Letter America Dear Doctor Guy, My friend recently stopped taking my calls because I’m dating her ex-boyfriend, but they broke up like over two years ago. I don’t know what to do.—Helpless Hottie ... More
Yesterday, we woke up tired from the (my) compounding efforts to do too much. Before we fumbled out of bed, we cuddled; I put my hand on my kids’ bellies and buried my face in their hair. Then, we scrambled, or I did anyway. Theo dawdled and tangled with Sylvia, who ran around naked. They whined, giggled and fought over a bouncy Italian donkey like the five- and two-year-old siblings they are. I cajoled them and got irritated; they spilled cereal all over themselves. I took away the bouncing donkey said something vague, like, “Come on, help me out!” and hustled them outside. We were so late! Again!
We go through a similar routine every morning, as do parents everywhere, and as I imagine many of the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School children did last Friday. Yesterday morning, Theo insisted on bringing along his Care Bear and a random Tooth Fairy pillow that he has not yet needed to use. After I dropped him off at school, I paused looking into the car.
The back of the passenger seat was streaked from the bottoms of Theo’s snow boots, which I’ve asked him countless times to stop kicking. The dirt on the floor could fill a sandbox. A Star Wars stormtrooper and a pink pipe-cleaner were stuffed with a used tissue into the drink holder on his door. One of his detailed drawings of a fantastic machine lay creased on the seat. He’d taken Murphy, his stuffed monkey, with him and left behind bright-blue Champ Bear and the tiny pillow with its appliquéd rocketship pocket for holding tiny teeth. Past, present, future in the back seat. These ghosts are everywhere.
The sucking emptiness of the Newtown families who have lost their children is beyond my reckoning: a terrible knowledge, a rupture of violence that defies understanding. I can only begin to imagine its edges, sharp and dull, sudden and infinite, as I look at the still-warm carseat of my five-year-old son, just a year younger than the first graders whose funerals are being held this week.
My body still holds the feeling of hugging Theo goodbye this morning, his still-small yet long body wrapped in my arms, his soft cheek against mine, his “I love you, too” in my ear. A blog post called “What Six Looks Like” offers a glimpse into this age—the beauty, creativity, strength and fragility that we all hope, and assume, our children will not only experience, but also grow from.
This list of what six-years-old looks, smells and feels like seems more important for me to read right now than the posts on mental health and gun control, although these are critical conversations that I’m glad we are finally having. I hope they continue with reason and with results.
I, too, am disgusted by tired lines about how citizens need assault weapons to protect ourselves from each other and the U.S. government. Dialogue, democracy, compassion and reason seem more effective than fear and vigilantism—an equation that the U.S. demonstrates every day, even with our share of fear, ignorance, bigotry and violence, even with our absurd 250-300 million guns and the contention that readiness for all-armed, all-nation shootouts would make us safer. I am angry and frustrated that we don’t have sufficient mental-health screening and courses of care, that the budget shortages states face often result in even fewer mental-health resources. I am exasperated that we perpetuate damaging strains of adversarial extreme-individualism and delusional exceptionalism in everything from how we conduct political campaigns to how we invoke God to how we raise our sons and daughters.
At this particular moment, though, I want to think about those 20 kids’ lives and all the moments they held, moments I get to witness and play a role in every day with my children—and that those families did, too, until Friday. How lucky I was to hear the annoying whine of a five-year-old this morning, and to say my children’s names as I embrace them. Another blog post addresses the heartbreaking recitation of the victims’ names. Seeing their pictures is important and difficult; reading their names is devastating.
“The names have me undone,” Lisa Belkin
writes. “Photos belong to the past even from the moment they are taken […]
Names are for the future. We choose them with the expectation that they will be
carried forward, a first and most lasting gift.”
Reading these children’s names and obituaries, taking time
to think about them and their parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts,
uncles, cousins, friends—this feels like honoring them, even from this distance.
It’s easier, of course, from this physical and emotional distance; distance and
limited perspectives make everything easier.
Last Christmas, my sister and I reread a book we’d had as children called The Littlest Angel. The story is about an unnamed boy angel—“exactly four years, six months, five days, seven hours, and forty-two minutes of age”—who’s too rambunctious for the more mature heavenly host. He’s comforted by his box of favorite things, which he eventually gives to baby Jesus: a butterfly, a bird’s egg, two river stones, the tooth-marked collar of his mutt. This is, of course, the perfect gift.
As kids, we sympathized with the Littlest Angel, lonely, bored and scorned in an empty heaven, knowing how his box of treasures distilled the wonderful places he missed. Rereading it last year, we could barely make it through the book: Why is this four-year-old an angel anyway? What kind of sad children’s story is this? Why had he died? How horribly is his family missing him? The gravity of this angle was lost on us until we became parents.
I was reminded of this last Sunday as I listened to a pastor
talk about angels, biblical and humanist, and the etymology of the word, which
comes from Greek for “messenger.” Forget angels, I think. Messengers are
relevant and real. We give each other messages all the time: actions, examples,
warnings, affirmations. By and large, we help each other out, we raise our kids
with love. I cannot look at Theo’s Tooth Fairy pillow without feeling gutted by
the idea of a future violently cut off. What can I do? A lot, maybe. And
nothing at all, really—that’s true, too. Perhaps the only thing I can do
moment-to-moment is be conscious about the messages I convey to myself, my
children, my community.
NBC’s Ann Curry’s 26 Acts of Kindness Campaign has gone viral. She and her Twitter/Facebook audience asked what would happen if everyone committed 26 acts of random kindness in honor of each child and teacher killed last Friday. Buzzfeed has offered 26 examples for inspiration, and it made me feel better just reading through them. I want to start my list.
It may or may not be the least I can do, but carrying the message that our lives are worth mutual appreciation is something. I can start by making sure I reflect it to people I love and know and think about—and to those I don’t know and don’t think of until we intersect. Sometimes there aren’t words for that. Sometimes it’s a smile or a nod or a touch. Sometimes it’s leaning my head against the backseat doorframe of our car and grieving, or committing an act of random kindness, or making myself say aloud the names of lost children, or holding mine tight.