This morning I sent my three children off to their three different schools. As I suspect every parent across America did, I kissed each of them a few extra times and hugged them longer and harder than on other mornings. Usually, I yell, “I love you – have a wonderful day…!” as they run or bike away from me. Today, I could hardly let go of my tight grip on their arms as I paused for eye contact, this time saying, “do you know how much I love you?” This morning wasn’t like other mornings, for this country seems to have forever changed since 20 impossibly beautiful and innocent six and seven year-old children were slaughtered last Friday in their first grade classroom, a sacred place. Six heroic educators died trying to shield the children.
My youngest child (Truman) is a first-grader who attends a two-classroom K-3 school also located in an idyllic country setting. Truman turned seven in September. Last week, he finally lost that pesky front tooth which had been hanging on too long. Now he has that incredibly cute toothless gap which symbolizes first grade and, for me, has always represented the sweet innocence of the age. He believes in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Other than the occasional conflict over Legos, he knows only peace and love in the world. As Andy and I discussed and debated how to approach our children with the news of Newtown, CT, we could not imagine telling our boy that other first-graders were not safe in their classrooms. I remembered a conversation with Truman last summer as I was prepping him for a PG rated animated film with some “bad guys.” Wondering whether the movie would feel too scary for him to see, I said to him, “you know that all of the bad guys are only pretend….” He interrupted me with, “of course I do, Mommy – bad guys aren’t real; they don’t really exist!” Had I been prepared for that response, I might have handled it differently. His innocence stunned and momentarily threw me. We were driving. I said nothing.
My middle child, Jukie is 11 years old. I hope that he will only ever know peace and love in the world. Living always in the moment, Jukie loves and trusts everyone. Today, I am grateful to know his world. When I spend time with Jukie, I enter his reality. I lie in the backyard with him and watch the wind blow the leaves in the trees. I go through our routine of things-that-make-Jukie-laugh and watch him fall over with infectious Jukie giggles. I spin him on the tire swing. We sit and look eye to eye. I wonder what he is thinking and imagine that he is wondering the same about me. I will never have to tell him anything of the tragic events of last week.
Geneva, my oldest, is a sweet and thoughtful 15 year-old who currently straddles childhood and adulthood with tremendous grace. Sometimes I step back and watch her interact with others, marveling at the mature, composed young woman I see. Other times I find myself attending to grass stains on the knees of her jeans. As she is our firstborn, she is the child with whom we tried to get everything with parenthood “right.” We protected her innocence by limiting media exposure and other worldly influences. We protected her little body by giving her only healthy food. I recall even feeling a bit wistful at the introduction of solid foods at the age of six months, for she had been exclusively breastfed until that point. I realized that I wasn’t always going to be able to control everything she ate. When she was in 2nd grade she once asked me, “Mommy, have you ever used a curse word around me? And was I adjacent to you when you did?” Of course I remember this conversation perfectly, in part because I have been repeating and laughing about it ever since, and partly because those who know me well found this question a bit surprising. My brother jokingly commented at the time, “wow – she doesn’t really know you at ALL, does she?” All of this shielding came from wanting to believe that I could protect her from the world even as I knew I could not.
While our family stayed away from stories and images from Newtown, CT over the weekend, I did watch the memorial service at which President Obama spoke. I think he spoke for every parent when he said:
You know, someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around …With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves, our child, is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice, and every parent knows there’s nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet we also know that with that child’s very first step and each step after that, they are separating from us, that we won’t – that we can’t always be there for them.
As much as I would like to believe in the illusion that I can keep my children safe at all times, I must admit that I can’t always protect them. We parents cannot hold on so tightly that we don’t allow our kids to go experience the world. Our job, after all is to provide a solid foundation of love, nurturance and protection when our children are young so that they grow into competent, capable and independent young adults… who leave us -- one of life’s greatest ironies.
It so happened that before Geneva arrived home from school last Friday, she had heard about the shootings from a friend. Neither she nor I had discussed it with one another, each attempting to protect the other. Two days passed before I realized that she had already heard the terrible news. Truman knows nothing of the tragic event, and I have no plans to tell him. I will cross my fingers that he doesn’t hear it from a classmate. Jukie will continue to hop on the school bus each morning, happily oblivious to any potential dangers in the world. I will remind myself that the world is filled with love and beauty, that violence is the exception, and that I am doing my best to raise kind and generous children whose existence makes the world a better place.