For the past few days, I have been thinking about the short lives of three children I saw in a photo from Gaza that was printed this week in The New York Times. In this picture, the three babies are laid out on the cold floor of a morgue, on what looks to be a plastic floor mat for a car. All three look peaceful, like my own babies looked when I used to tiptoe into their rooms at random times during the night to make sure they were breathing.
On those nights, I would stand by the crib, marveling at the small person I had helped to bring into this world, the perfection of her tiny features, small dimpled hands, miniature muscles in her tiny legs — and I would let myself run wild with all the potential of the life before her. Sometimes, standing there so stricken with love for my own child, the fear would come — that frigid reality of knowing that my life was inextricably bound up in hers and that I could never survive in this world without her. As a new parent, the implications of such a bond were so overwhelming to contemplate that I would quickly tuck the soft blankets around her small back and retreat, finding solace in the mundane world of computer screens and washing machine cycles.
The father in the photo of which I write is now living the hell of my fears. The caption tells us that two of those nameless babies were his sons, and the third was his nephew. Two men in the picture are holding up the anguished father as he collapses, wearing on his face the terror of every parent’s worst fears.
I constantly return to thoughts of what that father is doing now, some days after the click of a shutter made me a voyeur in his personal hell. I wonder how he emerges each morning from a new fog of grief; where he finds the will to live when, every day, fresh death slaps him with the sharp contrast of the new lives in his meager home just a few years before. Does he comb through those memories, picking at the saplings of his babies’ lives for some fragile bud to carry with him? How does he withstand the knowledge of their final days and hours — the heavy weight of knowing how their tiny track suits became soaked with blood, why the smallest one’s head is wound with a fresh white bandage, so new it was not yet dirty, a marker of the chld’s suffering before he died. Rewind that man’s life just a few hours or days, past the bubbles of those babies’ laughter, their new words, their bright eyes that morning, their small hands holding the flat brown bread of a meal no one knew would be their last. If those simple images come so readily to me, how they must buoy that father, or drown him.
Maybe there is a blessing in the brevity of those babies’ time on this brutal planet– a limitation that mercifully cups the memories like parentheses. After all, that father will not have to bear the recollection of their first days of school when, scrubbed, combed and dressed in blue uniforms, with oversized backpacks and lunch pails filled with cheese and hard-boiled eggs, they would have set out on their own individual odysseys. He will be spared his sons’ confusion as the reality of life in Gaza dawned on them, as innocence gave way to understanding, laughter to anger; as a child’s-sized world began to push against the boundaries of that small, overcrowded, locked-down strip of land. He will avoid the embarrassment of telling a hopeful son that there is no money for a dowry to marry the dark-haired, beauty that caught his eye. He will not have to watch his sons growing into idle, angry men with no work and no future, wondering about the foreign worlds of Jerusalem and Cairo, just a few hours’ drive away.
Yes, that father had to watch his babies die so very young, but he has been spared the agony of watching a lifetime of their hopes die slowly. In that, at least, there is one small grace.