposed, confounding predictions of a bloody and protracted last-ditch battle for the city."

Breathe deep, dear child. Breathe deep.


3 thoughts on “Letter to My Son, Ten Years Later

  1. Martha,
    Thank you for this. Like you, I don’t know what to think or feel on this day. Am certainly not jumping for joy or chanting “USA, USA.” And like your son, I have been going about my business as usual. Thanks for helping me take a pause to think and consider.

  2. Martha,

    As we rapidly close in on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, that incredible nightmare is still fresh in many of our collective memories as the day it occurred. I simply wanted to thank you for this piece and also mention how much I am touched particularly by one reality which affects your son’s generation. You wrote:

    “Something terrible happened before you were born, and it’s been a backdrop for your entire life.”

    That is a very poignant and prophetic statement. I hope and pray for better backdrops for our children’s future, as I mourn the ones that have already imposed themselves in their psyches.

  3. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Fusun. When I first wrote this post, the realization that 9/11 was the backdrop to my son’s birth really hit me like a sock in the gut. I pray for better backdrops, too.

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