Several days after the Parkland shooting, my husband, two kids, and I are on a plane, heading to Orlando for our first visit to Disney World. All three of them are queuing something up to watch for the trip while I’m looking out the window, wondering which pictures I’d choose. School photos? Maybe the dress-up ones from last Christmas? I can’t think of any close-ups of the kids’ faces since I have a tendency to take pictures from behind.
The plane is full of families, many of whom are wearing Mickey or Minnie ears or matching shirts that say, “Mama,” “Papa,” and “Baby’s First Disney.” As we deplane, our pilot asks, “Visiting someone?” “Mickey,” I tell him. He asks if he can come along.
On our way to the rental car, we pass a bag-sniffing dog. “Do Not Pet,” my eight-year-old son reads aloud. “Why can’t we pet him?”
“Because he’s working,” I say.
“Working? He has a job?”
He and his four-year-old sister laugh. Dogs with jobs! Oh, the hilarity!
“They’re police dogs,” I explain. “They’re keeping us safe.”
“Safe,” he says. “From what?”
Don’t be too vague, I think. He worries enough as it is. But, dear God, don’t be specific. I’m the mother here. I’m supposed to have the answer. But answers—and mothering—don’t come easily these days. The gun crisis is a childhood crisis is a motherhood crisis, because who really knows what to say about guns and sons and love and fear anymore? Who knows what to say to a child who’s afraid of the dark when school could be the death of him?
When he screams, “I’m going to die!” during the unexpected fall at the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, do I tell him that he probably won’t die like this? Do I tell him anything at all about Parkland, or about Newtown, which is just 23 miles from our house? Do I tell him that the reason I asked him to switch seats with me at the restaurant last night is because the news was on at the bar and I didn’t want him to know yet what a line of kids exiting a building with their hands on each other’s shoulders means? Do I tell him that the drills he routinely does at school now, hiding silently in the back of his classroom, aren’t really in case a moose gets into the building, or a bad storm comes out of nowhere? Do I tell him that what he’s really doing is practicing how not to get murdered during math?
If my parents’ generation can tell you where they were for all of the assassinations, mine can tell you where we were for all of the mass school shootings. On April 20th, 1999, the day of Columbine, I was 24 and alone in the writer John Irving’s house, sorting through fan mail, answering the phone, and entering edits he’d left for me on his new manuscript, The Fourth Hand. John and his wife, Janet, were abroad, and so I was carrying out my job as their assistant, manning the home office and the house along with their chocolate lab, Dickens. I had broken for lunch mid-afternoon and was standing over my salad in front of CNN, when an image I will never forget flickered and filled the screen: a bloodied person folded limply out the broken window of a building. Eventually we would all learn that this was Patrick Ireland, one of the many students to survive the shooting, in spite of gruesome wounds. I never returned to my desk that day. Instead, I watched the footage of the running kids, the SWAT teams, and Patrick Ireland finally falling out the window to safety. I was young enough still, fresh out of college, to identify as a kid that day. These were my peers I was watching live out the horror. I pictured my own school and wondered whether anyone I’d grown up with might have done the same. Who would have died; who would have lived; who would have been the heroes. I felt like any one of the kids running or dead could be me. When the story turned to the families of the killers, I wondered how such monsters are made. From what kind of mothers?
At Disney, we are floating out of the arctic room of “it’s a small world,” my radiant daughter yelling, “a wheel of light!” when my phone informs me that Trump supports the NRA’s call for arming teachers. Not tightening gun laws, but giving more people more guns. As I help my daughter off “the happiest cruise that ever sailed,” I picture my children’s actual teachers with guns in their hands.
“That was beautiful!” she says. “Can we go again, Mom?”
“I thought you wanted to meet Cinderella,” I say. Maybe the pictures of them with our new puppy would be better, back when he was so little he could fit in their laps. Or the ones climbing the red rocks of Arizona. They were so brave that day.
“No way!” she yells. “She’s too big!”
“Yeah,” my son says. “Horrifying. I’m not doing Space Mountain or fighting Darth Vader either.”
I’m about to laugh when it hits me that as much as I wish they’d be more adventurous than I am, these are the things you’re supposed to fear when you’re four and eight and at an amusement park for the first time: experimental assaults on the senses; that eerie blue border between real and pretend. You’re not supposed to fear being gunned down at school with a war weapon by a suicidal classmate. At least for a little while, you’re supposed to be able to say, “No thanks—too scary. Can we get an ice cream now?” And as a mother, you’re supposed to be able to say, “I’ll keep you safe,” which I still say all the time, but I don’t believe it myself.
We talk a lot about how magical it is to be a mother. How mesmerizing. How challenging. How exhausting. But we don’t talk about how lonely it can be. I’m not a single mother, nor am I raising a child with a disability, yet the loneliest I have ever been is as a mom. It is terribly lonely to be responsible for helping another human through this world. So maybe a picture of them together since I’m an only child and always marvel at the treacherous beauty of siblinghood.
