Some of my most salient memories from my childhood are of time spent with close family friends. In this family, there are four daughters; the two eldest are close in age with me, and the two youngest are close in age with my sister, so throughout our lives, the six of us have always greatly enjoyed each other's company. In fact, in adulthood, these four women can be counted among some of my dearest personal friends as each one is an exceptional woman in her own right.
As I canvas through my childhood memories in my mind's eye, I see a collage of manifold instants in time that the six of us spent in each other's company, most of them joyous, some of them poignant, and all of them memorable and significant. Of all of these snapshots in time, many of them come from vacations that our families took together. The setting of this particular memory takes place during our family trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when I was about seven-years-old. From this trip, one memory stands out more than any other.
One afternoon, when our parents brought us to the ocean, I noticed how the tide that day had yielded a very auspicious harvest of seashells, which were strewn about the shore as far as the eye could see. I remember thinking how the shore that day looked as though a kaleidoscope had burst, scattering all of its colored pieces along the shore, or as though, perhaps, a rainbow had exploded, leaving about tiny vestiges everywhere in sight. Given my special penchant for exploring nature, while all of my other little companions were splashing and giggling on the shallow bank of the ocean, I grabbed my plastic pail and began to collect these multi-colored seashells. I immediately went to work in scooping up as many shells and stones as I could get my greedy hands on.
Initially, I was careful to remain on that same small section of the shore where my friends were wading in the shallow water under the eight watchful eyes of our parents, but within a few minutes, I became mesmerized and completely engrossed by these glistening shells that looked to me like tiny fragments of a shattered rainbow. Each time I would grab a shell, I would take a step, gently pick up the shell, hold it gingerly in the palm of my hand, admire the way it glistened in the sunlight, and delicately place it in the pail. At one point, I remember finding a shell that, to me, resembled a robin's egg with its pale blue color and speckles. As I picked it up and admired it, I turned to one of my little companions to show it to her only to realize that she was nowhere to be found.
As I looked around, I became cognizant of the fact that this had been the first time I had looked up in probably around a quarter of an hour as I had gotten so engrossed in this bountiful array of tiny, rainbow-colored vestiges. A cursory look at my surroundings caused me to see that I was surrounded by a sea of unfamiliar faces. I no longer recognized the part of the shore where I stood, and I had apparently wandered off rather far without even noticing.
Now, I would like to point out here that this was not the only time in my childhood that I would find myself in this position. It wasn't that I was an unruly child; I usually minded my parents and did as I was told, but I always had this dreamy, pensive nature that caused me to become distracted and completely lost in my own thoughts. In fact, my aunt in Italy still tells the story of how I one day wandered off while collecting snails and flowers on my grandmother's farm in Italy, leaving everyone terrified that I had fallen into the well on the property. This proclivity to become lost in my own reverie is a quality that even in adulthood, I have never quite managed to grow out of.
This incident on the beach, however, was particularly terrifying because I was in a place that was completely unfamiliar and surrounded by strangers, and in that moment, my tiny body went numb. I dropped my pail that contained the colorful fruits of that afternoon's search, and I began to tremble. I remember that I went to speak, but my mouth had gone as dry as the sand beneath my feet. As I looked around me, the smiling, familiar faces that I had seen just minutes ago had been replaced by the indifferent and seemingly menacing glances of strangers, and the once tranquil whisper of the ocean was now replaced by the threatening shout of the high waves beating belligerently against the shore. In that brief moment, I stood there feeling helpless and paralyzed by fear.
Thankfully, after what was probably no longer than two minutes, I heard the familiar voices of my parents, who had been worried sick. On seeing me, they both came sprinting toward me, their complexions both as wan as the ivory-colored shell I had just placed in my pail. "Mammi," my mother said, her voice shaking, "we were worried!" In all honesty, hearing my mother use that small endearment further put me at ease, for it cued me into the fact that my parents' frustration with me for having wandered off causing them to worry was fortunately, in this moment, eclipsed by the overwhelming relief that they felt on finding me. In fact, I remember that my mother held on tightly to me as we walked back.
