parents

"My 16-year-old daughter was supposed to be in Paris, but she never made it."

My first challenge writing this story will be to not come off as a first-world, privileged white person whose biggest problem is that their child was ‘almost’ in France at the time of Friday’s terrorist attacks. So please stay with me.

I’ve always heard about those freak stories, the ones where someone misses the bus that was meant to take him or her to the airport and subsequently misses their plane that crashes. Or the guy who was too hung-over to go in to work on September 11, but would have almost certainly been on the 98th floor when the second tower collapsed.

Those decisions, whether they be made by choice or circumstance, are the sort that can irrevocably alter the course of life and destiny.

And that kind of thing happened yesterday when I had my own personal ‘sliding doors’ moment. Well, actually, not so much my own, I was never going to be in France on the 13th of November 2015 when terrorists targeted seemingly benign venues and restaurants. But my daughter was supposed to be.

Bern with two of her children.

See, just over a year ago I sat down with my daughter’s French teacher and found out, totally unbeknownst to me, that she was quite good at French. In fact, he assured me, she was very good. So much so, he was recommending she be one of the students who go on exchange to France from October – December in 2015. I remember blinking hard, wondering where in the hell I’d come up with that kind of money but secretly excited for her to be chosen for such an wonderful adventure. For a 16-year-old in love with the city, it was of course, a dream come true.

But about a week before we were about to officially sign off on the trip, she came in to my bedroom and woke me up, sobbing.

Gulping through her tears, she told me she didn’t want to go, that she couldn’t go, that she felt overwhelmed and not ready. I assured her that it was fine and that she need not worry. And I’ll be honest here, I was secretly relieved.

Parisians are banding together.

Because even though she seemed so mature and I guess, ready to head out to a foreign country on her own, she was still my little girl and I was afraid to let her go. Also, if we’re continuing on this honest train, financially, we weren’t really in a position (although determined to find a way) to get her there.

So, she decided she didn’t want to go which turned out to be the best down payment I’ve ever lost.

On the morning of the attacks when I opened my phone and read about the situation unfolding in France, I was instantly relieved that she was upstairs, safe in her bed. Yet I was also conflicted because even though she had pulled out, three of close friends hadn’t.

As I ran downstairs and turned on the TV, my two younger sons were already sitting on the couch mucking about with their iPads, eating breakfast and clearly wondering why their mother was up so early on a Saturday.

And as is the nature of things when you have a teenager, you don’t poke the bear (the bear being my 16 year old daughter) before 11am on a weekend, I was a little hesitant at first to wake her. Yet there was a large part of me that was quite sure she’d want to be disturbed from her slumber to watch this in real time.

And because it’s 2015, I sent her this:

In an astounding feat, one I’ve never seen her achieve before, she was downstairs, wrapped in a doona and watching the terror unfold beside me within a minute. As she sat and watched, I saw her wheel through every emotion. Sadness, relief, anger, disbelief and eventually, fear. And she admitted that she had an unshakable and uneasy feeling that she’d dodged a very large bullet.

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And yet, even though she would have been in France, would she have been in any danger? Probably not, the exchange families are always placed a good hour away from where the attacks took place. Could they have been taking her to a football match or to dinner that Friday night? Sure, it’s not impossible. What would have broken me though, would have been the fact that I was so far away from her and helplessly incapable of protecting her in what would have been a terrifying time.

Over the course of the morning, all four of us sat in front of the television and watched it play out. My eight-year-old son, usually mad for playing ‘cops and robbers’ outside with his mates, sat there glued and kept asking all kinds of questions, trying to comprehend why people were actually doing this in ‘real life’. I didn’t have the answers. Or if I did, could they be explained to a child when even I struggled to understand it myself? Should I even attempt to tell him that a small group of people are filled with so much hatred and desire to retaliate that they’ve convinced themselves it’s okay to indiscriminately execute innocent people? That a terrorist’s only currency is fear and when we submit to them by changing our way of life to suit their demands, they will win?. Because I’m not entirely sure that I can comprehend all of that, let alone break it down in way he’d understand.

Shoes are left nearby the Bataclan theater after a terrorist attack in Paris on November 14, 2015 in Paris, France. At least 120 people have been killed and over 200 injured, 80 of which seriously, following a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital.
People leaving flowers and candles outside the Bataclan theatre, Paris. Image: Getty.

And should I have been letting him sit with us and watch such a horrific event play out in real time at all? I know that there are a lot of parents who shelter their children from this kind of event, in fact, they hide ALL bad news from them. And I’m not saying that there is a right or wrong way, but as a parent, I think it is imperative that children understand that the world is not perfect. And that it is a complex place that needs, and deserves to be understood. And as such, although they don’t need to be fed a constant diet of the atrocities of the world, they still need to be aware.

So yes, I let them watch. I let them ask questions and I answer them the best that I can. Because spirited, open-minded parents raise spirited, open-minded children who hopefully, in turn, grow spirited, open-minded adults of their own.

I know I am lucky to be able to sit here and ponder the ‘what ifs’ with my children sitting right here beside me. I am also acutely aware that there are so many others who won’t have luxury tonight.

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