The other day, my son points at the sailboats moored in the harbor.
“Boat!” he exclaims, smiling.
I say to him: “Yes, Daddy is in a boat.”
“Daddy? Inaboat?!” He points excitedly to the sailboats in front of us.
“No, sweetheart, Daddy is in a different boat, out in the ocean, under the water. He loves you very much and he thinks about you every day.”
My son is quiet for a moment. I explain, “Daddy is in a boat under the water. Where we can’t see him. He’s playing a big game of hide and seek."
He looks at me. He gets behind his stroller beside us and peeks out at me, his finger to his mouth. “Daddy,” he whispers, grinning. “Ssshhh.”
“Daddy,” I whisper back. “Ssshh.”
“Daddy!” he shouts. I imitate him.
“Daddy,” he whispers again, still hiding partway behind his stroller. I imitate his exact tone and volume. He has always liked playing games with his voice.
“Daddy, ssshhh….” he says.
On we go, until we both start to laugh.
The next week in school, he learns about whales and other local fauna, and he learns that whales swim under the ocean. Our story about Daddy turns into a story about how Daddy is playing hide and seek under the ocean, and the whales are playing too. I hear him telling himself this story sometimes as he falls asleep at night. Of course I don’t have to explain who Daddy might be hiding from or looking for – it’s all a beautiful fantasy, as it should be for a little boy who just misses his father.
The next week, the US bombs a Syrian airbase. North Korea holds a military parade to show off its new submarine-based ballistic missiles, and President Trump warns that the US will take military action to stop Pyongyang’s military escalation. I say to my son as we stare at the TV coverage of missiles being paraded through the streets, “The people who run our country don’t always agree with the people who run other countries. And they don’t always use their words. Sometimes they fight.” He looks at me, serious.
At some point, I will need to explain to him that Daddy would be part of prosecuting a war, and that we would be too, by extension. We will have to deal with that moral ambiguity. But not now.
I understand people who want their children to be proud of their parents’ service, and who tell them patriotic stories about sacrifice, honor and love of country. I myself don’t feel comfortable doing this, any more than I would feel comfortable with my family telling my children in vague, entirely positive, lofty terms about my job. In my heart, there is something exploitative about this – like these discourses of honor and service somehow function to recruit little future soldiers in addition to serving as the way that families cope with loss. In any case, it is only a half truth.
So, I am happy that my little boy has a more childlike story to tell about his Dad. Strangely, this story feels so much truer than the patriotic ones. Most important, it makes us laugh, and in so doing, it helps us to get through the long days.