On December 14th, 2012, I was 37 and had just arrived home after dropping my three-year-old son off at preschool and doing a few errands, when I started hearing about a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown. By the one o’clock pick-up time, we’d received an email from the school acknowledging the tragedy. Our school director asked that, due to our children’s tender ages, we not discuss the shooting with each other or the teachers during pick-up. And so I found myself among a throng of desperately silent, desperately knowing adults, all holding ourselves together as we bundled up our bundles, not looking each other in the eyes. I spent the rest of the day in the still-magic, still-oblivious world of my chatty little boy. I didn’t cry until my husband got home, and I volunteered to pick up our take-out just for the time in the car alone. I listened to NPR and sobbed. At a stoplight, I looked around me—anyone else out there feel like this?—and caught two others sobbing at the red light I wished would never end.
A week later, when Gov. Dannel Malloy announced that 26 memorial bells were to ring, the number surprised me. Twenty eight people died that day. Though I understood why there would be no bell for the shooter, the first person he killed, in her bed, with her gun, was his own mother. I felt shattered for every one of the families who lost someone at Sandy Hook Elementary. But I also ached for Nancy Lanza, whose isolated burden of mothering Adam haunted me, haunts me still. I, too, was a mother now, and along with all the wonder, came the quick, unwelcome skill of imagining the absolute worst at any time of any day. It was easier than you might think for me to imagine how lonely and dark her days alone with Adam must have been—and how consequential decisions in her case would have been, or, as we now know, were—a gun enthusiast, she regularly took Adam to the shooting range. We are often so quick to blame mothers for their children’s behavior that I couldn’t help but wonder how her side of the story would have sounded had she survived. Which scenario would have been worse, I thought—that she died or that she might have lived.
“Why don’t we get an ice cream,” my husband suggests.
My daughter hops back into her stroller like she’s Indy-500 ready, my son assumes stroller control, and we’re cutting through crowds and bubbles in search of the least-crowded treat. I take one of my son’s hands off the stroller for a minute and keep it in mine, imagining all the last moments the Columbine and Newtown and Parkland parents didn’t know they were having with their kids at the time. The last hug, the last word, the last glimpse gone oblivious, mid-air.
We’ve chosen the Jungle Cruise for the last ride of our trip. We make it through the tunnel of spiders thanks to an endearingly corny skipper named Brian. But then we hit a snag—a serious back-up of boats. Several rides aren’t working today so everything else is unusually taxed. Brian has to come up with lots more jokes. At least he seems to think so. One of them really gets my son and after cracking up, he smiles with calm, genuine enjoyment, a look I’ve seen on him somewhere before. And that’s when I know which pictures. For him, the one where he’s posing so naturally next to a hot pink, softball-sized peony; for her, the one where she’s straight-banged, rosy-cheeked, hunched down, inspecting a leaf—wait, wait, no—the one where she’s skipping down the beach in Maine with her eyes closed. Yes. That’s how they should be remembered.
On February 14th, 2018, I was 42 and after putting my son on the bus at the end of our driveway and dropping my daughter off at the same New Haven preschool he’d attended during Newtown, I was folding laundry and writing Valentine’s notes when they arrested the Parkland shooter. I was watching when the number of dead rose from two to 17, and I thought, this could be the one—the school shooting that teaches my son about school shootings. He still believes the wild-animal drill, as far as I know. But our days of that are numbered. An older kid on the bus, someone with an older sibling, or parents who make different decisions than we do—someone would know and inevitably tell him, maybe before we could. The next day, I spent my therapy session talking about how I might respond if he comes home with that look on his face—the one my friend’s six-year-old had in 2012 after one of her friends told her all about Newtown during recess. But he got off the bus as usual that day, telling me how much he ate, whom he played with, whether it was warm enough to go out for recess. After half an hour, he finally said, “Mom, it was so funny. Someone thought they heard a gunshot outside school today.” Hair on my neck tingled; so did toes, fingertips, kneecaps. “That doesn’t sound funny,” I said. “That sounds scary.” “No. It was funny. The police checked it out and said it was a car backfire.” That’s all he had to say about it. I still don’t know what happened, what he knows, or how he knows it—but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know everything—not yet. I think I won’t be able to say that next time. I think next time, I’ll be leveled by a new normal for my big little boy, searching for a mother’s words to fit a world that feels like a bad fit for children.
Yes, this is scary. Yes, you can ask me anything. Yes, a terrible thing happened. No, I don’t know why. Yes, it could happen again. Yes, I am here for you. Yes, I can help you—if you keep talking to me, I can help. Yes, I believe you. No, I will never leave you. Yes, you can have a snack. No, we don’t have to talk about this anymore. Yes, you can go out and play now. Kiss the dog first; he’s been waiting. And, honey? Please look out for your sister. And zip up your coat.