Last week, my daughter and I loaded ourselves into the car and drove the hour and ten minutes to Santa Fe High School. I'm not sure what we were expecting, if anything. There is a pull between broken hearts, an invisible thread that runs through our suffering, connecting us, drawing us closer. My Evelyn was not the victim of a school shooting. She didn't meet a violent end. She slept. And then she just stopped. Stopped beating, stopped breathing, stopped being. It is as peaceful a passing as one could hope for. But as a parent, you don't think about such things because even the peaceful passing of a child is a tragic maelstrom opening up in your world, swallowing everything whole. So I can't say that I truly know what the parents of those eight students and two teachers are experiencing. I don't know what gunshot sounds like up close. I don't know the spilling of my child's blood. I don't know how it feels to have someone to blame besides myself. But I do know the absence and the ache. I do know the silent scream, and sometimes not so silent, that begins way down deep and never really ceases no matter how pulled together you appear on the outside. I know the wreckage. I know the fury.
And so I had to go. I had to do something, however small, to say, "Yes, I know. And I am here. Your children matter. Your pain matters. You matter. This matters."
There is nothing quite so cold as the return to normal after the death of a child. Of course, we know, those of us who have lived it—are living it still—that it will never be normal again. But no matter how much we say it, the world around us slowly turns away, forgets. We are greeted with countless How are you?s by those who should know better, as if our lives didn't just implode, as if we aren't a walking ruin, as if our child never existed at all. All our trauma, the flotsam of what remains of our shattered hearts, is swept tidily under the nearest rug.
I imagine, for those whose children die in a very public way, like the parents of victims of school shootings, that it is a little different. Not only will they be met with the steely denial of those around them eventually, the push to bury their sorrow and desperate longing away from the unfeeling eyes of the world at large, but the tragic end of their child will become fodder for the media, for anyone with a political agenda, for those looking to further their own ends. Even something as personal and intimate as their child's death no longer belongs to them alone. It is ours. It is everyone's. It is public.
I walked with my surviving daughter from cross to cross on the front lawn of the high school that day, telling myself that these white planks of wood, these ribbons and wilting flowers, these poster boards and picture frames and plastic rosaries—these are people. They are not just stuffed bears or snuffed candles or plastic pinwheels. Each one is a life. And I tried to make myself feel it, for the parents who belonged to them. The parents who at that very moment may be debating with whatever shards they have left of themselves whether they really want to keep living in a world without their child, the way I did and sometimes still do. I laid white roses at the feet of their collections. I placed candles I couldn't light in the wind. And I spoke their names—Aaron, Angelique, Kimberly, Cynthia, Sabika, Chris, Jared, Shana, Glenda, and Christian—for the first and the last time.
It wasn't magical or moving. It was hot and strange and surreal. No matter how I tried to know them through the scribbles on their crosses, through the photos left on the grass, I couldn't. And I imagined how many people have heard Evelyn's name since she died, read it in my posts perhaps, and feel the same as I did on that lawn—unable to really reach her, to know her truly. And that's the worst of it. I've looked the victims up online. I've stared at their faces. And that's all any of us will ever get of them now. Who knows what each them may have been about to release in the world. Who knows what potentials they were carrying in their hearts and minds, what tomorrows they were shaping into being at that very moment when all their tomorrows were stolen. We've all lost something in their passing, something we can never know.
I intended to write this post about what I thought went wrong, what is happening or not happening in the world of our youth that is causing them to scream at us from behind the barrel of a loaded gun. But I don't want to make this post about the killer. I don't want to make it about anyone else but these precious lost lives and their families. And I just want to say that I am sorry. I am so, so sorry that anyone else has to know this hell. I am sorry I cannot do more than say their kids names on a hot afternoon and leave flowers in the grass. I am sorry I cannot make a bigger difference, the kind that might make their pain more bearable for the next twenty or forty years, the kind that might make the next kid stop and think and choose not to let a gun do his talking for him. I am sorry we live in a world where children die and children kill. I am sorry their children are among them. I am sorry mine is too. Every child lost is a piece of our collective future being chipped away. We may think we do not know them, when they aren't our own. We may think we are lucky it wasn't us or ours, not this time. But it was. They are all ours. Until we learn to see that, to let ourselves feel it ... well, maybe I am writing about what went wrong after all.