I’m not going to write about Sandy Hook. I don’t want to write about Sandy Hook. I say this, and I mean it, but I also know full well that I feel unable to do anything else.
A dozen times a day, I tell myself: “I’m not going to read about Sandy Hook. I don’t want to read about Sandy Hook.” I say this, and I mean it, but then suddenly, I am on CNN reading about the little girl who loved horses and the little boy who loved football and the teacher who loved them all like her own. And I’m crying again.
I’m not normally one to co-opt national tragedies and spend a lot of time consumed by grief that is only peripherally mine.
In fact, the first time tragedy on this scale made it onto my self-centered radar was in 1995, with the Oklahoma City attack. My friend Kate and I, freshmen in high school, were joking about it for some reason (that reason is that we were freshmen in high school) – I think we were making fun of some newscaster’s hair. And Kate’s boyfriend, Paul, two years older than we were, grabbed us both by the shoulders and said, “Good God, what is wrong with you girls? People died. Children died. STOP IT!” And we stopped. We felt horrible. When I saw the pictures of the bloody kids, I cried. But then, about five minutes later, I was back to calling my boyfriend every 10 seconds because his phone line was busy and then calling the girl I thought he liked to see if her phone line was busy, too, so I could prove that he was talking to her.
Columbine happened during my freshman year of college, and I was shaken by it, but I perceived it as a student, with more than a tinge of typical late adolescent convictions of immortality. Yes, I could all too easily imagine it happening at my high school; yes, I’d been friends with both trench coat-wearing kids and preppy soccer-playing kids the year before; but I was in college now, so I wasn’t going to worry about it too much. When I saw the footage, I cried. But then, about five minutes later, I was ordering a pizza and outlining a Virginia Woolf short story for Humanities 104.
Sept. 11 happened during my senior year of college and I was deeply affected by it, as everyone was. I perceived it as an American – but not as a New Yorker, which is to say, I was affected and saddened but I blessedly felt at least slightly removed from it. I cried, certainly. I cried whenever I saw the missing posters. I cried when I imagined being on the planes. I cried when I read about all of the heroes from that day. I cried at the sheer magnitude of the tragedy. Sept. 11 haunted me for weeks, maybe even longer. But even that, as enormous as it was, as unspeakably horrific, didn’t hit me square in the gut as much as this one.
Because this one, I am perceiving as a parent. Not as a student, not as a citizen – as a mom. A mom of a little girl the same age as the children killed. (Children. Killed. I don’t even like typing those words so close together.) I read this incredible, beautiful essay yesterday, and it mirrored what I’ve been saying for days.
I know that geographically, I am every bit as removed from Connecticut as I am from New York, but parenthood has a way of stripping away any sense of “it can’t happen to me.”
When Sept. 11 happened, it was just five days before my 21st birthday. On Sept. 10, my dad had put a package in the mail to me, a present he had spent weeks making: a scrapbook full of photographs of me from birth to 21, newspaper clippings from when I made the honor roll, lunch box notes he had saved from kindergarten. Sept. 11, he said, hit him especially hard because “after making that scrapbook for you, all I could think of was just how much makes up one single life. I knew every person killed had baby pictures and mementoes of their lives. And it hurt so much to imagine losing all of that in one violent instant.”
Well, the Newtown shootings happened one week before Ruby’s sixth birthday (which is today) and two days before her party. I had much the same experience as my dad – I spent the day after the shootings making her birthday cake to her exact specifications (five layers, three tiers, cinnamon cake, marshmallow frosting – red on the bottom tier, pink on the middle, white on the top with a frosting Christmas tree decorated with M&Ms), and it was such a labor of love and reminded me of just how much I treasure her, how much I want her to be happy, how much joy I get out of pleasing her. And every time she would remind me (again and again) that she was going to be 6, which meant she would have to use two hands to show her age, I started welling up. It was just all too easy to imagine her at that school, in that classroom. And then I have to stop. I have to turn off my brain, to remind myself that my girl is here and close and fine, that I can go hug her and smell her hair and feel her nubbly blue school uniform shirt under my hands. Because if I don’t stop myself right there, my brain will spiral into the unimaginable.
Again, I am not normally like this. I normally don’t look for ways to make myself feel worse. But the detail that I, for some crazy reason, keep fixating on is lunch box notes. I write Ruby a lunch box note every day, just like my dad wrote one for me. Ruby cherishes these, refuses to throw them out with the banana peels and cheese stick wrappers. She is so proud when she can read them herself. Sometimes she even leaves little love notes at home for me, tucked under my pillow. And all I could think about, for days, was those lunch box notes in that first grade classroom that never got read. It’s so maudlin. So mawkish. And yet, so close to home that I just can’t stop myself.
Believe me, I know that no child is guaranteed safe passage, that there are many tragedies more likely to befall my children than being the victims of a random, isolated school shooting. But the horror of this violence juxtaposed against the all-too-familiar cheerful innocence of a grade-school classroom – it just resonates.
Ruby has heard about the shootings. She has freakish bat-like hearing, so she had already heard something by the time I picked her up (early) on Friday.
“Mom, how bad are the kids hurt?” she asked.
“I … ah … I don’t know, sweetie,” I said, unable to face telling her the truth.
Hours later, she said, “Mom, is the news on? Can we watch to find out if those kids are going to be OK?”
“No,” I said hastily, choking back tears and panic. “No, we can’t because: guess what! Time to go look at Christmas lights! Hooray!”
But on Tuesday, she asked me again. “Mom,” she said solemnly, brooking no nonsense. “You have to know by now – did those kids die?”
“Yes,” I told her, taking a deep breath. “Yes, baby, I’m afraid they did.”
She thought for awhile. Then she piped up again. “Mom, was it just the bad kids who got shot? Or was it good kids, too? Did the man even shoot the kids who were on green and purple?”
Oh, God. Oh, God; oh, God; oh, God. Of course she wanted to know this. It is the absolute most human of impulses, to cast about for ways in which victims are unlike yourself, to find ways to assure yourself that you’re safe. Ruby is always on green and purple, the “good behavior” colors at her school. I wanted so much to lie to her, to help her make some kind of 6-year-old sense of it, but the underlying implication of that lie would be that the kids who got shot somehow deserved it, and I couldn’t do it. “No, Ru. No kid at that age is truly bad, even if he or she is always on red and yellow. But no, baby, even the kids who would have been on green and purple got shot. It makes no sense. It’s senseless. And it’s OK to be sad and scared.”
And she was. But five minutes later, she was watching “Littlest Pet Shop” and officiating at a My Little Pony wedding in the baby’s swing.
She seems to have shaken it off, the way I did as a teenager, the way I can’t seem to now.
“Mom,” she said to me later that night, just before bed. “Say that poem again, the one you always say about how I’m going to be 6. Because I am. I really am going to be 6 really, really soon.”
“When I was one, I had just begun,” I started, dutifully reciting the A.A. Milne classic. “When I was two, I was nearly new. When I was three, I was hardly me. When I was four, I was not much more. When I was five, I was just alive. But now I am six, I'm as clever as clever. So I think I'll be six now and forever.”
“I love that poem,” she sighed happily. “And I can’t believe that I’m really finally going to be 6! But I think it’s kind of silly. I’m not going to be 6 forever. I’m going to be 7 and then 8 and then 9 and then …”
Happy birthday, Ruby. Happy birthday and – please, please –many, many, many, many more.