My Dear Son,
When you came home yesterday crying about the rumor that you heard on the bus, I wanted to tell you that sixth-grader was just a bully trying to scare you—that of course there was no bad man who went into a school and killed a lot of people for no reason. I wanted to chase away all your fears and reassure you that bad guys are only pretend and that this world makes sense.
I would have lied. I would have. In fact, I would keep lying to you your whole life if I could. I’d keep on telling you that eating that extra piece of broccoli will make your muscles bigger and that fairies bring you chocolates when your room is clean and that there are no monsters—not in your bed, not in the closet and certainly not in schools with guns.
But, as hard as it is for you to believe (and for me too), you are only with me for a little while. One day, I will have to send you out into that world where you will never have to eat broccoli and there are no fairies, and until a few months ago, monsters could buy machine guns at Walmart.
So, I looked into your melting hazel eyes, and I told you the truth. Yes, there was a bad man. Yes, he did kill people. No, there was no reason for it. Then, I hugged you very tightly while you breathed in and breathed out until your shoulders stopped shaking and the tears dried up into deep red rings around your eyes.
When your tears subsided, I took you by the hand and pulled you onto my lap, and we had one of our “deep talks.” It was hard to know where to begin. I could have told you about Columbine, or Aurora, or Newtown (oh God, Newtown). I could have told you about gun control or mental health problems. I could have told you that some people have broken bits of glass in their eyes that distort the world, like Kai in your favorite fairy tale.
But each time I started to talk, I’d see the red spots blooming on your cheeks and hear the soft whimper in your breaths. And I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. So I started again, this time in your language, the language of good and bad and heroes and villains. I told you a story about a sad, angry person—a person who had looked for help time and time again and had been turned away or misdirected or misunderstood. A person brandishing a weapon, clothed as an evil villain, who hid in the bushes waiting and waiting until just the right moment.
When that moment came, this sad, evil villain shot and shot and shot, killing and wounding everyone in sight. Then I stopped and turned to you. Your eyes were wide and shiny, but you weren’t crying. After all, it was just a story, and stories are what you know best of all.
“What do you think happened next?” I asked.
“A hero came along!” you yelled.
I wrapped my arms around you just to feel your warm little chest and the heart that was pounding wildly inside. “Yes, yes! There was a hero. Of course there was!” I cried.
I told you about the young man who was so brave and so good, that, after he wrestled the villain to the ground and saved the day, he tended to her wounds (yes, of course, girls can be villains too) until the police came to take her away and lock her up forever.
You wanted to see the pictures then, to hear the story in the words that the author invented, not my mish-mashed retelling of it. I explained to you that there were no pictures you could see of this story, no carefully chosen sentences to read; there were only the words that my friends and I have shared and re-shared over the years, the memories that have reshaped many of their lives, the images that have haunted us for years.
You laughed then: a big, bubbly giggle that comforted and pained me all at once. “That can’t be a true story, Mama. Nobody would take care of a bad guy’s cuts. The hero would have just killed him.” Then I smiled, because for the first time, life was better than one of your fairy tales. Real heroes do exist, because my story was indeed true.
I revealed to you that a long, long time ago, when I was a student at Penn State, these things really happened. The hero, Brendon Malovrh, saved some of the people who are the dearest to me in the whole world by stopping the villain, and he really did tend to her wounds and stay with her until the police came. I was lucky enough to meet him and tell him how brave and wonderful he was.
I explained to you that the villain of this story was more of a sick, sad girl than a true villain. But I didn’t tell you her name, because we never say the name of villains, ever. It only makes them stronger.
Then we talked again about what happened in Roseburg, Oregon, and I told you that even there—even on that terrible day—there was a hero. His name was Chris Mintz, and he charged right at the villain even though he was shot seven times, even though it was his own son’s 6th birthday, even though he could have died.
I wanted to talk more, to explain more about good and evil and how mixed up they can be, but you had grown restless and squirmy, and I knew that you had absorbed all that your young mind could handle. I sat for a long time after you left me. There were so many memories in my head, so many worries of days to come.
When I finally went upstairs, I passed your bedroom on the way to mine. I saw your tiny figures lined up in a row on your wooden castle and heard the chirping sounds of you and your sister engrossed in play. I watched as you smashed dragons into knights and piled soldiers into neat piles.
The world isn’t neat and orderly, my son. Good and bad don’t fit into nice boxes like they do in your games. Villains are more often sad or sick than truly evil. Dragons are just overgrown lizards and castles get swept away by high tide.
But, heroes? Heroes are real.