Way too late for a 5 year old to be up. But it’s a Saturday, and my parents and I are curled up on the couch watching some tv.
It is 1978. I have on bell bottoms. I think we’re watching The Love Boat. And there’s a commercial with some disco music on in the background.
We’re in the suburbs of Toronto, Canada. I am cozy with a hot chocolate and a smushy pillow, am nestled safely between mom and dad.
A commercial comes on. My mom gets up to go to the washroom and as the couch shifts, the screen suddenly flashes with images that I have never seen before.
Black toddlers. Swollen bellies. Flies. And tears.
I look into their dark eyes. I see hunger. I see confusion. I see fear. They are alone. Where are their moms?
Suddenly I am flooded with a succession of images that then reveal the devastation that exists around them. It is huts and desert and mats and unrelenting sun. Lots of kids, not many adults.
What is going on here?
Why are they alone? Why are they crying? Why are they so afraid?
My eyes fill up with tears, and I know.
Suddenly I am connected with a feeling, a knowing and understanding of how it had come to be. It all occurs to me in a flash and I watch it unfold on a screen in a mind with tacit horror.
It is like a silent documentary film being played. No words. Only images. No narration is necessary.
This is what is happening outside my house. Off my couch. Out in the world. Somewhere.
It is not nice out there. It is hard. It is mean. It is wrong.
I feel I should be sad–but as the show finishes off and I am ushered off to brush my teeth for bed–all I feel is, confusion.
I lie in my bed. I cuddle up with my Holly Hobbie doll. I am awake and looking at the ceiling and breathing the shallow breaths of someone who has just witnessed a crime being committed.
Then suddenly, overwhelming grief and helplessness take over, and I succumb; deep, heaving sobs alternating with gasps for breath and hot, bloated tears.
My parents rush into the room, disoriented and frantic. I am typically a quiet, dutiful, and proper child and they are confused and concerned at this rush of emotion in me.
As am I.
What is it? Are you hurt? Mom asks in Chinese. I can’t answer her. I sob and I sob, and it becomes clear that I can’t speak, even if I wanted to. I am unsure of what has taken over, but when she sees I cannot be consoled, she mercifully gives me time to cry and feel.
Finally, I look at her in the darkness and ask her one question before I bury my head back into her shoulder.
She holds me until the sobbing settles into a breathless broken plea. I don’t even know what I am asking, but somehow it comes out of me:
Why is this happening? Why are those kids alone and hungry? Why aren’t we doing anything? Why doesn’t anyone care? What is wrong with things here?
What? Mom searches my face for some clue of what I am talking about.
We have to do something. What can I do? How can I help? There is something wrong with the World. It shouldn’t be this way. I need to do something.
My mother looks up at my father.
They look down at my tear and snot streaked five year old face.
Neither has an answer for me. They hold me some more.
Finally, my father says, “it is not your job to fix it. Other people are in charge of taking care of those things and your job is to take care of yourself and go to sleep”.
My mom doesn’t say much at all at first. She looks at me close and considers my small face a little. Hugs me close again and finally says something like, it’s okay, don’t worry about it, tomorrow is another day.
I wonder if they knew about this. I wonder if they have found a solution. I wonder who, is anyone doing something, anything about this?
No more answers come.
I reassure them that I am fine, and then settle back into my soggy pillow.
I am tucked in.
But I don’t sleep.