Keep On Living

“Did you hug him today?” the elderly gentleman asked me as we walked down the aisle to exit the church this morning.

“Of course,” I replied, knowingly.   It’s been fifteen days since the shooting at Sandy Hook, and here in nearby Monroe, we all still feel it.  The funeral wakes, several of them, were held in the funeral home here in our town.  The families are our neighbors, our friends.   If you didn’t know one of those families personally, you know someone who does.  I volunteered before Christmas in the school where the Sandy Hook kids will come back to later this week.  I helped set up the library.  It was my job to remove all of the shelves and lower them down to elementary student height; the building had been a middle school in our town.  Here the pain is still real and raw.  The holiday we just celebrated bittersweet, the carols sung between tears.  I knew what he meant.

“I lost one,” the man went on.  “In Newtown.  My family, we lost one.  My grandson.”

I stood, stunned.  This poor man had come out to church this morning, two weeks later, in the midst of his grief.  He was alone as he addressed us; no wife, no daughter, or son.  It came to me, as I searched for the words to console him, that my son must look like him.  Like the one he lost.

“I am so, so, sorry,” I said in response.  I had no idea what else to say.

When I was working at the school before Christmas, there were families that came in while I worked, feverishly at my task, trying not to think about what the people who worked alongside me had been through.  Parents came in with the siblings that survived, hoping to ease their fears about going back to school.  Thousands of brand new plush animals lined the too tall bookshelves; we offered one to each child who passed through.  They weren’t crying.  They weren’t grief stricken.  They were trying to put one foot ahead of the other, for their other kids, for themselves.  More than one of them thanked me for volunteering in the school that day.  I could barely look at them.

How could they thank me?  How could they think of anything but how terrible this tragedy was, the child whose photo had already been sent out in their Christmas newsletters and cards but wouldn’t be there to open their gifts?   I cried through Mass at church on Christmas, thinking of those kids.  I bawled looking at the Snowflakes for Sandy Hook flyer tacked carelessly on the wall of a restaurant we ate in, a thousand miles away.  The pain I feel is insurmountable and terrifying.  It is nothing compared to theirs.

“Thank you,” the man answered.  “It’s just so terrible.”

He didn’t cry, this man who clearly needed to talk about the little boy who must have looked like my own.   He didn’t even look sad.  Just matter of fact, stating the obvious.  The devastatingly obvious.  I suppose fifteen days afterwards, after all of the news and the cameras and the shock and the everything, that would be all you could do.  Reach out to others who were lucky enough to have what you lost.  Remind them that every day is a gift, every moment with your child isn’t guaranteed.

We lost the man in the crowd as a few people came to give him a hug on his way out.  But if you’re familiar with church, you know the long queue out to the open gathering space is crowded and takes a bit to navigate.  We found ourselves standing at the door with the man again, and I paused, wondering what to do next.  It wasn’t required, of course, but he’d shared his most personal loss with us.  I couldn’t just silently walk away.

“I hope you have a good day today,” I mustered, kicking myself.  I should have said that I would be praying for him, or his family.  The mundaneness of my closure to our encounter frustrated me.

“Happy New Year,” he offered in response.  “This year has to be better than last.”

And it occurred to me, as I stood there, how in awe I was of this stranger.   He was still hoping for happiness even in the completeness of his grief.  He’d come out to church, alone, on a snowy Sunday, looking to be part of the community.  He had lost a grandchild in the most unspeakable way, but he was forcing himself to continue on.  To look for hope despite it’s absolute absence fifteen days ago.  To find, in my little boy, a glimmer of something that made him smile.  To reach out to us and let us know that.

I still haven’t found my way through all of my many emotions about what happened in Newtown.  But I know, after this morning, that the important thing is to keep on living.  Despite tragedy, death, loss, suffering, pain.  Because if this man can do it, then certainly I can.

Keep on living.

Coming Here

They’re coming here.

The students.  The survivors.  Those who the gunman wasn’t able to kill.  They’re coming to a school in my town in a few days.

We closed a school, a few years back, in a contentious budget cutting year to save money.  We reconfigured our entire school system and changed the culture of our district.  It was a difficult, divisive time in our town.  Every time I have driven past that closed school to the current middle school, I have felt a twinge of anger and sadness.  It sits empty, the sign in front claiming it schools students in grades 5 and 6, but it doesn’t.  On the side of the building, boards fill in a space where windows should be; when the window broke, no one thought it was worth spending money to fix.  Because no one uses the building anyway.

But now, in the wake of the horrible tragedy on Friday, our empty school is no longer a burden, a symbol, an albatross.

It is a gift.

It is a gift we can give those families that lost everything last week, so that they don’t have to return to the place where so much evil occurred.  They don’t have to go back at all this school year, if they don’t want to.  They will have the luxury of time to figure out what to do next.  Because they can come here.  They can come to our town, to our school, and hopefully feel some shred of safety and comfort in returning to some sort of routine.