The three decades that have passed since this incident on the beach have not served to diminish the guilt that I still feel as a result of this memory, for I don't believe that I'll ever truly forgive myself for doing this to my parents. Of course, I can only accurately recount the incident from my perspective, and I can tell you it was frightening. Often children, especially when they are afraid, tend to have a very distorted concept of time, and those couple minutes that I stood there waiting for my parents to find me felt as though I were waiting for all of the sand on that beach to gradually slip through the narrow center of an hour glass. When we panic, our minds often go to the darkest places, and in that moment of childish fear, I actually imagined that I would never see my parents again.
As frightening as these few moments were for me, however, it genuinely pains me to try to imagine what must have passed through my parents' minds in the few minutes that they were searching for me. Given that I didn't yet know how to swim at the time, they must have been plagued by the horrifying possibility that I could have drowned. They must have inevitably been torturing themselves in their own minds without saying the words aloud to each other, mercilessly berating themselves for allowing me to wander off without them noticing, even though this honestly would have been very easy to do. With us six scrawny little girls, with our brightly-colored swimsuits and bouncy, brown pony-tails, we must have been unidentifiable as we played on the shore.
These past few months, upon hearing the stories that have been circulating of migrant children who were detained and separated at the border from their parents, most of whom were seeking asylum in the US, it seems as though I've been replaying this short incident from my childhood in my mind on a continuous loop, often in excruciating detail. Through it all, the most painful thought that just will not go from my mind is this: that day on the beach, only a couple of minutes passed that I realized that I had been separated from my parents, and for my parents, it was most likely fewer than ten minutes that they were searching for me, but in those few minutes, time stood still for all three of us as the fear brought about by uncertainty was crippling. Now, if I give my morbid curiosity free reign to even begin to imagine the immeasurable terror and anguish felt by both parents and children separated in a foreign land, without even the promise of being reunited, suddenly, I can’t breathe. Even when the policy that separated migrant families was reversed on June 20, it is estimated that over 2,000 children still have yet to be reunited with their parents.
For some of these children, various factors have rendered reunification with their parents almost impossible. Firstly, there is the fact that efficient records were not kept to identify which children belong to which parents, and many of the children are too young to know their parents’ full names, so now DNA tests are having to be issued to identify to which families these children belong. To add insult to injury, it is now being reported that the parents themselves are responsible for paying for these tests. Secondly, it has been confirmed that many parents have also been deported while having to leave their children behind in the United States, making it exceedingly more difficult to reunite them. Also, in recent weeks, many migrant children have been transferred to various different foster homes and detention centers around the United States, ensuring that the children are now many miles away from their parents and much more difficult to locate. One of the most heart-rending stories that was reported this past week, to add further trauma and anguish for both children and parents alike, claims that in some cases, very young children that are finally reunited with their parents after several months are met with the horrifying reality that they no longer remember their parents.
So often when stories like this are made public, they are met with callous remarks, such as, “If they only stayed where they were with their problems, none of this would have happened,” or “What horrible parents they are for putting their children at risk!” The reality that the people who generally reiterate these inane talking points fail to understand is that from where most of us stand on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, few of us will ever truly conceive of the level of desperation that caused these parents to take such risks. We will never fully comprehend the tyranny of poverty, hunger, and violence and the power that these elements have to annihilate our inhibitions, rendering us willing to take immeasurable risks to ensure the survival of our families. We have to imagine that many of these individuals are aware of the xenophobia that pervades our current socio-political climate but are willing to put their children and themselves through these risks anyway because their love for their children has led them to this inconceivable level of desperation. Many have reached a point where none of the perils that they fear may await them in this country seem more frightening than the risks that they know await them at home.
Besides the overwhelming pity that I feel for these separated families, another disillusioning byproduct of this infinitely difficult situation is the fact that for the first time, I have been forced to acknowledge the jarring reality that not every individual possesses empathy. Up until this point, all my life I had believed that the element of compassion is an inherent characteristic that is a homogeneous aspect of the human experience for every individual. I don’t believe that anything has ever made me so acutely aware of how naïve I had always been. What is more is that, even though it hurts me to admit this, even to myself, I wasn’t prepared for the great distance that this disparity in empathy was going to create between myself and people whom I have always loved and respected. It seems as though, as of late, I just don’t recognize people I once used to feel that I knew so well, and this never fails to leave me feeling alone and full of despair.
