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My Mother’s Day wish: That I never have to tell my son, ‘You don’t have to be the hero’

Theresa Vargas’s sons are shown here taking a break at a local park.
Theresa Vargas’s sons are shown here taking a break at a local park. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)

I found it on the kitchen counter when I got home from work.

It was a book written by my 6-year-old son. His first. He made it at school, and it consisted of six small pages bound together with blue construction paper and yellow string.

The title: “Not my friend.”

I took a breath. I knew what it was about even before I opened it. It was about loss.

It was about his first best friend. They met at the bus stop on his first day of prekindergarten. My son was 4; the boy was 5. It took them five minutes before they were holding hands.

They were in the same class that year, but even so, on the weekends, they still pleaded for play dates. During those gatherings, they whispered secrets and threw their heads back in laughter at each other’s antics. They shared their favorite toys.

I opened the book and began reading. There were some misspellings, but I’ll spare you those.

“On my first day of school, I got a friend,” the first page read.

I flipped to the next.

“But when I was in kindergarten, he was not my friend anymore.”

The third page had a drawing of two little stick figures with giant word bubbles flowing from their mouths.

“But I did not do anything,” one stick figure says.

“I’m still not your friend!” says the other.

On the last page: “But I did not know why.”

There are things we cannot protect our children from. Losses that are inevitable. Friendships fade for reasons sometimes unknown, and other times known but not easily explained to a preschooler.

I get this. I accept that I could not spare my son the pain of his first lost friend, even if I wished I could have.

What I cannot accept, though — what constantly worries me for him, his little brother and other children — are the friends and classmates they might lose, not because of natural childhood disagreements, but because of blatant adult failures.

In the past week, we saw a 12-year-old boy describe how he stood behind a closet door, metal bat in hand, during a school shooting, ready to “go down fighting.”

We heard a father whose 18-year-old did exactly that. He charged at a gunman and died to save his classmates. The father recalled how he once told his son, “You don’t have to be the hero.”

We saw children huddled — yet again — outside a school, hugging and crying, watching as police cleared their building.

How many children have to experience that before we start thinking as parents instead of political partisans?

How many more students have to lose their classmates and teachers for us to acknowledge that this country has a gun problem because people who should never be allowed to hold one are aiming them at our children?

More importantly, when are we finally going to do something substantial about it?

I began this column a year ago by telling you about a classmate of mine, Blanca Garcia, who was shot to death at a birthday party when I was 13. What I did not include in that piece, but have thought about often since then, was something her mother told me.

A gang burst into a party and killed a teen. It still haunts her classmates — including me.

After her daughter died and all of us went on to high school, she said some mornings she would drive to the school, park and watch us step into a building that her daughter never had the chance to enter.

On those days, she said, she would show up to work with her eyes swollen.

When she told me that, I thought about what she saw, but also about what she could not see. It’s true those were her daughter’s classmates, but they were not the same children her daughter knew. That shooting changed us. It took something from each of us and more from some of us.

And that was just one school, decades ago.

How many more children since then have experienced loss because of guns?

Since Columbine alone, according to a count by my colleagues, we know more than 228,000 students have experienced gun violence at school, but that does not include children who have had friends gunned down in their neighborhoods or school shootings before 1999.

Sunday is Mother’s Day, a time when the lucky among us will get hand-scrawled cards and maybe a carb-filled breakfast in bed. But if you really want to know what I want for Mother’s Day, it is this:

I want to spare my son the pain of unnecessary loss, because he will encounter plenty of the normal kind.

I want to never have to tell him, “You don’t have to be the hero.”

I want him to feel invincible and ready to help his friends for as long as possible, or at least until he graduates elementary school.

Recently, I came home, and there was another handmade book tossed on the kitchen counter, which is where backpack contents tend to end up in our house.

It was about another boy in my son’s class, one he tells me is funny and kind. In it, the boy goes to Africa and encounters a lion. I’ll spare you the drama that follows and skip to the end.

My son defeats the lion and saves his friend.

Read more:

A gang burst into a party and killed a teen. It still haunts her classmates — including me.

This mother wants you to see a disturbing photo of her fatally shot daughter. Maybe it’s time we look.

For Mother’s Day, a remembrance of my almost daughter.