I didn’t have children on the day I first heard about the tragedy in Columbine. Same goes for that waking nightmare we all shambled through on the morning of September 11, 2001. On both days, all I had was myself – and my emotions – to worry about. And even then – in my Twenties, where I was fairly sure I had a solid grasp on the way the world works – I could NOT comprehend the madness.
Only the sadness. A palpable melancholy that took root and took long to shake.
I’m over a decade older – just having crested Forty – supposed to know it all by now, especially since I have two kids of my own; two beautiful children who have deepened my understanding of all that’s good and possible in this grand, glorious world – and yet, on a morning like yesterday when once again madness descended and chaos rained – I still can’t make sense of it all.
When the news hit, right around Noon, that something horrific had happened in the sleepy little community of Newtown, CT – I knew right then and there that I would forever remember where I was when.
It happened with Columbine – as I enjoyed a day off, opened the door to my apartment in Acton, MA with an arm full of groceries – flicked on the TV and was confronted with something unfathomable. I parked myself on the sofa – watched for hours trying to comprehend what caused someone to do that – feeling horrible for the lives shattered while also raging against the bully mentality that sometimes breaks fragile minds. I was in my mid-Twenties when that went down. Kids of my own were a whisper of a dream. I didn’t shed an actual tear that day but I did swallow hard.
On September 11, 2001 – I drove into work under a brilliant blue early Autumn morning – extra bounce in my step. That day started off as one of the year’s Top Ten Best in the weather department. It ended up a day that would live in infamy. I first got the news walking through our company’s Call Center. At the time, the networks were broadcasting one plane had hit the World Trade Center. At that moment, it was an accident. A short while later, as a second plane entered the frame and hit – it was unquestionably an act of war.
A sweet day that quickly soured became surreal with every passing moment. Eventually we were released early – my coworkers and I left the building shell-shocked and drove home numb – trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. I was in my late-Twenties. Newly married. Kids were on the docket but still a few years from nourishing my life. I didn’t well up that day either but once again, I felt that lump that’s hard to chase and made a pledge: “Never Forget.”
Yesterday morning – December 14, 2012 – I was working from home. Par for the course, I always have the TV on until about 10 a.m. – listening to the Channel 25 morning news show. Just a little background noise to keep me company. When the clock struck 10, I prepared to join a conference call so I tuned off the TV. At that moment, there was barely a hint of the horror unfolding just a hundred miles away.
At noon time, I decided to take a rare lunch break and head to the gym. At my gym, each piece of cardio equipment is topped with a private TV. Per usual, I left the apartment and forgot to bring my ear buds – meaning instead of honing in on one program and letting the 40 minutes fly – I would have to read lips or channel surf to keep my attention span without the volume to lull me away from clock watching.
I got on the elliptical trainer – selected my program – got myself in motion and turned the monitor on. The display flickered to light and my brain raced to connect the dots of what I was seeing. BREAKING NEWS was the first thing I picked up, with lots of aerial shots over a school of some sort. There was no crawl so I flipped over to another station. “SHOOTING AT SCHOOL – NEWTOWN CT”. I hung there for a minute trying to ascertain what type of school this was and the magnitude of the issue. Where I live, we’re right on the Connecticut border and I happened to be on the local Springfield, MA station – so, at the time, I didn’t know how logistically far OR close to home this hit. I also didn’t know if it was a random occurrence – one of those unfortunate instances of a kid bringing a gun to school that we hear about way to often – or something much bigger. Sadly, the former would have been a comfort.
Without ear buds, I had to go off of visual cues to figure out what was going on and all I got was the same footage of a fleet of cops surrounding the school, SWAT patrols on a roof and a minor crawl at the bottom saying there had been a shooting at the school and “3 PEOPLE SENT TO HOSPITAL”.
So, I flipped to another station and gravity fell. “SHOOTING AT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL – NEWTOWN, CT”. And suddenly, I lost my footing. Once again, I – like all of you – was forced to confront the unimaginable. The real world horrors that usually don’t go bump in the night but bellow their banshee scream in the bright, light of day for all of us to hear and either cower from or confront.
I got back on pace and kept flipping from channel to channel trying to piece the story together. And every time I landed on a new station, the death count climbed. From “3 PEOPLE SENT TO HOSPITAL” to “10 DEAD” to “CLOSE TO 20 KILLED” to the final resting point – “26 DEAD – 6 ADULTS. 20 CHILDREN“.