A few weeks ago, for instance, I noticed that some of my friends were circulating a post on social media that suggested that we are wrong in wasting empathy on these migrant children when there are children of fallen American soldiers and police officers who have also been separated from their parents because their parents have died protecting our safety and freedom. In short, I was dumbfounded; I’m not even sure how this type of logic works, to be quite honest. I just cannot fathom that even in adulthood, I have to explain to others that compassion is not a pie; that is, if I give a portion of my compassion to one cause, this does not mean that I will not have a sufficient amount left to give to others. In college, for example, I had a friend whose father was killed in active duty. My heart still breaks for her to this day. Not a day goes by that I don't pray for her, and I would give anything if I could have the power to bring her father back. This doesn’t, in any way, diminish the pity I feel for these migrant children. Empathy is an unlimited resource, or at least, it is to me.
This flippant attempt to try to justify these senseless acts, however, is just one of the many with which I’ve been inundated these past few months. Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, for instance, implied a few weeks ago that the act of separating families was not as horrific as the media was making it seem, for in detainment, the children have access to television. Fox News host, Laura Ingraham, claimed, on a segment of her show, that the detention centers for migrant children were “essentially summer camps.” Moreover, another Fox News pundit, Brian Kilmeade, tried to assure us that we should not be overly concerned about how these children are treated, for after all, “like it or not, these aren't our kids.” He then added, it isn’t as if this was being done “to the people of Idaho or Texas. These are people from another country." I believe that of all of the asinine statements that I’ve heard used to justify this situation, this last one, the comment made by Kilmeade, is by far the most dangerous. History has taught us what horrific consequences dehumanizing a group of people by scapegoating them while labeling them as “the other” and fostering an “us versus them” mentality can have. We need only to look at Nazi Germany to see the tragic consequences of this ideology as so often the indescribably inhumane treatment of the Jews was justified by reassuring the public that such atrocities would only be allowed to happen to the Jews, this group of people who were different from them in every way. In any case, hearing these vapid excuses for the maltreatment of these children simply reminds me that this is how ignorant we sound when we struggle to justify something that is completely unjustifiable.
In recent days, it’s been such an ongoing struggle for me to accept the fact that I am never going to succeed in making another individual feel empathy, for empathy is a thing that we are either innately born with, or we’re not. It would most likely be easier for me to explain colors to someone who was born blind than to explain the concept of compassion to someone that is incapable of feeling it. Although it’s difficult, I have to forgive myself for losing respect for certain people whom I once greatly respected. I have to learn to have patience with individuals who actually try to use politics to justify this heartless behavior and try to simply explain to them that feeling compassion for these children, unlike tax cuts or trickle-down economics, is not a partisan issue. If you find that leaving a child petrified and alone to punish the child’s parents for ANY reason is a valid and acceptable strategy to solve immigration issues, we don’t have different political opinions; we have different values.
Then, for those friends that constantly tell me that they want to refrain from taking sides in this debate, I need the courage to explain to them that with their silence, they have already taken a side. As Holocaust survivor and renowned writer Elie Wiesel once said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Sometimes silence in itself wields the power to cause more harm than any word in the English lexicon.
Weeks ago, audio clips were released that captured the voices of both children and parents as they were separated at the border. For some reason, perhaps partly because I’m a bit of a masochist in my way, I forced myself to listen to them. A few seconds into the first one, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I muted it. The few seconds that I listened to were a heart-wrenching cacophony of doleful sobs. Amid the terrified cries of the children, the voice of an ICE agent can clearly be heard saying in a perniciously mocking tone, “Well, we have an orchestra here.” The faint cry of a small child can be heard plaintively pleading, “Mamita,” and somehow, all at once, my eyes well up, and I feel my body go numb. I am no longer a grown woman; I am once again that seven-year-old girl alone on the beach, feeling lost and afraid. Suddenly, all I hear is the oppressive sound of the waves aggressively crashing against the shore. Around me, all I see is a sea of unfamiliar faces and shattered rainbows scattered on the ground.
Contributing Editor: Daniella Rossi
Daniella Rossi (@Nottestellata10) was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, where she currently teaches English at the college level. Although she greatly enjoys teaching, her first passion has always been writing, for she is a firm believer of Stephen King’s notion that “Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.” She has recently renewed her passion for the written word and has begun writing a blog: musingsfromableedingheart.blogspot.com.
Featured image via bramante-it.com