A while ago, my seven-year-old son's feelings were hurt at school when a teacher criticized one of his drawings. She looked at my son's drawing of his father and said, "Does my torso look like that?" The drawing was an in-class assignment to illustrate a homework project called "the personal timeline." For every year of my son's life, he wrote one sentence describing something important that happened.
My son's drawing is on a small white paper, about two inches square. Back in January, when he first showed it to me, he unfolded it from a tiny tight little bundle, as if he had tried to make it as small as possible. After I'd reassured him I thought it was a very good drawing, I asked if I could keep it. When he agreed, I tucked it among my credit cards.
A week or so ago, I pulled it from my purse to show a friend who directs an arts education program, while telling her the story of his teacher's reaction. She shook her head, murmuring, "but art is about creating meaning. . . " She looked at the drawing intently, noting the simple figure, the flower-like hands, the black shoes, a long neck, a round head. A sun in the corner had been erased and then enlarged to take up about a quarter of the paper. "Did you ask him what it is?" My friend inquired.
"It's his father." I said.
"But what does it mean?" she said. "Look, the clothes are colored green. Do you think it's a military uniform?"
I leaned over to look at the drawing with her, an uneasy feeling growing within me. It had been weeks since my son came home, eyes downcast, and handed me this picture, asking, "Do you think this is any good?" Weeks since we lay together at bedtime and talked about his feelings of anxiety in his classroom.
Why had I never thought to ask him what the picture meant?
I didn't think to pursue it further. Why? I guess because. . . I thought I understood enough to know what action I needed to take. My son had drawn a loving, innocent portrait of his father. I saw my own seven-year-old self drawing and being criticized. My son was vulnerable and I needed to protect him. I thought that's what was important, that I protect my son.
"Maybe it's his father coming home," my friend suggested.
I realized another reason I didn't ask. I didn't like to think about the fifteen months my husband was gone, the days of anxiety, the pretending I was okay, the occasional vortex of panic – the day my two-year-old turned off my cell phone ringer, and I ended up with six voicemail messages, the first only a jumble of voices screaming "call 9-1-1! call 9-1-1!" I didn't know it, but my son had punched his hand through a window, and was bleeding profusely. The next message was my mother telling me she was riding in the ambulance with him to Children's Hospital. Another time when our car battery died during a snowstorm in Tahoe and the car couldn't be jumped because my keyless remote battery was also dead, and after hitching a ride with the tow truck, they closed the highway back and I thought I'd be separated from my children. Or the day I saw a newspaper headline, through the vending machine glass, a headline that yet another police station in Iraq had been bombed, prompting me to call my doctor's office sobbing, "I need valium! I need valium!"
Later, after my friend had left and my three-year-old daughter was down for the night, I asked him. "Sweetie, what's that drawing about? Is it for Daddy coming home?"
"No, it's for 2003." My son had had trouble coming up with an event for that year, and I remembered that I mentioned that was the year the Iraq war started. So that's what he'd used, "2003: The United States invades Iraq."
"See Mom," he explained, happy to be asked. "Daddy's in the desert all alone, and this is the sun blazing down on him."
I remember when my son read us all the elements of his personal timeline, 2003 upset him. "Stupid Iraq," he fumed, his face screwing up in an effort not to cry, "Why did Daddy have to go?" A reasonable question, and one his father answered soberly, "Because I am a soldier."
For many of the families whose loved ones died, or whose loved ones came home physically or mentally disabled, and even for the lucky families, like mine, who merely suffered from the deployment's separation, we ask this question:
Why did he have to go?
What does the war in Iraq mean?
It's hard to listen to someone struggle with a question like this. It may be a lot easier to comment on how the proportions in their drawing aren't accurate. Or to supply our own answer. But each and every search for meaning should be honored. And each and every answer, no matter how different, should be heard.