Wedged between Noah's actual birthday (Thursday) and his four year old birthday party (Saturday) was Friday, December 14th, a day when the most unspeakable horror possible took place in Newtown, Connecticut. I first heard about it on NPR while driving to the mall to pick some things up for the birthday party. My first thought when I heard, my unfiltered, split second, automatic thought was that I didn't think I could handle being alive at that moment. Because being alive meant that what I heard was true and it was always going to be true and I just couldn't handle knowing it. And if I couldn't handle knowing it, oh my God, how could these parents be experiencing it right now, be living with it starting today.
My next thought was I need to cancel Noah's birthday party. We couldn't have a party, we couldn't be happy; it seemed callous; it seemed impossible at that moment, to have a joyous party the next day. I wanted to fold up and lay in bed and stare at the ceiling and cry and I was sure that every other parent - and person with a soul - would want to do the same. And I thought... how dare we have a party when these parents of these angels are barely breathing today, barely moving, shells of themselves.
And suddenly, the concerned and little voice of Noah, strapped in his five point harness, speaking up from the seat diagonally behind me. "What, mommy, what? What are they saying? What about the kids?"
(Though I remind myself all the time, sometimes I forget that he listens. To everything. And he notices mommy quietly freaking out, swearing silently over and over.)
And all I could think to do was mollify the horror for him as I processed it myself last Friday afternoon. I am honest with my son a lot, almost always. I tell him when I am having a bad day and if I think I really messed up. I tell him when I'm sad about my mom. I explain that I am really surprised at him when he doesn't behave in a respectful way and wonder aloud if I did something to make him think that's OK. He knows that I was as (more) nervous for his first day of preschool as he was.
But he couldn't know this, my little boy whose favorite place these days is his cozy little school in our snug New England town. My little child, who knows what death is already, but not that it can happen to kids.
I told him that some kids got really hurt by a person. But that this kind of thing almost never ever happens. And that it was far away where this happened. And then he asked where and I said "Connecticut" and he said, "Have we been there?" and I said "Yes." Because it's really close. All of it is so close.
Here I was, sitting in the car, feeling the need to hear every piece of news as it broke, and I did what I of course had to do. I turned on Noah's favorite pop music station and listened to Katy Perry or whatever other drivel that sounds just like her. And I kept driving to the mall to get birthday gift bag treats. When we arrived, he was asleep. And instead of waking him up because we had to scoot into the mall fast fast fast, I picked him up and held him and carried my four year old baby into and through the mall in my arms.
This tragedy brings out the most fierce protective instinct in all of us. So, we ignore any self preserving desire to hide ourselves from life for awhile and instead put on the best damn four year old party we possibly can to convince our children for as long as we possibly can that *this* is what life is all about. We pick our babies up more than usual, we stare at them a little longer when watching them play, we forgive naughtiness a little quicker, and we hold them tighter as we tuck them in. That is, if we are among the lucky ones who can still do this.
We throw our arms around a devastated community as far as we can possibly stretch them. We want to fix it and we can't. We want to send money to make it better, but money can't make this better. We push harder for congress to reconsider the second amendment. We begin to open up about mental illness, but at the same time we want to protect our little ones and older ones who suffer from such difficulties from more stigma.
And then there's the type of protection that occurred on Friday, teachers of their students, their children. I have read many stories - of the principal lunging at the gunman in the hall, of a young teacher locking her kids in a closet and telling the gunman they were all in gym class. I have read many stories, but these are the ones that I hope will stay with me.
Even our children feel compelled to protect, as I am learning. I didn't know if I should be proud, sorrowful, or stunned today when out of the blue, more than two days after our only conversation about this, Noah said to me, "If children ever get hurt by a bad guy again, I will send in an alligator after them. If mommies' and daddies' children are ever getting hurt by a bad person in a school, I'll protect them with the alligator."
We need to figure this out. And no, certainly allowing alligators in school for protection is not the answer. I understand his instinct, but he's four and four year olds have no idea how to handle alligators or how much damage they can cause.