Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Split infinitive

The Phuket tsunami that killed 230,000 people in 2004 happened on my birthday. We didn't have kids then and we didn't have smartphones but we were at an elegant brunch and the conversations around us were animated in the wrong way. We caught the news headlines scrolling on the bar TV that clearly wasn't normally on in the morning and we heard terrible details on the radio before we turned it off and we tried to have a beautiful day of celebration, the one my lovely husband had lovingly planned, without intrusive knowledge of that terrible tragedy unfolding but so far away.

It only just so much worked, of course. News was less immediate then and we proceeded through his planned activities but we saw more headlines, heard further details, knew people were drowning as we drank champagne.

Frivolity is a privilege.

And it's always so awkward to be really conscious of your privilege, isn't it? I celebrated my birthday in the company of my favorite person. I knew people were dying. Those two things happened in sync and that's how it goes, sometimes.

I didn't go to work on Friday because I had taken the day off to prepare for our weekend celebration of L's birthday. Our family was temporarily swelling from five to ten with the influx of far-flung relatives and L's party was scheduled for Sunday. I parked in a grocery store parking lot and delayed turning off the ignition to listen to a breaking-news interruption to a talk show that said that a shooter was inside an elementary school in Connecticut. By the time I came out with my groceries they were talking about children dead in their classrooms. So I went home to prepare for a birthday celebration.

And all weekend, we lived on parallel tracks: sneaking headlines and decorating cake, crying upstairs and gathering shredded wrapping paper, tying balloons around wrists and reading obituaries on our phones. Those are an impossible coexistence. But I couldn't keep from reading, and I couldn't keep from shielding the kids from what I read, and I couldn't keep from celebrating my sweet second girl for all she's worth.

One five-year-old ladybug firefighter on a parachute.

And if you ever need a reminder of the worth of your five-year-old, spend a weekend reading obituaries of six-year-olds. Look up, and go: celebrate life. It is imperative.

But my sweet newly-minted five-year-old, she was not the tug of my heart this weekend. She has been and will continue to be sheltered from this awful story, as will her little brother. It was my biggest girl, my own six-year-old first grader who brought tears to my eyes every time she filled my vision. There is no difference between Connecticut and Maryland except my baby is still alive, and that's everything.

We have a trope in our family. The kids' first job is to be respectful and our first job is to keep them safe. I quiz them sometimes, when they aren't behaving as I wish or when they express disappointment in a conservative parental decision.

"What's my first job?" To keep us safe.
"And what's your first job?" To be respectful.

It's a carefully constructed fallacy that if only we can all agree to grow them up into good people, everything will be okay. But I want them to age into that realization by degrees over years, not unlike that of the tooth fairy. I don't want their faith in our fairy tale to shatter around their pink and purple shoes.

At bedtime last night after a lengthy weekend chock-full of celebration and snuck news, E fell into sobs in the dark. I thought she had hurt herself and when I walked in her room she hurled words at the air: I can't stop thinking about all the dying! How had she heard? My heart sank and I felt like I'd failed her.

Once she'd calmed I learned that she had heard some relatives over the course of the weekend speaking not of Sandy Hook but of the lovely husband's aging grandmother, her great-grandmother, who is in her 90s and ailing. That's a legitimate grief but not the incomprehensible one I was afraid she was facing, not the terrifying unexplainable story of six-year-old first-graders a short few hours away. All weekend I'd debated if I should tell her an abridged version of what had happened as an insurance policy against her hearing it less gently from someone in school, and I knew in that moment I wouldn't tell her anything. I'd just hope my hardest that she remained sheltered from this thing that occupies all the adults around her. I slowly soothed her and she slept the sleep of the innocent oblivious.

Back downstairs, we watched Obama:
It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself, that this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community and the help of a nation. 
And in that way we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children. 
This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.
And I cried some more.

I couldn't write anything until today ended and E came home from school and I talked to her enough to catalog the day's worries and find them all to be ordinary. My six-year-old first grader left for school and came home again and if that's not enough, she came home innocence preserved for another day.

We have cakes and parties and faith that our parents and teachers keep us safe and the worst problems are balloons deflated and classroom seating assignments rearranged. We are so lucky.

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