On Friday afternoon, I read the horrible, unimaginable news about the school shooting in Newtown, CT. Like so many others across the country, I struggled to keep it together, to keep from breaking down in front of my own three children, two of whom had just returned home from their own elementary school, which is not unlike Sandy Hook, not unlike elementary schools in small towns all around the country.
At one point I withdrew to the bathroom for a few minutes, to cry and then compose myself. I didn’t want my children to ask what was wrong. How do you explain to two 5-year-olds that 20 children, hardly older than they are, had just been killed? How do you explain to a little boy who loves to play with toy guns, but has no real understanding of death, that someone with real guns just shot up a first-grade classroom? How do you explain evil to a child?
There is no explanation, of course, no matter how old we are.
With the sadness and confusion of Sandy Hook still in the back of my head, we went about our weekend business. We helped my parents find and cut a tree to set up on their porch and decorate for Christmas. We went to the town Christmas party and saw Santa. We went skiing and watched the Frosty the Snowman movie and attended a holiday party with friends and acquaintances, nearly all of whom have children in elementary school.
I hugged my kids a little tighter over the weekend, sometimes struggling to keep myself from smothering them with love. I was more patient than I often am, speaking more gently even when I had to repeat, ‘Please don’t jump on the couch,’ or ‘Stop singing at the dinner table and just EAT,’ for the umpteenth time. In my head I thanked god and the universe and my lucky stars over and over again that I had my children to love and to scold, and I wept inwardly for the parents and the children of Sandy Hook.
Monday morning the opening of school was delayed by wintery weather, so we ate breakfast at a leisurely pace and wrapped Christmas presents. Sandy Hook was not on my mind until I pulled into my children’s elementary school. It’s a small school – just over 100 kids from three towns in seven grades. Everyone there – students, teachers, parents – is familiar. And, so, it feels safe. It is supposed to be safe, this school for young children in a small mountain town.
I don’t know if it was the realization Monday morning that nothing is safe, no place is safe, that nearly sent me into a panic. More likely it was the thought that I was doing what 20 other parents had done last week – what millions of moms and dads do every weekday – dropping my kids off at school and telling them I’d see them in a few hours, that I love them, to have a great day. Even that simple act of normalcy now seems a huge leap of faith.
I know other parents – and teachers – felt the same Monday, and probably will for a long time. I read that Newtown students returned to school this morning, and I can’t begin to imagine how scary that must be for them, for their parents, for their teachers.
I don’t want to dwell on the horrific news of Sandy Hook. I don’t want to think about the man who killed those children and their teachers. And yet I can’t stop thinking about it. I’d like to say I read instead about the children lost that day and the adults who protected them as well as they could, but even that is too much. It is too much to bear even here, two states away, with no personal connection to Newtown, CT.
And so I put on my holiday face and finish writing out the Christmas cards. I sing Christmas songs with my kids and wrap their presents and go through the regular pre-Christmas scramble. But amid all the joy of the holiday season, I find myself often on the verge of tears.
Tears of sadness and bewilderment for Sandy Hook. For the children there who loved horses and singing and playing dress up and dancing, just like my own three children do. For their parents, who surely have Christmas presents wrapped and placed carefully under the tree, gifts that will never be opened. For their friends and siblings and teachers who have to somehow find a way to carry on, when so much has changed.
Tears of frustration and of powerlessness to make any useful changes. How do we prevent anything like this from happening again? Stricter gun control? Better care for people suffering from mental illness? Both seem insurmountable challenges.
Tears of gratitude and love for my own family. As news of the shooting broke, President Obama said, “Our hearts are broken today.” Yes, our hearts, all of us, are broken over Sandy Hook. There is no silver lining to the senseless killing of 20 first graders and the teachers and administrators who died trying to protect them.
What there is is a reminder of what really matters in this world, the things it’s easy to forget amid the hustle and bustle of every day.
And so I hug my kids and worry about them. I relish the beauty in the everyday things that mean so much – the uninhibited laughter of excited children, the Christmas lights twinkling through the darkness of a dreary December day, the first-thing-in-the-morning hug from my 3-year-old, the calming act of breathing fresh air deeply, the beautiful smile of my little girl, the magnificence of the mountains outside my window, the dancing joy in my little boy’s eyes, the promise of snow and of brightening days.
My heart is broken. And, yet, my heart is full.