I’m grateful that there is something tangible we can offer these families.

I don’t know any of those who died on Friday personally.  But I know so many who do.  I knew three of the names before they were released because they were friends of my friends.  One little boy went to preschool with a friend’s daughter.  Another took Tae Kwon Do with several friends’ kids.  A third used to work with one of the parents.  And the father of the gunman works for the same company as my husband, although in a different location.

My own daughter is fearful.  They put her school in a lockdown so strict that they all huddled in a corner away from the windows and the doors.  When the kids snickered and talked the teacher told them tersely that this was “not a drill”.  For a period of time, she thought the incident was at her school.  That the bad guys were coming down her hallways.  And now she knows that only a few miles separated her from that reality being hers instead of those poor childrens’.   She has friends that don’t want to return to school tomorrow.  There will be police, there will be counselors, there will be little learning and much talking about unspeakable things.

I do not know what kind of world it is that we live in.  Today, from my small town in Connecticut, it seems a very, very dark place.

Newtown

I had just come home from a run and was feeling pretty proud of myself.  I’d run 6.25 miles this morning, in 30 degree weather, and walked another half mile to warm up and cool down.  It was farther than I’d ever run before, in preparation for a 10K race I signed up for in New York City.

I’d planned to spend most of today working on a website, an upgrade to a current client’s site that they wanted done by Christmas.  So I quickly hopped in the shower and got cleaned up before sitting down at my computer to get to work.

My homescreen is NBC News.  On the screen was a red breaking news bar.  They use red for the really big stuff, so I glanced up at it.  “Shooting at elementary school in Newtown, Conn.”

Newtown is the town next door to me.

I frantically clicked on the words, but they weren’t a link yet.  The story was too new.  I ran for the TV remote and turned on the television.

It was true.  It was sickeningly, horrifyingly true.

I called my girlfriend to see if she knew anything.  I couldn’t even get the words out.  I called my husband, out of town for work in Florida.  He already knew via Twitter.  He seemed calm.  Why was he so calm?  This was ten miles away.  This was an elementary school.  This was too close, too awful.

I turned to Facebook for more information.  Friends started posting that our own school district was contemplating a lockdown status.  With the news reports hinting at more than one shooter, I wasn’t surprised when the call came through:  schools on lockdown.

At first, it seemed like a terrible tragedy had been somewhat averted.  For several hours the only fatality reported was the gunman, and the local hospital reported only three hospitalizations.  I tried to work on my site with the TV on in the background.

But then my girlfriend called back.  “27 confirmed dead,” she croaked into the phone, her voice thick.

“No.  That cannot be true,” I answered.  But then I started changing the channel.  Sure enough, some stations were indeed reporting that.  We cried together for a minute, until my cell phone started ringing.

When the out of town calls started coming in, that’s when I realized that this was not a tragedy averted.  This was real.  Those statistics were real.  My seventh grade daughter called home and asked me to come get her; the schools were allowing parents to pick up their kids (but you couldn’t go inside the locked down school).  I ran out of the house and made my way to her.

There were six other parents waiting there when I got there.  My girl reported to me that dozens of kids had already been picked up.  That the school had shut down the wi-fi to try and protect the kids from the worst of it.  The TVs normally running during lunchtime in the cafeteria were switched off.

But it wasn’t until I returned home with my girl that I learned the worst of it.  I wouldn’t turn the TV on to protect her and her brother from the scary images being played wall to wall.  I opened my computer and looked to the Newtown Patch, a site I follow because it is the town next door, a town so similar to our own.

It was then I learned that the children were killed.

Children.  Babies.  Kindergarteners.  Children younger than all of mine.

I cannot process this tragedy.  I cannot find words to express how horrific this all is.  I cannot even imagine what those parents are going through, what this day that started out so ordinary, so typical could have been like.  Just a few miles away from me.  In a school just like my kids’.  I am stunned, saddened, heartbroken, lost.

God bless all of those sweet angels.  Take care of the too many families going through hell this cold December night.

 

Freaking the @#$%#$ Out

Pardon me while I spend the next seven days trying not to freak the $#@#!$ out.

My son, who is on the autism spectrum, came home a few weeks ago with the results of his eye exam at school.  Here in the Northeast, we are fortunate to have nurses in every school and they run vision screenings  once a year.  Michael’s are always fishy.  They always send me a note saying I need to get his eyes checked out.  But the pediatrician always says that his eyesight is fine at the well child visits.

A few years ago I decided I better take him to an eye doctor, because I wear glasses, and so does my husband.  My husband’s eye problems are very minor and he didn’t even start wearing glasses until he was in middle school.  But mine are severe.  I’ve been wearing glasses since I was two, and my mother was partially blind in one eye.  I have astigmatism, extreme lazy eye and am far sighted.  So I figured I’d better get an eye doctor involved since there were questions.

