The morning after last Friday, my five-year-old son, C, went over to his little play table, and told me not to look. But I watched his back as he sat quietly, even though he kept calling over his shoulder: “Don’t look at what I’m doing.” What else could I do, but look at him? Since he came home from kindergarten the day before all I could do was hold his face in my hands, rumple his baby-chick hair, listen to him earnestly tell me about another Friday at school. I hardly let him walk at all on Friday night, and Saturday morning; I practically carried him around the house with his head on my shoulder. So he knew something was up.
“OK, you can look now,” he called, and I hurried over to him. He made me a card. “C loves Mommeyy” it said.
I turned away from him, hid my tears. I rummaged in the drawer to find tape, take a breath, and stick the card up on a cabinet. I hugged him, again. “Don’t forget T,” he said, and I hugged the two-year-old too. Again. And that little glimpse of sadness is about as much of an inkling I want them to have that something horrible happened on Friday.
The internet is clogged with cliches this week, and here’s another: once you become a parent, you can never relax again. It’s a cliche because it’s true. And I can’t. A parent’s job is to anticipate peril, in any form, and shield a child from it as best we can, for as long as we can. But what about a peril, an evil, that’s so palpable, and hits us right where we send our children to be safe, and to thrive? We all know danger is always right around the corner, no matter what we do, but this is too stark and immediate a reminder to us all that everything must end.
I am sure I am not alone when I say it was difficult to send C to school today. Another embodiment of the fact that every goodbye releases us into the unknown. So we all put on boots and hats; instead of one or the other of us dropping C at school a few houses up the street, we all decided to go.
When we opened our front door, it looked like another raw, wet December day in New England. But on his first step out of the house, C slipped and fell. The wooden porch and steps were covered with a thin, invisible layer of black ice. The front walk looked merely wet but it was too, too slick; back in the house we went. We would go out the back door. But those steps were the same. We stumbled back into the house.
Finally, we made it out the third, and last door, through the murky basement. Cobwebs cover the stone foundation walls. C hoped that our noise would scare away the mice he thinks run rampant down there. “What’s that?!” A leaf scurried across our path as we opened the door.
Out on the sidewalk, C was still slipping on the invisible ice, and I walked tentatively, clutching a squirming T. I grabbed a bush to steady myself as I walked, and the leaves crackled. “I’d better take T back inside. Just hold on to C and go,” I said to their dad. There were more pressing dangers at hand; I couldn’t risk a fall to make a statement that would only soothe me, and not protect the boys.
Aside from police that are set to cruise by schools in town throughout the day, it will, I hope, be just another day. And though I will continue to grieve for Newtown, and pray that something good will come of this nightmare, I will say nothing of it all to C. He is five; he is too little to comprehend the evil that people are capable of in the world, evil that can end the lives of twenty beautiful children, and how close to it we all can find ourselves. Though on the other side of it, there is a lesson to be learned in the bravery that was shown by so many that day.
Little kids, judging from watching my own at play, see the world in black and white, like the pages of a comic book. Nearly every game C invents with his friends is about “good guys” and “bad guys.” It could be Spider-Man, or Batman, or themselves in superhero form. But in their make-believe world, the emphasis is not on the evil that these dreamed-up bad guys do. They are just bad; what they do is never specified. What’s important, in the game, is the imperative that the good guys (themselves included) have to vanquish evil and save the day.
“Are bad guys real?” C asked me a few days ago, before any of this happened. “They are,” I said. “Bad guys in comics aren’t real, but there are people in the world that aren’t nice, that do bad things. But there are good guys out there, to stop them.”
We can’t always, as we learned so painfully, stop them. And I can’t always carry my children around the house, or away from black ice, or shield them from terrible things. They will have to be able to stand on their own one day. But not today.
Now, all I can do is foster the good that lives in them, and remind them of the good in the world, the kindness, the bravery. In our town, and other New England towns like ours. And I will remind them with a smile, with warmth and reassurance, while all the while I wear a mantle of grief and fear, that I will hide behind me.