Yesterday morning, Annabel's teacher emailed me a photo of her and despite that I had plans to do other things, I was overcome by the need to write. So I went into my little bubble and I wrote. When I was done, I published the blog on Facebook like I usually do (post linked here). After that, I peeked through my News Feed, and when I did, I saw that something very terrible had happened. It was then that I learned about the shooting in Newtown.
All of the sudden, my post, followed by, "Have a great weekend," felt terribly wrong. At first I added a comment to that effect, but then I pulled it down altogether. I felt embarrassed that I had been typing away in my own little world without knowing the tragic reality unfolding elsewhere. When I visited various online news sites, I read what I can only describe as bits and pieces of one of my worst nightmares. I was speechless; partly crushed, partly numb.
In all honesty, I have not yet watched TV coverage on this tragedy. Despite how self-centered it sounds, I really don't think I could handle seeing what I might see there. This morning I checked online for something -- an update, a reason -- but there wasn't much more than there had been yesterday. This afternoon, there was more -- a photo, tiny bits of a young man's life -- but still, no answers.
Now that I sit back down here, I am, for the first time, so keenly aware of who may read this. And all of the sudden I realize that what I would say to different audiences in the wake of such tragedy would be significantly different. Parents, teachers, school administrators, law enforcement, legislators, gun owners, the President, my friends, my family -- each conversation would be completely different. If I tried to mesh them all together, I would fail miserably.
Brian and I talked about the Newtown shooting but never in the context of What should we tell the kids? I'm certain that's because we both agree that Teddy (and obviously, Annabel) is too young to need to know anything about this. Not that I judge anyone who makes a different decision, but that's ours, at least for now.
Nonetheless, today, as I sit down to use this space both as a source of therapy and also as an important piece of my memoir, I decided to write this post to my kids. Of course, I mean this to be read when they are much older, but they are my only intended audience. I'll share my words, because, well, that's what I've come to do, but please know that each word has been chosen carefully for them. I barely feel equipped to talk to my own kids about this right now, never mind anyone else.
* * *
One of the most important questions you can ask in your life is, Why? I hope that you ask it often and I hope that you listen thoughtfully to the answers you get. For instance, if someone asks you to do something that doesn't feel right, stop a second and ask Why? Maybe that question gives you an answer that helps you to make a decision. Or maybe it just gives you a minute to process why you don't feel right inside. Sometimes it's just time you need.
I hope that it helps you to ask this very short and important question of Why? But the truth is, there will be times in your life when this question won't help you at all. Because sometimes, there will be no right answer to the question of Why?
I am someone who needs answers. It pains me to not understand the Whens and the Whys and the Hows. It's not that the answers are always comforting because oftentimes, they can in fact cause more discomfort. For instance, after September 11, 2001, I often found myself asking, Why? Sometimes I found reasons. Those reasons had to do with world history, politics, economics, religion. But they weren't real answers. Because there weren't any of those. I hope my generation leaves you a world without mass tragedies like September 11th. But I am so fearful that we won't.
Even if we, by some miracle, could hand you a world without the complex international conflicts like those that led to September 11th, I know that you still won't find a world free of tragedy altogether. Because even within the borders of a small town, there will be great sorrow.
I'm sure by now you know all about Scott Herr from the things your Dad and I have told you about him and his family. Much of what I say here is likely what your Dad would say, but I won't speak for him, especially because he had a much different relationship with Scott than I did.
I didn't even know Scott very well. I knew him like I know most of your Daddy's hockey players, which is to say that I knew his name, his face, his hockey number, and all the good stuff Brian had told me about him. I enjoyed talking with him and his family at a team dinner, game, or function in our town, but that was about it. I tell you this because when Scott died almost three years ago, it wasn't as if I had lost someone central to my daily life. And so when I felt like I had, I wasn't exactly sure why.
All I knew was that I was absolutely devastated. The emotional pain hurt so much that I felt it physically. I remember thinking, I know where the term "heartache" comes from. Because I felt pain in my heart. A heavy ache. A darkness. No matter what time of day or what I was doing, it never went away.
For many months, nothing helped. I cried every day, mostly in the bathroom at work or on the train. I cried the moment that I thought about Scott, his brother, his father, and, especially, his mother. It all just felt so unreal, so unjust. So unjust. There was absolutely no answer to the question of Why?
I tell you all of this for several reasons, today, the main one being that Scott's death was the first time that I truly comprehended that some questions have no answers. That realization is not an easy one. In fact, it is indescribably difficult. Maybe you don't end up needing answers like I do, and part of me really hopes that's the case. Either way, at some point in your life you will likely feel emotional pain so heavy that it physically hurts. I wish that weren't true, but, especially if you are blessed with a long life, I think that it is.
I'm writing to you today in the wake of a horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. It's one that likely will be a defining moment in your generation. You won't remember it but it will change the world around you. For many, it may bring that moment of realization that sometimes there are no answers.
I don't know how old you will be when you realize that sometimes asking Why isn't going to get you anywhere. I don't know what event -- perhaps good, but likely, tragic -- will lead you to that understanding. I just know that when it happens, you will hurt, and I'm so sorry for that.
When that hurt comes, know that you're not alone, even though you will feel like you are. Others have felt your pain and if it helps you, find those people, talk to them, learn from them. Or maybe talking about it is too hard, and, at least for some time, that's fine too. Instead, write, or read, or listen to music. Walk or run or hit golf balls really hard. Talk to someone, about something, or find a quiet place that brings you peace. At first, none of this will help ease the pain. But it will help you keep breathing when you feel like you can't.
I don't know what or who you will find that will comfort you in a time of great loss and there's very little that I could write here that will help. Nonetheless, I want to share with you a poem that has provided me some solace in times of loss.
When Great Trees Fall
By: Maya Angelou
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence,
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
* * *
Every word, every line, every idea and emotion in this poem means something to me. I know, as do millions of others, what it feels like to be "eroded by fear," to "breathe, briefly," to "see with a hurtful clarity." Indeed, at some point, your mind may "fall away," you may be "reduced to the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold caves." I hope I am here, if nothing else, to sit with you in those caves. If I am not, or if you'd prefer someone else, then I hope that that person is there for you. Because even though the cave will still be dark and cold, it will be ever-so-slightly warmer and lighter if someone you love is in there with you.
Maya Angelou tells us that "after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly." She doesn't tell us how long that period may be, or how much peace will bloom. Perhaps only time can tell those answers.
I cherish this poem most because Ms. Angelou seems to understand, and vividly describe, the impact of great loss. And yet she finds hope in the most desperate, the most hopeless, of situations. She tells us that at some point, "We can be. Be and be better. For they existed." I don't know why, but I believe her.