Michael’s visit was a disaster.  Three year ago, I think it was.  Since Michael is on the spectrum, you can imagine what the bright lights, the asking of questions by strangers, the dark rooms and the strangers in the waiting room brought us.  But the worst was the drops to dilate his eyes.  I ended up having to hold him down on the floor so they could be administered.  And after that?  He was not exactly compliant with answering the questions the doctor had.

Still, the doctor gleaned enough information then to tell me that he didn’t believe M needed glasses at all.  I was shocked, but relieved at the same time.

Fast forward till a few weeks ago.  Michael gets tested again at school, and comes home telling me that he mostly sees out of only one eye.  This is classic lazy eye talk, so I promptly seek out a new eye doctor based on friend recommendations (since the other one didn’t exactly handle M’s freak out very well) and make an appointment.

The whole appointment was going about how I expected.  The doctor was, as promised, fabulous.  Funny, caring, really careful knowing Michael’s issues.  Michael is also older now, so much better able to handle his discomfort.  There was lots of reading letters, looking through various lenses, and I was sure that they would be writing me the script for Michael’s new glasses.

Except, no.

Michael’s vision is nearly the same between the two eyes, and both are below the threshold for needing correction.  He doesn’t need glasses.  But he definitely is favoring one eye over the other.  The question is, why?

The doctor was perplexed.  Normally, lazy eye comes from disparity in vision between the two eyes.  One compensates for the lack of ability of the other.  But that wasn’t the case with my boy.  Either his eyes had been much more disparate in the past and he hadn’t been able to communicate it, and now the eyes are growing and changing and becoming less different, but the habit is in place.

Or.

Or this is a recent occurrence.  In which case something else is going on.

There’s no way to know.  M says that it isn’t recent, that he’s always been this way, but it’s hard to know, because his concept of time is not the same as the rest of us.  Also, he never was able to communicate clearly about much until the last few years.  His teachers never have thought (even last week when I asked them) he had a vision issue.  He’s never had headaches or crossed eyes.

So, we have to find out if there is “something else” going on.  Which means an MRI scan at the hospital, next week.  With M’s issues, he’ll have to do it under anesthesia, because there’s no way he could lay still for the amount of time he’d need to.

It’s probably nothing.  It’s probably a situation that he’s had forever and is just being able to communicate.

I have to wait at least seven days to know that for sure, though.  And in that time, I have to be sure not to consult Dr. Google.  Because Dr. Google is scary.  He talks about things like aneurisms, and tumors and all sorts of scary things.

So I will watch, and wait, and try not to freak the #$@$# out.  Still, if you have a prayer to throw in our direction, I would be grateful.

Who’s the Grownup, Here?

At 42, I finally have the sense that I am a grown up, an adult.  I think of things in an adult way, and I get frustrated when other adults around me don’t behave as an adult would.  But I still get the sense, sometimes, that I am perceived as less than adult when dealing with people more my senior.

Case in point:  I serve on the board of a local fundraising entity.  The stated goal for this group, which formed several years ago, is to raise money to benefit education.  I was asked to be on the board because I bring several skills to the table (mainly web and graphic design), and because I have somewhat of a reputation in my town for being a fairly vocal education advocate.

But when I walked into the room for our first meeting, I noted with dismay that I was the youngest person in the room.  By at least ten years.   I was not going to be the chair, or the vice chair or the secretary of this group.  I was going to be a worker bee.

Which was fine with me at the time.  I spend a lot of my time volunteering for various organizations in town, and my time is spread pretty thin anyway.  Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.

Unfortunately, I’m not a good worker bee.  I like to be a leader.  It’s hard for me to to work in a situation where I feel that the group is poorly led.  It goes against my nature.  I’m competitive, I want everything I am involved in to be good, to be successful.  But I have always felt, within the confines of this particular group, that I shouldn’t be telling the older folks in the group what to do or how to do it.

Since I strongly believe in the mission of this group, I’ve tried to just kind of work around all of that and still get the job done and the ideas flowing even with a hand tied behind my back like that.  I try to be polite.  I try to follow the rules.  But when you’re working with 6 people and you feel like you’re the only one who really cares if things proceed or progress, it becomes really difficult.

It’s why on Friday night I actually lost sleep composing in my head a note to explain to my 60something chairman why I could no longer serve on this group.  Because even though I feel like I am right, even though I laid out my case succinctly and with loads of evidence as to why I had every right to be frustrated, I still felt like a child talking back to the grownups in the room.

Still, I sent the note Saturday morning via email to the chair, vice chair and secretary of the group.

Dead silence in response.

I had sincerely hoped that the leaders of the group would have not even realized how badly things had gone off track until I laid it out so carefully.  That they would realize they were making a grave error to the health of our organization by jeopardizing my participation in it.  That they would call or email right away trying to make things right.

But that hasn’t happened.

I can’t decide if it makes me even more childlike for having the naive thought that they would beg me to still be part of the group, or if it makes them even more dysfunctional for not addressing my concerns with me immediately.

Somehow, no matter how adult I think I am, the doubtful child in me persists.

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