Alone in the kitchen over my first coffee, I finally got what the border story was about. This was before President Donald Trump backed down on separating children from their parents. I had been thinking it was about everything else. Call me a slow learner.
The dog-walking helped. And the weird dreams I have been having in the last few nights. And the story of Dallas school trustee Miguel Solis and his wife, Dr. Jacqueline Nortman, a pediatrician.
Their 4-month-old daughter, Olivia, just went home after a life lived entirely in the hospital. Olivia has undergone multiple heart surgeries to correct a congenital defect. Everyone I know has been following her journey with bated breath and heartfelt hope.
My dreams were muffled roars, curved-mirror distortions of things that really happened when our own child was very little, 27 years or so ago. One was about the time he was knocked down hard on the far side of a big ice rink and the security guard wouldn’t let me go to him because I wasn’t wearing skates. He was OK.
The other was about the time we lost him for about 20 seconds at a mall. I think he was 2. My wife says older. I just remember coming around the corner, finding him and seeing this expression that I had never seen before on his face or the face of any other child that small — wide-eyed, breathless panic, as if we had dropped him into the alligator pond at the zoo.
The dog-walking I almost hesitate to invoke, because, you know … dogs. What can you say about dogs? What should you say? Last spring, I was walking my two female dogs in the alley along a high privacy fence. Behind the fence, not visible to us, were very young puppies, perhaps newborns. Something had happened to upset them, and they sent up a shrill, short-lived chorus of alarmed squeals.
Both of my dogs arrested on the spot, ears and eyes on high alert, pointing to the squeals in a very unusual posture of intense interest. I don’t kid myself about what they would have done if the gate had been open and I dropped the leashes. I am fully aware they would not have dashed into the yard and volunteered to babysit until the mother got back. In fact, I don’t even want to think about this too much anymore.
But the dogs were the first thing that came to mind over coffee the other morning. The screaming heads on CNN were debating deterrence and asylum seekers, where and how the children separated from their mothers were being stored, and whether the president's detractors were misrepresenting him.
Then they played that tape of the Border Patrol officer mocking the migrant children who were crying for their parents in a detention facility in the valley. And the dogs came back to me.
All mammals, even dogs, recognize the sound of panicked young. These are instincts buried deep in the development of life itself. When we draw those instincts up the evolutionary chain into human hearts, they become highly developed, urgent responses.
The sound of children crying for their parents is not made up merely of decibels and pitch. It is an ancient sound, profound in its origin, piercing a specific place deep in the heart of the human hearer.
The border story is about that. The cry. It isn’t about immigration. It has nothing to do with deterrence. It is unrelated in every way to foreign policy or the economy or even national security.
Those other things are peripheral abstractions. We can talk about them later, after we find out where those cries are coming from, what’s going on behind that fence, where that child is and why the child is making that sound.
Dogs know that. People know that. Denying it, ignoring the sound, mocking the sound is a hideous distortion of our basic instinct to preserve life by protecting the defenseless child.
No disrespect at all to Miguel Solis, who has always been one of my all-time favorite school board members, or to his wife, whom I do not know, but the story the city has been following so intensely these four months has been the story of Olivia, not her parents. We are riveted by the details of her struggle for the same reason we respond so specifically and intensely to panic in the face of a child — because the ancient voice of our species tells us that children are helplessly little and fragile, and it is our job to protect them.
I can’t stop thinking about the member of Congress who said Trump had told a closed-door meeting of Republicans this week that “the crying babies doesn’t look good politically.” Or Trump buddy Corey Lewandowski mocking the story of a frightened 10-year-old immigrant child with Down syndrome.
Both of those sentiments are deep deformations of morality — a ferocious turning away from the call of basic instinct. Men who cannot hear the cry of a frightened child are men who lack respect for the basic dignity of the species.
That’s where murder starts. Nobody ever murders a human being — not in his own mind. Every murderer finds a way to divest his victim first of full humanity. Mocking a panicky child is a way to make the child not a child, not your child, anyway, not a child who matters. If you can do it with a child, dehumanizing adults will come easy.
One of the most powerful themes in the story of little Olivia — always emphasized by both parents when they speak — is the miracle of modern medicine, the brilliance and dedication of the practitioners fighting to save her life, the same people who fight to save the lives of thousands of desperately compromised little human beings every day in this country.
Add up the years it took those people to learn how to do what they do, the creativity and brilliance of the engineers who invented and produced the equipment, the enormous amount of capital invested in keeping it all going, and we begin to get some inkling of the scale of our commitment to children and to life itself.
And it all starts with that cry, that keening yowl of panic, that siren louder than any fire alarm, that one voice given to all young by nature, the voice that says, “Save me! I am little! I am helpless! Get here right now and save me! Where in the hell are you, anyway, at a French restaurant or something? I am small, and I will die if you do not come here right now and give me protection, comfort and something to eat.”
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That’s what this story was always about. It’s about the cry. Nothing else counts. Nothing else is even relevant until that cry has been answered and quieted with solace and comfort.
With the backing down by the president, it seems as if the nation has managed, at least for now, to answer those cries. Later on, sure, we can talk about all of those other very important issues, maybe tomorrow or the next day, after we get our hearts back in order.
But even then, over my first coffee in the morning, I am going to be thinking about how this ever happened in the first place. I don’t only mean how the policy of separation came into being. I’m not sure that’s what worries me most.
Sorry to be self-absorbed, but I’m worried about why it took me so long to figure out what this story was really all about. I was all into the immigration issues, trade wars and the effect on soy beans. Did I really and truly have to hear the cry before I knew it was there? Where am I?