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FOR the past two years, we've been living on my husband's nine-month salary as an assistant professor at Colorado State University. We've gone two summers without a paycheck, and both of us are jittery about the extent to which we've indentured ourselves to VISA. A few weeks ago, around the time my son turned seven months old, I started getting up at 5:30, to plan. I hole up in a tucked-away corner of the house, post a "Do Not Disturb" sign, plot my job-hunting strategy, and read affirmations on personalsuccess, optimism, and the hidden value of anxiety. My daughter Hayley, almost four, doesn't like the fact that I'm unavailable when she gets out of bed, but as long as I appear at 7:30 to join her and her brother and her dad for breakfast, she puts up with it. One recent morning, however, around seven o'clock, I heard someone struggling with the doorknob and there she was, hair tousled, eyes still slanted from sleep, in her red pajamas covered with Dalmatians. She'd been listening to the news with her dad. "Mommy," she said in a croaky, early morning voice, "They let Tom Sutherland go." In Fort Collins, it's not surprising that a three year old knows about Tom Sutherland. Almost everyone does. Since his capture, billboards and the ad spaces on bus-stop benches have regularly held messages to Remember Tom Sutherland, who was a professor here at Colorado State University before he took a leave of absence in 1983 to become dean of agriculture and food science at the American University of Beirut. Since before Hayley was born, the tall elm trees bordering the east edge of the Colorado State campus have been wrapped with yellow ribbons for Sutherland. Hayley became old enough to notice and ask about the ribbons early this year. By that time, they were tattered and grimy, a sobering reminder of how long Sutherland had been a hostage in Lebanon. The first time Hayley asked about the ribbons and I told her about Sutherland, she looked out the car window for a moment. Then she said, "Mom, tell me that again." Then she had questions. Why was he captured? Why don't they like Americans? When are they going to let him go? Will you make sure I never go to Beirut? Having lived with a three year old for almost a year, I now think of that age as the Triplicate Year. Once they get interested in a topic, three year olds have to hear about it three times. Depending on their degree of interest, that can be three times a day, or an hour. And their interests range to topics that aren't always effortless or enjoyable to explain. What a difference a year makes. Last year on our errand runs we sang "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" and other show tunes. This year we get in the car and, after she's fastened her seat belt, giving it a yank to make sure it's fastened, Hayley looks out the window and says, "Mom, let's talk about matches." Or strangers. Or cigarettes. She wants the facts and the details. She wants to know how the world works, and I tell her, but sometimes I wish I could contract out this part of parenthood. Every time we drove by the campus, I could count on her to say, "Mom, I see a yellow ribbon," which was code for, "Tell me the facts about Tom Sutherland." She'd listen, ask questions, ask follow-up questions. Then she'd stare out the window for a while. The only thing more perplexing than having a preschooler ask you for the same sad information over and over again is to watch her compiling it afterward, looking too young to look so grim. The morning Tom Sutherland was released from captivity, here in Fort Collins the snow clouds were heavy as I drove Hayley to preschool. On the radio, the local newscaster reported that Kit Sutherland, Tom Sutherland's daughter who lives in Fort Collins, would fly to New York to meet her mother and then fly to Germany for a reunion with her dad. The report, put together right after news of Sutherland's release hit town, emphasized that Kit Sutherland was still cautious; there had been so many false alarms in the past 6 1/2 years that she was waiting for absolute verification that her father was out before she would celebrate. In the afternoon the sky closed in and a wet, sloppy snow began to fall. It was completely dark by 4:45 when I went to pick up Hayley. On the way home, Hayley grilled me about Tom Sutherland. I told her everything I knew. I told her I'd just heard Terry Waite on the radio say that the people who captured him apologized when they let him go, and told him they never should have done it. I told her that Tom Sutherland said he'd been chained to the wall every day. She didn't understand chaining. I said tied around his leg so he couldn't leave, like Dumbo's mom after she helps Dumbo get away from the bullies. As we passed a floodlit retaining wall in front of a church, we saw a soggy, torn computer banner whipping in the wind. Four droopy yellow balloons bounced around it. "THANK GOD!" it read. "TOM SUTHERLAND AND TERRY WAITE ARE FREE!!" We stopped at the Shurfast market for a local paper. The headline, "Denver in 1st with win over K.C.," made it plain that the paper had gone to press before the Sutherland story broke. On the front page, just left of the headline, was the same box with the yellow banner that had been there every day for years: Day 2,354 Tom Sutherland of Fort Collins has been held captive in Lebanon since June 9, 1985. But at the checkout counter, my eye caught a stack of thin newspapers headed with the word EXTRA! in big, red letters. Beneath it, in even larger, black letters, it said, HE'S FREE! Under that was a big color photograph of beaming Kit Sutherland raising a bottle of champagne. We went home and I hurried to get everybody fed so I could watch the news. As soon as I turned on the TV, I knew it was going to be one of those rare nights when I regretted we don't subscribe to cable. The low clouds were blocking our reception from Denver, and as the theme music died away and the news anchorman said "Good evening" through heavy static, he looked like a swirl of gnats. Hayley complained that she couldn't see anything and she wanted to watch Dumbo. Vaguely, we could tell the program had switched to clips of the Tom Sutherland-Terry Waite news conference. Sutherland sounded good, ebullient, talked about being a long-winded college professor as he thanked several people and organizations for their support, including the Voice of America and the BBC. The first person he thanked was Frank Vattano, the Colorado State University professor who's started the Friends of Tom Sutherland, the organization whose members had tied the yellow ribbons around the Colorado State elm trees and launched Hayley's interest in Sutherland. Sometimes the world seems small. Sometimes it even seems small and benevolent, the kind of place that's easy and fun to explain to a kid. The static rose to a crescendo, and the TV screen swarmed. Having heard enough to know that, this time, the world had provided a happy ending, we gave up and put on Dumbo.

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