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Explaining Haiti to My Daughter

How do you explain a freak, natural disaster that left in its wake crumbled buildings and tens of thousands dead to a six-year-old?
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One day last week, as an after-school treat my first-grader and I popped into the local diner for a grilled-cheese sandwich and -- Isabella's favorite part -- a coveted counter seat. Inevitably, the TV suspended on the wall above our heads was on, tuned to Fox. As background noise goes, Dr. Oz is pretty harmless, but after a while Isabella and I both happened to look up as a promo for the evening news came on. And there, flashing on the screen, were images of the devastation in Haiti.

A dust-covered child's face, a nightmare landscape of crumbled buildings, a group of rescue workers lifting a man out of the rubble ...

"That's from the earthquake, honey," I said.

"So sad," she said, and I nodded, and gave her a little kiss and a squeeze to let her know I was there, and to remind myself that she was there, safe.

The images quickly disappeared and I steered the conversation back to things more fitting for a "six-and-three-quarters" -year-old: the upcoming indoor soccer season, her spelling test, Valentine's Day. All of this while just a few hundred miles away hundreds of thousands of people, including little girls, suffer and struggle to survive amid unimaginable grief, horror and pain.

Isabella isn't a baby any more. Our babies, if we can, we must shelter. The "real" world, if we're lucky, is to be kept at bay while little fingers are learning to grasp, chubby legs are learning to walk and sweet voices are learning to say "mama" and "bear" and "NO!" Isabella still doesn't know she was born on the very day the war started in Iraq; she was unaware when the tsunami devastated Indonesia and when the levees broke in New Orleans. And she has almost no concept of the fact that on a daily basis -- across the ocean and right here in our town -- children are starving, families go without medical care, violent crimes are committed.

I don't believe in completely sheltering Isabella from the tragedies of the world -- be it natural disasters or wars or afflictions like poverty and homelessness. In fact, I think it's important that she start understanding how lucky she is, how fortunate we are to have all that we have. Sometimes I worry that she can never have the appreciation that I do for the relative luxury we live in -- for although we're not rich and we work hard, we're comfortable. We do not teeter on the edge. Isabella, unlike me as a child raised by a poor single mother, has no concept of the shame of food stamps, or lack of nice clothes or what it's like not being able to afford a Christmas tree.

I want to give her everything, every opportunity, every chance, and I'm starting to think that an essential part of that everything is a measured dose of the bitterness in the world. Because I want her to be able to not only appreciate, but to understand and really feel her responsibility to add to the world, to give back, to be a good fellow human.

And so, a few mornings after our trip to the diner, we had another, longer discussion about Haiti. I found some relatively un-horrific photos on the Internet to show her, and we talked about it. She wanted, first of all, to know if there are earthquakes in New Jersey. I instantly felt guilty -- why add to her list of things to be afraid of? I assured her there are not, and ventured, buildings here are built to be earthquake-proof (I have no idea if that's true, being a California girl transplanted to the East Coast, but it sounds good to me. In fact, if it's not true, I don't want to know. There aren't earthquakes here anyway, right? Right?)

She wanted to know why the houses fell down. She was sad to see a young mother and her infant sleeping on the ground. She thought the doctor in the photos looked nice. I asked her if she thought there was something we could do for them. Her first idea, a lemonade stand to raise money, seemed impractical given the current weather conditions (maybe a hot-cocoa / Ugg stand would do the trick). But after some more brainstorming we came up with the plan that she'll make something to sell (most likely to my unsuspecting friends and relatives), and we'll donate the money.

Just a few hours ago, with Isabella at my side, I popped into the drugstore to pick up some Advil for my husband. I looked at the endless shelves stocked with painkillers, Band-Aids, Benadryl and gauze, the pharmacy counter gleaming with the promise of an almost infinite variety of medicines to take away pain, to cure. At the same moment, in Haiti, thousands of people who hadn't been killed in the earthquake were dying for lack of water and basic medical care. I felt such an overwhelming sense of ... I don't know how to describe it exactly ... something like a combination of guilt and gratitude, awe and anger.

The world is a strange, uneven, unfair place. From some random luck of the draw we find ourselves here, and the people of Haiti find themselves there. There is horror, and there is joy. There are sad, awful things that happen, and there are people who work to help bring life and light. I think it's time now to start letting my daughter know a little bit more about both of those concepts, and helping her have the privilege of being part of the latter.

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