Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Shadow Children

Everyone who has had children knows some shadow children. They are the playmates of your own children that didn't make it. They got cancer, drowned or, now, as my boys have grown, were killed in Iraq or Afganistan.

They don't have to be very close to your children for you to remember them forever. They play along side your children, staying the same age while your own children grow up.

The shadow children made me sad and scared when they died. Of course, they reminded me that my own perfect children were mortal and could be taken away. They raised theological questions. The real questions. Not, why do bad things happen to good people? That question has never bothered me very much. 'What, you think if you are good, you are exempt from the laws of chance?' The question I've never been able to answer is, what does a Unitarian Universalist say to a dying child? I mean a UU like me, who believes that it matters how we live, but doesn't believe in a personal God, and doesn't believe in heaven.

One of my shadow children died of brain cancer at seven years of age. He had time to know that he was dying. His parents are strong Christians and do believe in heaven. It made it easier. Not easy, don't get me wrong. They went through hell, knew it, and didn't have any false piety about it. However, they could say to their son 'you are going to Jesus in Heaven. We will join you later.' in full serenity and belief. I was just glad I never had to come up with such a strong, story for my children.

The wars in Iraq and Afganistan are adding to my shadow children. For years, I had only two, that's how safe our world is in Portland, Oregon.

I've added two in the last two years. One young man, went to school with my oldest son, but in the stratified world of high school, my oldest says 'didn't know him mom' with relief. Well, they are MY shadow children after all. I claim him because the school community I am a board member for had a memorial service for him after he was killed in Afganistan. He was in the HS video production program and was a newscaster for the internal news service the students put on. He was such a recent graduate that they still had all his footage where he was the star. On the montage they put together he was funny, bright, everything. He joined up because of 9/11 and, probably, a lack of cash for college.

Alex Funcheon is another shadow child. He died in Iraq from an IED blast. He had been there for two months. His mother was my friend and babysitter when we lived in Tempe, Arizona. My oldest son and Alex were best friends in diapers and training pants, running around the back yard together on short, stubby legs. We moved away when they were four and the two families became Christmas card friends. I hadn't talked to Karen in fifteen years when she called out of the blue. 'Alex is dead.' she told me. ' I just wanted to talk to someone who knew him as a baby.'

Shadow children reflect the worst of what could happen to your child. Our children are all marching toward the future together and then death steps in, here and there. Before the war deaths, it had just seemed like cosmic bad luck. The war deaths hit me in a different way. They bring up questions of class and culpability. I feel equal parts anger and sadness, with some guilt thrown in, because these boys died when mine didn't. My family never voluntarily joins military service. We are polite enough not to bad-mouth the military in that careful way of respecting others choices. I can't think of a single cousin, niece or nephew that has joined. I am glad of that frankly, but it doesn't make me feel good. It's something I would like to keep in the shadows.