I write that with tears in my eyes. The same tears that welled as I ran ’round and ’round this elliptical, unable to step down on solid ground. Once again, we’re all united by the shock and awe tactics of grave evil. The second I read “20 CHILDREN” – I flashed sideways.
I thought of my children. There isn’t a night that I have them, that I don’t peek in at them – when they are tucked all snug in their beds, and I steal a moment – looking down upon their beautiful faces, as they wander in their slumber and I wonder where those dreams will take them. I wonder with all the hope in the world and all the love in my heart that where ever it is; it’s the places and experiences that make a life.
A flurry of emotions hit me. For starters, the second I saw Colin and Aria after school – they were going to be wrapped tight. Just a huge, hearty hug to remind them how dearly I love them. I also welled up that not so far away, parents had descended upon a school – frantic at what they would find. Some would walk away with all their hopes and dreams in tact. And so many others would leave broken. And all would join us wondering “Why?”
I write that and my knees buckle. It’s the same sickly feeling I get when my kids wander to close to a ledge or peer over the edge of the shark tank at the New England Aquarium. Your heart catches when you feel the loss of control.
When I got home from the gym, I wanted to put something down on Facebook – knowing I’d eventually want to work my thoughts out here at the site. Sometimes Facebook acts as my personal memo pad. So, I wrote a little thought and then noticed that quite quickly we were all united in grief – AND – love. And I noticed that some parents had the urge to go grab their kids from school. I don’t deny them that. I get it.
But I wouldn’t do it myself.
“Let Them Be Little”
That was a song gifted to us by Colin’s great preschool teacher so many years ago. Over the years, when my temper has flared over some silly little thing Colin or Aria had done, and I’ve been on the brink of uttering “You’re acting like a child” – TO A CHILD – I’ve brought myself back to that line. They’re little for such a short time. I’ve said it numerous times – I’m not perfect. I have my failings. I could be so much more patient when it comes to some of their antics.
But I always aim to better myself even when I go astray. And that line – “Let Them Be Little” – steers me back.
On a day like yesterday, when the horrors hit so close to home and violated the sanctity of an elementary school – there was the knee-jerk reaction to want to grab them. To pull them close. To let them know that they are safe.
But the reality is there are maniacs out there. There is evil. It’s at the heart of the human condition. Some of us are good. Some of us are bad. Some of us were born one way. Some – the other. And some of us change somewhere along the line. There’s no accounting for why we become who we become. It’s never just one thing. It’s a whole myriad of experiences and chance encounters and chemical reactions that go into making us who we are. We humans are a volatile mixture of ingredients.
As a parent, we aim to keep a close eye on the mixture to ensure it all comes together just right.
Yes, there are bad guys out there.
But my life is poof there is a whole lotta’ good out there too. I’m surrounded by the good and the decent. I’ve met and befriended some of the very best people on this planet. I wager you have too.
I don’t know one bad person. Not truly bad. Flawed? Sure! I’ve got a mirror. But bad. Not a one.
So, I take that sample size and expand it. The good far outweigh the bad. And that’s the message I gave Colin and Aria when I had a little matter-of-fact discussion with them earlier today. I let them know that the world is inherently good and safe but sometimes bad things happen.
I didn’t feel the urge to grab them from the school yesterday. I want them to know that school is a safe place. As is the Mall. And the movie theater. All places recently hit by violence but on the whole – all places they should feel safe and secure within.
To cap the day yesterday, the kids were due to go back to their elementary school for a Holiday Movie Night. Parents drop their kids off at 5:15 pm, go do some holiday shopping or grab dinner and then pick them back up at 8:15 pm.
I wondered if they would arrive home from school with a note calling the whole thing off. The note wasn’t there. And the call never came. So, at 5:00, off we went – the two of them so eager to see their classmates in their pajamas IN THEIR SCHOOL!!!
When we pulled into the parking lot, there was a whole host of parents and offspring eagerly awaiting the doors to open. We all poured in, tons of kids decked out in PJs, carrying blankets and Pillow Pets – smiles all around as they bound down the halls after hours in search of their buddies and ready to watch Rudolph. The teachers and staff were garbed in festive attire. All around I felt an energy and vitality.
On a day that began in such horror – when our little ones heard tales of terror striking way too close to their homerooms – it warmed my heart to see life go on.
To let them be little.