Relative danger

A father all too familiar with worrying reflects on parents with even worse fears

‘They also serve who only stand and wait’

‘They also serve who only stand and wait’

Illustration By Tina Flynn

Freelance writer Jaime O’Neill is a frequent contributor to CN&R.

I became a father as a very young man, and as a very young man, there was much I had to learn. All of that learning was on-the-job training. Among the many misconceptions that composed my largely erroneous view of the world was that worrying about my kids would someday stop; vaguely, I provided myself with the hope that I would be free of worrying about my two daughters when they graduated from high school. But, when that day came, I found myself as worried as I’d ever been.

When I confessed to an older woman my failed expectation that worrying about my children would have an end date, she laughed at me and said, “Oh, you silly boy.” I was no boy by that time, but I saw clearly and immediately just how silly I had been. Life provides us such moments.

My daughters are both grown women now, but I worry about them every single day. I worry about them somewhat less than I did when they were teenagers, but I worry about them nonetheless. I worry about traffic, and I worry about illness, and I worry about crazy people they might encounter on the streets. I worry somewhat less about my older daughter because she lives in Paris, and Paris is a pretty safe city compared to even medium-sized American cities, where gun violence is a daily occurrence.

Perhaps I’m just temperamentally inclined to worry. When the girls were babies, I worried about germs, and I worried about smog invading their pristine new lungs, and I worried about all the things the media told me to worry about when it came to the health and safety of babies—an anxiety inventory that increased with nearly every magazine I picked up and every news show I watched.

My wife’s response to those worries was even more visceral than my own. Back when our daughters were little, if one of them suffered what we called an “owie,” my wife would quite literally feel that pain, too. I could see it register on her own body as she dabbed at the scrape or cut.

So, together, we worried about additives in their food, about the kinds of things they were being taught in school, about the lyrics of songs and the content of movies. We worried about the buses that took them to school and the asbestos that might be in the walls of those schools once they got there. When they hit their adolescent years, we worried about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. And we worried about them getting into college and finding good mates and avoiding the myriad temptations of drugs and alcohol.

The worries did not cease when they graduated from college. Threats to health and safety are omnipresent for all of us here on earth, and our daughters were surely not exempt. So the worries continued, inseparable from the love that had never stopped growing since the days they were born.

Perhaps other parents are more adept at letting go of their offspring, of banishing worry from their minds. But I doubt it. Love and worry seem to be as much kin as parents and children, and as long as there is love, I see no way out of the attendant worry.

This is why I cannot imagine the moment-to-moment lives of the people whose children are serving in Afghanistan or Iraq.

There are ways in which the service of those parents seems even more heroic than the service of their sons and daughters. It is, after all, easier in some ways to go through one’s own dangers than to imagine those dangers befalling the ones we love most. Confronting fear is almost always preferable to the anticipation of confronting fear. Add to that the fact that older people are more keenly aware of physical vulnerability than their offspring tend to be, and it is at least an arguable point that the service of parents is equal to the service of their children in uniform.

So I sometimes try to imagine all those mothers and fathers who go about their days knowing that their offspring are in places where people actively seek to do them harm. As one who has always lived in dread of a midnight phone call, or an unexpected knock at the door from a person bearing bad news, I have no idea what coping mechanisms parents must adopt when their children are in harm’s way around the clock. I don’t know how such worry can be borne.

And how much difference does it make whether the war in which your child serves is ill-advised or wise? How much real comfort does it bring to parents who can convince themselves that their children’s war is a good or necessary one? It’s still their babies thrown into that breach, still their flesh and blood at risk, still their deep and direst worries in the middle of their restless nights.

It’s often said of the war in Iraq that the vast majority of Americans are not being asked to sacrifice anything. Unlike World War II, there’s no rationing of goods on the home front, no paper drives or gasoline coupons, no sense of shared endeavor. And unlike the Vietnam War, the burden of the fighting now falls on an all-volunteer army made up of service men and women largely drawn from the less-privileged classes, people who self-select their way into the military to make up for a paucity of opportunities in other fields.

But the burden of this war also falls on a shadow nation of parents whose days are lined with dread. There are some 130,000 troops on the ground in Iraq, serving their country in heat and uncertainty, with no terminus in sight. That means there are roughly twice that many mothers and fathers back here at home, living in unimaginable suspense, praying to whatever God they pray to for the safe return of their sons and daughters. And, as Milton wrote three centuries ago, “they also serve who only stand and wait.”