Tonight I’ll go back to work, my usual 12-hour shift. Regular life. The shock of Newtown is subsiding, so soon. Each day I shed a few less tears for the families in Connecticut.
My children could do no wrong this week. Whining, bickering, new coats crumpled on the floor, all the things that usually drive me mad—this week, I was only grateful. Fall-to-my-knees grateful. But already this morning, I had to walk out of my daughter’s room to stop myself from raising my voice when she was dawdling, endlessly.
Next week, I suspect, I’ll start sending them to their rooms again. Next week, my daughter will be in trouble if she keeps sneaking M&Ms off the gingerbread house.
This week, I am full of righteous indignation at the insufficiency of mental health care infrastructure, at the blockheadedness of the NRA. Next week, I’ll be filling stockings, packing for a trip to the snow. I will probably cry while filling the stockings, thinking of the high closet shelves in Newtown, the hidden toys with no stockings to fill; but then I will become immersed in creating a tableaux of half-eaten cookies and carrots to verify the nighttime presence of the red guy.
This kind of tragedy does, as it should, create a pause, a pulling back from the details of our lives, a moment of perspective. But we can’t stay pulled back: life has a way of throwing us right back into the middle of our own small routines.
So, while the angle of vision remains wider than usual, I am taking stock. Deciding which of those routines are the ones I want to return to.
Everything but the grief seemed unimportant this week, but it’s not. When I reflect, I see that I do want to return to my regular work, caring for the dying as a hospice nurse, fighting climate change as an activist, hanging the laundry, mothering my three children (lucky, I’m so, so lucky). It does not strike me a meaningless to return my attention to these tasks.
Even as I hold the grieving parents in my heart, my mind and my hands are turning to the work I have chosen, knowing that even with a broader view, even if everything is incredibly fragile, my work is what I want to be doing.
My chosen work is not the buttressing of our mental health care infrastructure, nor the battle for better gun control laws. That work is important, essential, and I will support the people doing that work, and hope that this crisis has given them more energy for their struggle.
Join the people working to create better models for mental health care provision. Join the people working on stricter gun laws. Let’s get help to the people who need it. Let’s keep guns out of our schools. Join me. Let’s stop fracking, let’s overturn Citizens United, let’s divest from fossil fuels. And we’ll join you, in your work. Let’s make a better world.
Back to work.
"If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today." (attributed to Martin Luther)
I will not ask you to be ennobled by your grief. I will not ask you to be anything but brought low by it. I will not expect you to rise up, stronger than before.
I will not hand you a tissue. I will not be afraid of your tears or your snot. I will not ask you to hide them from me.
I will not, ever, ask you “how are you?” unless I want a real and true answer, and expect that real and true answer to be something like “fucked up, beyond fucked up” for a long, long time.
I will not expect you to behave well. I will expect you to use whatever coping mechanisms you need to get through tomorrow. I will not ask for those mechanisms to look pretty.
I will not ask you to choose love instead of hate. Not right now. I will not expect you to forgive me for my undeserved luck in having dropped my own six-year-old off for school this wretched Monday morning.
I will not expect you to be able to have tea with me, to accept my sympathies, to meet my eyes. I will not ask you to pretend we live in the same universe.
I will not ask you to make me feel comfortable. I will not expect you to drive safely. I will not ask you how the dents got in your car, or why the headlight is smashed.
I will not ask you to wait even one day before you get that tattoo. I will not ask you to think about it. I will not expect you to be able to think.
I will not expect you to claim you do not want to kill yourself. I will not ask you to sign any contract agreeing not to kill yourself. I will not expect you to find any such contract at all relevant to anything.
This is all I ask: let me hold some tiny pebble of your pain for you. Let me stand beside you, knowing that it is a miracle of effort for you to be standing at all.
(In memory of Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin, Allison. And of Rachel, Dawn, Nancy, Anne Marie, Lauren, Mary, and Victoria.)
I know grief. I have lost a child. The thought of all those parents in Connecticut—the sleepless night they just had, the despicable means of their loss—it’s too much to bear.
Yet they bear it. They bear what they cannot.
We bear what we cannot and then we get up again out of the sleepless bed and we bear it again. And again. Each day a fresh tragedy of absence, each day a new loss.
When people mourn with us, it makes the unbearable burden lighter. Still too heavy to lift, much too heavy, but infinitesimally lighter.
Then life goes on, and we get up again out of the sleepless bed and we bear the unbearable, each day a fresh loss. Each week a new pressure to live as if we are not shattered, absent.
“How are you?” again and again, a cruel question. The answer simply: “Not fine. Never again fine.”
When people remember with us, when the enormity of our unbearable burden is spoken, it allows us to take another step. To get up out of the sleepless bed one more time, to face the fresh, raw loss of another new day.
“What can I do to help?” Nothing. Nothing helps. Nothing helps, although remembering is what would help if anything helped.
Offer this: “I remember. I will not forget.” Speak their names. This week, next week, next year, every year. Often, and forever. That is how long the children live for us, those who have lost them.
Speak their names.
(For Cedar Makai Lee-Ribas)