Everything is within six degrees of Sandy Hook. Second amendment flags wave and snap too soon, stinging like locker room towels against a quarterback's behind, NRA haters flail fatality statistics, mental illness advocates tell I told-you-so stories, and the West Baptist Little House of Worship Horrors prepares for a Connecticut debut. Some angrily equate this event to the US drone strikes that have killed innocent children in other countries, while others post beautiful spit-shined, toothless school portraits and interviews of young children who were ushered and begged to shush in dark closets while Adam Lonza walked their school halls and killed 20 of their school mates and 6 beloved educators. Even the most talented of surgical hands couldn't stitch this unthinkable mess back together without leaving a scar as thick and as glaring as the one Roger Daltrey bravely dared to bare when his buttons finally bid farewell during “Love Reign O'er Me” during Wednesday's concert for that other horrible Sandy incident.
How can I even begin to explain this to my kids?
To the best of my knowledge and ability my children have not seen a single news report of this event. We've been on media lock down for the entire weekend. I chose to have a very brief discussion with them on Friday, reassuring them with a voice jacked up worse than Hepburn's that while they were very safe and sound, something unusual and terrible had happened at a school in CT and because they may hear others talking about it over the weekend, I felt I needed to mention something. I explained that before I went into any great details I was going to wait a few days for accurate information to surface and that before school on Monday I would tell them things I thought they might need to know. While I would have preferred not to have said anything, I am very well aware that every family handles news like this a bit differently, and some children have quite likely been allowed to watch news coverage along side of their horrified parents. Knowing there were basketball games to attend and kid conversations to take place all weekend long, I wanted to be a little proactive. I'm quite certain by now many children are now prepared to report a third-grader filtered version of whatever their horrified parents posted on Twitter. I decided right away that I wanted to be the one to try and address this before the playground chatter served this up through a gaggle of confused and unsettled children over Monday morning's game of snowball tag.
In true press corps fashion Miller reminded me Sunday morning that I was due for an official news briefing.
I didn't serve up more information than I was asked for, and even that felt like too much to share with my eight and ten year old children who were unfortunately growing up a little bit sooner this morning and right before my very eyes beginning to think of Monday's school day and the world very differently. They are so curious. They ask away and we talked in very general terms about the horribly perfect (and thankfully very unusual) storm caused when a mentally ill person gains unfortunate, inappropriate access to unnecessary assault weapons. We talked about the brave people who helped save so many lives. We talked about all of the ways we work to keep ourselves safe at school and at home and it wasn't long before Jackson had his fill. He is well aware of his limitations regarding things like this and decided it was time to take a personal time out. Miss Miller, however, was just getting started. She waited behind while her brother left to process things over a game of Madden '13 and knowingly shut the door behind him to protect our exiting empath who was suffering enough. She returned to sit on the edge of my unmade bed where this whole conversation was carefully unfolding like a flag before hanging. She stared at me for a good minute before saying anything at all.
“So children died?”
“Yes. Children died.”
We stare again for what feels like hours. We both are putting forth a valiant effort not to cry.
“How many died?”
I don't want to answer. I tell her so. I tell her just one is too many and that the numbers don't matter.
“Well like a hundred?!” There's a bit of panic in her voice.
No, not one hundred.
“Well how many then?”
She is not going to let this go.
I inhale deep, hold my breath like a balloon and eventually exhale a loud slow soul-deflating hiss. I really want to do the right thing here. So I'm stalling. I'm a firm believer in honesty, but I also know it shouldn't always be ultra-specific. I am tired and emotional and completely off my game. I begin to think I'm fucking this up royally. She's waiting, but her patience is running out.
“How many mom?”
I panic. I mumble the word twenty and immediately regret it.
I watch her brow furrow as she sits quietly and does some mental math. “That's like my whole class. Like almost everybody.” I imagine from the look on her face that she's thinking about her classmates, her friends, their faces, and trying to process something like this happening somewhere on her third grade wing. I am pissed that I gave her an actual number and envision pulling my hair and smacking my forehead like the late, hilarious Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney saying something like “Remember....um....remember when elementary school was fun? And, uh, you used to only have to worry about being scared that your cranky music teacher with the very high waisted pants might yell at you? Yeah. That was so awesome.”
