I sat on the train, coming home from a beautiful and moving morning of therapy. I would now head home, write up a report, and pick Sophia up at school. I gazed out the window, feeling mildly euphoric, watching the landscape change from urban streets, to the broad expanse of the Delaware, to the darkness of tunnels. A young woman with bright-red, raggedy ann hair sat down in front of me, and I was reminded of how I longed for midnight blue hair when I was a teenager. How strange that seemed now—I had felt so invisible then. I wanted a mark, something that expressed my sense of otherness. Of uniqueness.
We emerged from the bowels of Camden, and I pulled out my phone to check my email. Then the news.
Twenty children shot dead! In their elementary school!
I did and did not want to read on. There was something inside of me that craved the story. The facts. That wanted to make sense of the senseless.
I was still in graduate school when Columbine happened. Columbine. A word that connotes an event, not a place or a thing. I was surprised to read in a Maurice Sendak book that a columbine is actually a flower. A meaning that will forever be obscured by the horror of that day. The word now conjures images of violence and anguish, not of a delicate perennial, named for its cluster of petals that resembles five doves huddled together.
I lived with another student at the time; we were both in a school psychology program. My roommate obsessively watched the news while I actively avoided it, sequestering myself in my room, waiting for the media frenzy to pass. To this day, I have still not seen any of the footage. I did not want those pictures burned into my brain. Grainy images from the school video cameras. The awful suffering of the survivors. Like the others in my program, I struggled to understand what had happened, how we might out into the world and try to prevent these horrors from happening again. We spent hours analyzing it—shouldn’t someone have seen it coming (someone like us in a position we would one day hold), thinking about school emergency response (how do you react when it’s happening and in the aftermath). Thus, as painful as it was, I was able to hold the incident at a cool intellectual distance.
This time, during this school shooting I am a parent and the pain is visceral. Again, I have no need for images. There are all immediately available to me, in my dark imagination. I can picture one of those children being my own. I can see the fear on her face. I can envision myself doing whatever I could to shelter, to protect and to rescue. I can feel the pain, the deep, irreparable pain tearing through everyone around me.
Like every parent I know, all I wanted when I heard the news was my child. I wanted to put my arms around her. To feel her body push me away (Mom! Stop!) and smell her hair in the brief seconds that I could hold her. I wanted her joy. Her carefreeness. Her utter lack of awareness that terrible things happen in this world every day.
Since I read through that first article, I have so many reactions—as a parent, a psychologist, a person—but fear is not one of them. I am no more worried for the safety of my child than I was before last Friday. Perhaps it is because life always seems precarious to me. As Sophie dangles herself from a banister, as a truck comes careening towards me in my rearview window, as I am pulled wordlessly by a Chinese family from the Natahala river, just before the current tugs me, boatless, down Class VI rapids, I know that I am not special.
If anything, the fear is of fear itself. That Sophie will be exposed to the ubiquitous media coverage of this event and her innocence will be shattered. I will have to have that difficult conversation that so many parents are having with their children across the country right now. I will have to let her know that I am doing everything in my power to keep her safe.
But my powers are limited.
The only thing I can do is turn off the noise and tune in to what is.