I tucked the children into bed tonight and stood for a moment, looking down at each of them. Child 3 was sound asleep, and I leaned down and kissed him, gently, on his warm, soft skin. He didn’t stir, sunk in the depths of his baby sleep. Child 2, as is her usual delaying tactic, reached out her hand and asked to hold mine, ‘just for a minute, Mummy.’ Child 1 wanted to tell me many, many facts about some space probe or something he is reading about. Usually I can’t get away fast enough, especially since the birth of child 3, because I’m tired and we’re at the end of a long day in which I have already heard far too much about the space probe, and in which child 2 has already crawled all over me too many times. But tonight – tonight I waited, and I held my daughter’s hand and watched as her innocent, pure little face smoothed itself into sleep. And I waited and I listened to my son tell me all about this probe that he is so fascinated by, and I gazed at his face, lit up by his fascination for it, and I felt lucky. I felt so lucky.
Because two weeks ago some parents, who felt exactly as I do about their children, waved them goodbye as they walked away from them into a pop concert. They probably drove home, or watched them walk down the street, thinking fondly of what a good time they’d have. They had probably listened to them talk about the concert for months, years even, and had felt happiness that their children, the most precious objects on their earth, would soon be experiencing such excitement and joy. They probably watched them walk away, those children who were everything to them, and maybe they wanted, just for a moment, to run and grasp them back, to freeze these moments in the way you do as a parent – take the perfection of these creatures you made, each miraculous inch and each miraculous bone – to kiss their hair and hold their hands. Perhaps they didn’t want them to go – perhaps they felt sadness that they were growing up too fast – perhaps they saw in those moments the years ahead in which they moved gradually further away. But they let them go, those parents, and thought of the experience they would have and how they would see them later.
But they didn’t see them later. For those parents, their lives were destroyed in a single moment. I think of them all the time, those parents who are just like me, and they didn’t know. They didn’t think that they needed to snatch every moment with their children, to hold them more tightly when they said good night, to watch them sleep and imprint on their memories the slight curve of a cheek, the silkiness of some strands of hair, the shadows cast by a fan of dark eyelashes. They didn’t know that only a few hours later, that would be all they would have. That it would always be all that they would have, in this unimaginably bleak and awful new existence.
It is too trite to say that my heart breaks for them. It is too trivial to say, as I sit here with all three of my beautiful children safely asleep upstairs, that I cannot imagine how they will go on, with just those memories. It is too superficial to cry tears for those people who dropped their children off at a concert or a train station and never imagined for a moment that their lives would, only a few hours later, be bleakly, horrifically, irretrievably changed. So instead I will stand by my children’s beds for those moments longer. I will hold my daughter’s hand for as long as she wants me to. I will listen to all those tedious details about the space probe and then give my son an extra kiss goodnight. And I will hold the baby those moments longer in the middle of the night, feeling unutterably fortunate, and think with fathomless dark horror and hopeless, futile tears, of those parents whose children never came home.