What a beautiful age 8 is. You haven’t yet divided humanity into those who are not your age and those who are, the latter being the only people you care about. No, when you’re 8, everyone and everything is interesting, fun, lovable.

So when my daughter sent me a photograph of my 8-year-old grandson, apparently heading into the movie “Child’s Play,” I was unsettled. More than unsettled. Alarmed. I remembered the nightmares I’d had at his age after seeing the incomparably milder “Tom Sawyer.” The cave scene with Injun Joe scared the bejeezus out of me. I relived it in my dreams for months.

I was just about to respond, “Isn’t Jack too young for that?” when my daughter texted something on the order of “Gotcha!” She and Jack had been walking by the “Child’s Play” poster on their way to “Toy Story 4” when she thought I could use a little shaking up.

The prospect of my 8-year-old grandson spending two hours watching a scary movie had me on the edge of my seat. Two hours! Yet that same day I learned that in Clint, Texas, kids no older than Jack are trying to take care of kids the age of his cousins Natalie, Oliver, and James, toddlers who need diapers and don’t have them, need their hair combed and teeth brushed and faces washed in a place without toiletries, need mothers or fathers or someone familiar simply to love them into sleep at night and into calm during the day. No soap.

Jack would be trying so hard to comfort these babies, to amuse them and distract them from their trauma. But he would fail. He’s too little to help. He doesn’t have the things they need either. He isn’t their mother or their father. And he would be hungry and dirty and scared too.

Not just for two hours. For days and weeks on end, there would be nothing for Jack to do but live out this nightmare, wondering if it would ever end, wondering why 100 other kids are being herded out of the facility to go – where? Nothing is predictable any more. Nothing but the wailing of children, the pervasive odor of urine and feces, the dirt caked on your neck and arms, the foil wrap on the concrete floor at night. Makes watching “Child’s Play” look like – well, child’s play.

The bad news kept coming. We used to welcome the wretched refuse of other nation’s teeming shores. Now they’re dying on ours. Last week we pulled two poor souls out of the Rio Grande, one a young father named Oscar who had sold his motorcycle and borrowed money to get to that welcoming lamp we once lifted with pride. With his wife and daughter, he had traveled 1,000 miles to seek asylum at our border. But when they arrived at the international bridge over the Rio Grande on Sunday, it was closed. Hundreds were already waiting in line for Monday to come. All they had to do was get across that river ….

No need to re-post the photograph. You’ve seen it. What you remember is the tiny, toddler-soft arm stretched over her father’s shoulder holding on for dear life, as the saying goes. You can picture the denouement: the little girl standing on one shore while Daddy headed back for her mother, the water widening between them, the panic – “Don’t leave me!” – the two-year-old “decision” to stay with Daddy. The rest is silence.

You keep thinking of the allegory about the rescue workers who get mad at one of their number who leaves as they struggle to save the people who keeping drowning in the river near their hometown. He’s desperately needed. Why does he leave? To discover whatever is going on upstream to pull all these people into such dangerous currents.

Last week, Congress stayed with the “rescue” team. They passed a $4.6 billion bill that does not even address the rescue issues adequately by establishing protocols to ensure the health and safety of children in detention. But our president would sign a bill without those protocols. And our vice president assured the speaker of the House that the feds would voluntarily implement some of the protocols the House sought – things like notifying lawmakers within 24 hours of the death of a migrant child in custody. (This acceptance of more child fatalities is reassuring?)

Meanwhile, not a penny for the upstream causes in Central America, where pervasive poverty and violence drive young families like Oscar’s to leave the devil they know and dive into the murky waters they think will take them to the land of their dreams.

What a nightmare.

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Mary Sheehy Moe is the descendant of Irish immigrants who made Montana their home in the early 1900s. She lives in Great Falls, where she has been a state senator, school board trustee and now serves on the city commission.


Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.