'Words Whispered to a Child Under Siege' is a powerful poem about parenting in a war zone
Joseph Fasano's heartbreaking poem speaks volumes about our shared humanity.
I've never been in a war zone, but as a mother of three, I've pictured it. Any time I read a news story about a part of the world that's exploded into violence, I imagine what it must be like for parents—especially those with small children—living through it. How do they explain what's happening? How do they comfort their kids when they themselves are terrified? How do they shield their children not only from unthinkable atrocity but from fear itself?
Joseph Fasano's poem "Words Whispered to a Child Under Siege" hits at the heart of those questions in a scenario that has played out countless times throughout human history. The poem's narrator is a father trying to comfort his child while they hide from soldiers in their house, and the way he makes a game out of it highlights the lengths parents will go to help children feel safe, even when they objectively aren't.
Fasano shared the poem on social media and it has been shared tens of thousands of time from different accounts. As one page warned, "Prepare your heart before reading." It's solid advice, though it's hard to know how to prepare for it.
The poem reads:
No, we are not going to die.
The sounds you hear
knocking the windows and chipping the paint
from the ceiling, that is a game
the world is playing.
Our task is to crouch in the dark as long as we can
and count the beats of our own hearts.
Good. Like that. Lay your hand
on my heart and I'll lay mine on yours.
Which one of us wins
is the one who loves the game the most
while it lasts.
Yes, it is going to last.
You can use your ear instead of your hand.
Here, on my heart.
Why is it beating faster? For you. That's all.
I always wanted you to be born
and so did the world.
No, those aren't a stranger's bootsteps in the house.
Yes, I'm here. We're safe.
Remember chess? Remember
The song your mother sang? Let's sing that one.
She's still with us, yes. But you have to sing
without making a sound. She'd like that.
No, those aren't bootsteps.
Sing. Sing louder.
Those aren't bootsteps.
Let me show you how I cried when you were born.
Those aren't bootsteps.
Those aren't sirens.
Those aren't flames.
Close your eyes. Like chess. Like hide-and-seek.
When the game is done you get another life.
- Joseph Fasano
Fasano wrote in Instagram, "I hope these words do what words can do sometimes." They did, judging by the comment section:
"Gorgeously gut wrenching poem to read, and difficult to wrap our minds around the idea that this is and has been far too many people’s reality…I’ve been a fan of your poems for a while. You provide the perfect example I can show my students of how art and writing help us maintain our humanity ❤️"
"Thank you, Mr. Fasano. I have been walking around unable to make sense of anything that is happening in the world and I feel myself shutting down. Your words give voice to everything that I cannot find the words for. Thank you for your poetry. Thank you for sharing."
"Thank you for this tender and horrifying poem at such a time as this. How necessary your words are."
Poetry has a way of saying so much in so few words. Here we see a father's translating his frightened heartbeat and tears of terror into love for his child. We see him calling upon the child's mother as a way to comfort in an impossible situation. We see him blatantly lying—"You're safe. Those aren't bootsteps. Those aren't flames," all to keep his child from being afraid.
And the fact that this could be any father in any war zone in any place and time is a heartbreaking reminder of our shared humanity.
No matter the conflict or the rationale behind it, innocent people are the primary victims of war and children always pay the biggest price. When tensions and passions run high, we must remember this: Wars don't break out between average citizens just trying to live their lives in peace. War is a fight between powers, with men in safe rooms ordering less powerful men to take up arms against their fellow human beings. Average citizens don't want any part of these conflicts—they just want to take their kids to the park, talk about their days over family dinner and not worry about what games to play with their children if or when the bombs and boots start dropping.
You can find more of Joseph Fasano's poetry on Instagram and X (formerly Twitter), and you can pre-order his book, "The Magic Words: Simple Poetry Prompts That Unlock the Creativity in Everyone," here.