Miller is still staring and I'm totally failing to find my “The love you take is equal to the love you make” moment.
Cue Farley's “IDIOT! You're so STUPID!!” I want to prat fall into the empty moving boxes that still sit in my room and be done with this. Suddenly, I'm ripped from my fantasy SNL debut by Miller's voice.
“I don't want to die at school, Mom.”
I can't stand it. My eight year old child--barely a year beyond most of the children who lost their lives Thursday--now has to consider the possibility, no matter how slight, that someone could somehow figure out a way to get into her locked elementary school, bust open the door to her classroom and do the previously unthinkable. I watch a bit of innocence evaporate as she stares back into me. Life and love are so not for the faint of heart. I reach over and tighten her pony tail and we sit quietly while I search for some brave new words.
It wasn't long before Miller interrupted the silence to ask me for the impossible. She wanted some sort of promise that something bad like this wasn't going to happen again.
Using the word promise is a really big deal in my house. For me it is a sacred word and it couldn't be clearer. If I use the word promise, my children know that I am guaranteeing something. It's going to 100% abso-fucking-lutely happen. Or not happen. The end. So if I promise I will be home by 9:00 pm to kiss them goodnight, that I will sew the strap onto a dress before Tuesday, that I will not forget to pick them up from a play date, or that I will bring in Newman's lemonade juice boxes in for the holiday party, it's happening. Drink up, Johnny! A promise is a promise. They know this.
This has worked to every one's advantage. I'm no doubt still successfully pulling off this pending Santa business because no one has (likely strategically) elected to officially ask me about the big guy using the P word. No one has dared to ask “Do you prooooomise you're not Santa?” I suspect they are fully aware of the potential implications of that question, and so while they are willing to ask about my “involvement” with Santa, I'm able to act like his half-assed accomplice a la Lt. Debra Morgan and just bumble horribly through half-truths and fibbish responses until they leave me alone.
I'm suddenly well aware that Miller is using a little reverse strategy here. She is in desperate, deserved need of a promise right now. One I so very desperately and deservedly want to give her. But I can't. I mean I could lie, but I can't lie. I can't look my kid in the eye and make a promise that I can't guarantee.
For the last two nights I have barely been able to sleep thinking about the myriad of mentally ill children I have worked with over the past 20 years and how we continue to cut resources for, quickly diagnose, over and half-ass medicate, and isolate these children and families. As someone once responsible for coordinating services for some of the neediest families in our state, I simply could never in my heart promise that something horrible like this is not going to happen again because I am soberly aware that it could happen at any moment in some of the most precious and unthinkable places.
“I can't promise something like this isn't going to happen again. It hopefully won't. I think there's less chance of it happening now that we're all talking about it. I think we'll all work hard to try and make sure it doesn't ever happen again. But I can't promise something bad like this won't ever happen again. But here's something I can promise you. Principal Boodey and Mrs. K and Mr. Roux and Nurse Claudia, and your librarian and Mr. Charlie and allllll of your teachers are your Woodman Park heroes. They are there everyday to teach you and to protect you. You have a school full of superheroes on your side every single day. Teachers are heroes. That I can promise you.”
I'm just getting on a roll, back on my game, prepared to tell her a simplified version of how I can also promise her that I'm going to contact our legislators and advocate more aggressively for the elimination of assault weapons and for better mental health services. But before I can continue, she suddenly stands up.
She leaves, but not before grabbing the wipe board and orange dry-erase marker she propped up against the wall before we started out chat and says “Let's go, class.” You see, just before this discussion Miller was jotting the names of her stuffed animal students and playing school, as she does in literally every spare moment. My daughter longs to be a teacher. A hero.
“Are you OK, Mill?”
“Yeah. I'm OK.”
With that, she disappears from sight. And as her feet pad down the hallway carrying her very well behaved “students” back to class, I whisper the question I didn't dare to ask straight to her beautiful moonie face for fear of her answer.