“The obvious answer is gun control!”
“Clearly, we need to arm the principals!”
“The only way to protect our children is to teach them to use guns for their own protection!!!”
“We need to put God back in our schools!!!!!”
My own personal feeling on each of these issues aside, the response seemed a vulgar politicization of a horrible event that deserved to be left alone. Why couldn’t people just let these poor families grieve without looking to score a win for their pet cause on the backs of the victims?!?
But in that quiet moment in the dark of our home, it occurred to me that most of these people (leaving the media and the politicians and the actual lobbying groups aside) were just looking for a little bit of control. As parents, we think we know how it feels to be powerless when it comes to our children — the inability to make their tummies stop roiling when they have a stomach bug; the helplessness when they are bullied at school; the lack of influence as they try out for the role in the school play — until we encounter a situation like Newtown. Each of us with young children stopped to imagine what we might feel like if it were our children that we put on a bus for the last time. What it might be like to stand outside their school wondering whether they were alive within that building we had entrusted to shepherd them into some bright future that now might never come. And though we could never really understand how that would feel, many of us came close enough that we felt we had to do something – anything – to protect our children.
Of course, when I say “we,” I use that in the royal sense. The reason I didn’t react in this way, I suspect has more to do with my family history than a lack of empathy. Before I was born – before my father even met my mother – my father was in a plane crash. He and a newly-licensed pilot friend set out for an adventure in a rented Cherokee Piper Cub. My father retired to the back of the plane to catch a quick nap when the Piper Cub crashed into the side of a mountain. The pilot was instantly killed, but my father’s choice to nap had spared him his life. Badly injured, my father crawled up to the peak of the mountain before deciding that he should crawl back down the mountain to check on his friend and look for help. After confirming his friend’s death, my father crawled down the mountain, where at the bottom a work crew heard his screams. The crew had been packing up their gear for the last time after three weeks of working in that spot. Years later, my parents met, married, and had me. When I was a toddler, my father got a shot of penicillin for a sore throat, and a few hours later, my mother found him dead from anaphylaxis. Then, early in my teen years, I lost my mother to a brain tumor.
Somehow, growing up with the knowledge that someone can escape the grip of death after a plane crash but lose the battle as a result of routine medical care or an untreatable disease imbued me with a deep understanding of the impermanence of life — and the great potential of it as well. At times — like when my five year old is incapacitated by a simple stomach bug — this aspect of my background leads to unnecessary hand wringing. But at other times, I have the gift of perspective.
My initial response to the cries for reform was a barely suppressible desire to scream, “Don’t you people understand? This is unavoidable!! This is part of the human condition!!!! You can’t stop crazy!!!!!!!” (Yes, each successive shout deserved additional exclamation points.) But after a night of repeatedly wondering whether there was some way for me to take my daughter’s stomach flu on myself so as to spare her the agony, I felt I understood the Newtown reaction a bit better.
I still don’t agree with many of the sentiments people posted, but I do understand why they latched on to their causes. I do think there is room for better gun control in this country. I know we could do better in identifying and treating mental illness. But my sincere hope for the legacy of Newtown is that each of us will gain better perspective. That parents who never let their kids be kids for fear of losing them, will understand that we cannot protect our children from all the dangers the world presents, and let them enjoy life with all its flaws. That parents who take for granted the many precious (even if mundane) moments we experience daily, will stop spending so much time looking to the future and start living (at least a little bit) for the present.
No doubt those impacted by the events of December 14th will carry this message in their hearts for their remaining days. And it seems unavoidable that most of us will soon carry on with our lives much the same as we did before December 14th. The greatest gift we can give to the ones we love — and the greatest tribute to the victims of any tragedy and their families — is to let them know (and remind ourselves) constantly how much we value them – to tell them just a few more times than seems necessary how much we love them every day. We cannot shield our loved ones from all the evils our world presents, and no amount of reform can eliminate all those evils. But we can make certain that if we ever find ourselves in the position of having to say goodbye to a loved one sooner than we would like, we never have to wonder whether they knew how we felt about them while they lived.