Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy on December 14, my heart– like the hearts of parents across the world– has been heavy. I have not let my second grader out of my sight since I picked her up from school on Friday afternoon. We have cuddled more, talked more, touched more. I have listened more.
And I have thanked God for every minute because I know how precious and un-guaranteed our time together is.
Before I collected Hannah at school on Friday, I went to my son’s residential treatment center to pick up clothes and medicine for his regular weekend visit to his Dad’s house. Alex had been in the hospital because of stomach issues since Tuesday afternoon. He was discharged after lunch on Friday.
When I left Alex’s room and crossed the hospital lobby Friday morning, I said a silent prayer of gratitude. We are blessed to live close to a world-renowned children’s facility, and everything about it is exceptional. The lobby has wide open space and designs that catch the light and make patients feel like the folks who work there don’t have to commute to work because they must just descend from the heavens right through the skylight, like angels. Everyone– from the security guards to the surgeons– loves children and cares for their families as if it were second nature. When I walked through the hospital on Friday, I felt comforted, cared for, safe.
That was before I heard about the shooting.
On the drive back to our neighborhood with Alex’s things that had been laid out on his bed by his staff neatly tucked into a bag beside me, I listened to our local news station and began to cry in the car.
Eighteen children, they said then. It couldn’t be.
Between the ages of 5 and 10, they said then. No, no, no….
A familiar pain pierced my insides, the sort of heartache that makes new parents leave the movie theater after a child-abduction scene or stop eating beef when they hear a news story about a school-age kid dying after ingesting a half-cooked piece of hamburger. You know– the kind of pain that is not from your own family experience, but that threatens your security anyway. That makes you want to hug your kids right-this-minute and find some-kind-of-comforting words to say to the other parents, because you know it could easily be you who needs the comfort-that-no-one-can-really-bring-you-no-matter-how-hard-they-try.
I dropped off Alex’s bag and sped to Hannah’s school. More cars than usual were waiting early. I walked to the front lawn and stood with my hands in my pockets, trying to keep casual and not let the thousand words in my head explode on the scene all-at-once.
I looked around at the other parents, a beautifully diverse crowd of every color, background, family arrangement. I looked at the school and the artwork in the windows. I looked at the houses across the street with their holiday decorations and shutters and shrubbery.
I realized in a more-than-speculative way that no one, anywhere, is really immune from the tragedies that hit the news.
I caught the eye of Hannah’s first grade teacher and she crossed the lawn to meet me. I had been keeping friends updated about my son’s health and sending prayer requests over the previous days and she was happy to hear that Alex was out of the hospital. As she embraced me, she said:
“I gave Hannah two big hugs today– one for her and one for you.”
Again, I felt comforted, cared for, safe. And grateful.
Hannah and I spent a quiet “girls’ night” watching movies, eating popcorn and chatting with friends who were staying with us for the weekend. I thought about how we will talk about this terrible thing that happened, and I wondered what she will hear at school on Monday and what questions she will ask.
As the weekend continued, I learned more and more about what happened at Sandy Hook. Now they were saying twenty children…
… first graders….
Last year my first-grader Hannah amazed me with what she learned and how she grew. She was a compassionate, beautiful light in our family and my proud mama heart secretly felt there was no way she could ever impress me more. Then came this year, when she has blossomed beyond my expectation. I listened to more news stories and I cried for the parents who would never know that second-grade feeling.
I choked through a video of heroic teacher Kaitlyn Roig explaining how she hid her students in a tiny bathroom and told them they were loved because she believed that was the last thing they would ever hear. I sobbed reading about 27 year old Victoria Soto who hid her students in cabinets and closets, saving their lives by telling the shooter the kids were in the gym before he shot and killed her.
Aubrey told me I had to stop watching the news and reading the stories. But I didn’t. Like everyone I knew, I was searching for some meaning, wrestling with questions no one can really answer:
Where was God in all of this?
What precipitated such horror?
How would the press, the doctors, the “specialists,” the politicians, the parents respond and explain?
When the reporters said the words:
“… autism spectrum… mental illness…”
I looked for the first time at the face of the 20 year-old killer. I have only seen one picture of him because I cannot bear to look any closer. In the picture he looks young, skinny, with a mop of brown hair. More innocent than his actions would reveal him to be.
And more like my son than I had expected.
“My little girl has so very much in common with the 20 young lives cut short by a senseless act of violence.”
She goes on to describe her heartbreak at hearing implications by reporters that the killer may have done what he did because he was somewhere on the autism spectrum. When I read her post, I felt heartbroken too. There is something about people making the connection between autism and what happened to 20 innocent children at Sandy Hook Elementary that is not only wrong and unfair, but that saps the energy of parents like me, somehow twisting the sadness we feel into anger and defensiveness.
And the truth is, as Prof Mom Esq plainly and clearly stated:
“Autism is a neurologic disorder; it is not a mental illness.”
Still, even as armed with information and resources as I am, a choking, cold grief encompassed me last night as these different stories and images came together in my head. My daughter, so like the child victims. Her compassionate teachers and suburban school, so like Sandy Hook Elementary. The parents…
And a troubled boy in a photograph who did this terrible thing. A person we all will speculate about and condemn and probably never, ever understand.
Autism does not cause violence. And violence does not always come from expected or explainable places.
My autistic son is not a murderer and I have to believe he is not in danger of becoming one. But he is challenging and misunderstood and often troubled. And I am a parent who has been asking for help for him continuously since he was a toddler.
How many other parents are out there, asking for help for their troubled children right this minute?
Another post crossed my desk today, written by yet another mom, Liza Long, with an important, heart-wrenching, difficult-for-most-to-imagine perspective. She is raising a son who has intense behavioral challenges and she questions the available resources for those with mental illness. She writes:
“In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”
This mother passionately advocates for “a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health.” And I agree with her. We need to talk openly about the needs of families and individuals in crisis so we can find things that work instead of creating more problems for them within a flawed system.
So where was God on Friday? And where is our Higher Power, the Universal Good now?
I remember a story years back about a special needs child who was given a chance to play in a little league baseball game. Thanks to his peers who made sure his attempt at bat was successful, he scored a home run. The boy was overjoyed of course, and his father later remarked that he felt the true miracle was not so much in how his son experienced that day, but in how the other kids came together to make it happen. The boy’s gift to the world– what the father believed his son was put on earth to share– was the opportunity for such miracles to take place.
I believe that is where God is– in the middle of those miracles.
God is between the conversations we are having right now. He is in the pain we feel, in the ways we are compelled to reach out to each other. He is in the actions we take to give another person the sense of comfort, security and safety we so desperately crave.
There is nothing that can be done to put the broken pieces of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary back together the way they were. Humanity is broken and imperfect all the time. But perhaps all the bits and pieces, the grief and the sorrow can come together in a way no one could ever have predicted. Perhaps God did not desert us. Perhaps the miracle is not hidden somewhere in those horrific events or in all those circumstances that came together in all the wrong ways to cause unimaginable suffering for the Newtown, CT community.
Perhaps the most important miracle is yet to be uncovered.
Maybe it is in the way we will come together now to make a change,
to create a different future,
to have a “nation-wide conversation,”
to open our minds and hearts to the misunderstood,
to protect the innocence of children,
to heal the traumatized…
Perhaps God is here.
I am grateful for everyone who has felt compelled to write over the last 48 hours and for their honest, raw, heart-felt words.
I have found my higher power in-between your letters and essays, and in the courage you found to share your thoughts.