I heard the terrible news as I was driving a carload of mothers home after we had spent the day chaperoning our children’s 5th grade field trip to Williamsburg. One of the mothers saw a report of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on her phone and began reading the information to us. The minivan that had just moments before been buzzing with tired, but happy chatter became silent. I drove on, half-blinded by the tears that fell as I thought of the parents who had sent their children off to school that morning, never considering the possibility that it would be for the last time. I thought of the little children, who died in fear and unthinkable violence. I thought of the heroic principal and teachers who lost their lives trying to protect their charges. I think all of us mothers were finding it impossible not to picture ourselves and our own beloved children in that horrific situation. The second we arrived at our kids’ school, I leaped out of the car and ran into the school building to find my son, who had arrived minutes earlier on the bus with the other children. I felt an enormous rush of relief to see him sitting on a bench waiting for me just inside the lobby, safe and sound. I snatched him up and hurried home to get back to the rest of my family. I hugged all of my children extra tightly that night and went to bed early with tears that wouldn’t stop rolling down my face.
The next morning I woke up still crying and had to drag myself out of bed. At times like these I careen between two extremes: I either want to escape the pain of sentience with the sweet opiate of sleep or I become possessed with a manic need to clean and scrub and purge and organize until I drop in exhaustion. I decided it would be the latter, more productive option. Pity my poor family, because they all get conscripted to help me when I metamorphose into a cleaning machine and start barking orders like a crazed martinet. My “ballistic intentions” for the day, as psychologist Eugene Galanter would put it, were to clean the house to a sparkle and to finish all of the Christmas decorating. We finished hanging every single ornament on the tree and hung the stockings on the mantel. I trimmed the boxwoods in front of our house and sent my daughter around the yard to gather sprigs of pine, magnolia leaves and clusters of Nandina berries so that we could finish the advent wreath I had thought we would just not bother with this year. I dug up the advent calendars my mother-in-law made for the kids and hung them up after all. We unearthed the Noah’s ark calendar and hung 15 animals. We got up to date on our “Jesse tree” that only had 4 rather than the 15 stickers it should have by the 15th of December.
The day before, I had convinced myself that it was pointless to bother with these things, especially the ones that mark the passage of time. Now that we’d already missed half of advent, I had thought it was silly to go to the trouble for just the two remaining weeks. But today it seemed important and necessary to observe all of our holiday traditions. It seemed especially important to bother with the rituals that mark the passage of every single day we’ve been given on this earth.
As for my second “ballistic intention,” after all of that decorating, well…the whole cleaning-the-house-to-a-sparkle-thing didn’t seem quite so important after all.
How do we continue to live our lives after tragedies like this? How do we not become frightened, broken homebound recluses? We cry, we stumble, but we get out of bed. We get dressed. We do the best we can to be the best people we can be, even though we know we are flawed in so many ways. We fiercely love and care for each other, especially the “least among us.” We try to treat everyone as if they were our sister, our brother, our mother, our friend, our child. (Everyone except the Westboro Baptist Church hate-mongers, who exclude themselves from the human family with their evil ways. It’s simply impossible for me to feel anything but visceral revulsion for them). We allow our children to go outside to play, to go to school, or to a friend’s house, even when we’d rather just keep them locked up safe at home. We try to give them the experience of love, warmth and safety, knowing full well that this is not always what the world will have in store for them. We don’t give up correcting them when they are not their best selves, even when it seems hopeless and we’re tired of the battle. When we see other parents struggling with their children, maybe we look on with compassion, rather than judgment. Maybe we even let our house stay messier than it should be, so we’re not as crabby as we could be…
We just got back from our church’s candlelight Lessons and Carols service led by children in the congregation. My daughter was not feeling well, but it felt like we needed to be there together.
When we sang the line “Bless all the dear children, in Thy tender care. And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there,” it seemed like a special benediction for the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School and really – for all of us.