Two remarkable things happened on Wednesday. The United States and its allies began a war against Iraq. And my 9-year-old son told the girl of his dreams that he loved her.

Love came first. I'd just slid into the car after picking up the boys from day care when my eldest cupped a hand over my ear. "Guess what I did today?" he whispered, his smile like lightning. "I told her I love her!"

He had asked weeks ago if he should inform an ex-classmate of his ongoing affection. "I'm not sure that's a good idea," I'd said, not wanting him hurt.

Now, hoping for the best, I asked about her response. His hand pushed harder against my ear.

"She said, 'Wow!' "

Then came the war. We were almost at Giant when a radio announcer said air forces were attacking installations in Baghdad. I gasped. "We did it," I explained to my startled kids. "We're in a war."

The announcements of love and war seemed linked in my mind; each unbelievable, each moving me in unexpected ways.

My son's declaration made him seem both shockingly adult and achingly childish. Look at how he walks just like his father! Then, See how soft his face still is?

War, too, cleared away the film that obscures the everyday, forcing unremarkable images into brilliant focus. Everything -- his gravity as he asked to "go look at the cereals," the smallness of his 5-year-old brother's baby teeth when he cackled, their shared excitement over finding Ninja Turtle Cereal with Matching Bowls! -- seemed unspeakably precious.

"They are so beautiful," I kept thinking. And, "We are at war."

Often, life's largest events are best defined by the smallest. The pleasure derived from the curve of a child's cheek, from the purity of a sleeping face, becomes knifelike when you realize other women's babies -- American, British, Iraqi and others -- are dying.

By the time we got home, the surreal clarity had abated. After putting the boys to bed, I curled up in a corner of the sofa, wrapped myself in a shawl and watched the war from my cocoon.

I thought about my sons' questions, and my inadequate answers: "Is there going to be a war here, Mommy?" "I don't think so." "Do we have any friends or relatives where the war is?" "I'm not sure." "The boys in my class think a war would be cool. Why don't they know war is dumb?" "Because so many grown-ups don't know war is dumb."

I reviewed my worst fears. I thought about courage too -- how brave my son was, how mature, deciding love is worth a risk, even at an an age when nothing matters more than seeming cool to all of the other Bart Simpson worshipers.

Ironically, the adult conflict seemed reminiscent of playground battles. The posturing on both sides. The taunting refusal of one kid to properly pronounce the name of his rival. The bully who beats up a smaller kid, takes his candy and dares anybody to come and get it.

Sitting in my cocoon, I realized how unsure I was whether what we were doing in the gulf is courageous, smart or merely inevitable. I knew that when I sought to protect my son, he went and did the brave thing anyway. And I felt sure that some mothers of boys fighting in the sand had the same protective impulse, and were just as easily dismissed.

The world makes it impossible for us to protect our children. One day, I may appreciate that is how it should be.

But right now, I'm a mommy. Just like my next-door neighbor, whose 3-year-old went to bed sobbing "Are we going to die?" and my 57-year-old friend, whose son, 30, is at the front. "He was 18 when he got married. His wife was 17," she says, her eyes distant. "And 12 years later, when I think of them, all I can see is two little kids playing house."

Being what we are, we'll keep doing what mommies do, in war and peace. Offer our best advice. Kiss the hurt and try to make it better. And always, hope for the best.