Month: June 2016

Some Conflicting Thoughts in the Wake of the Orlando Massacre

Monday June 13: As I pull up to my son’s elementary school, my breath catches at the sight of the American flag at half-mast. It’s a symbol I associate with fallen war heroes, with uniforms and helmets. It’s also a symbol I associate with DOMA, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and an unchecked AIDS epidemic in the nineteen-eighties.  They mourn us. My own thought startles me. They mourn us when we die now.

Wednesday, June 15: It’s noon when I learn that Senator Chris Murphy is staging a filibuster to insist that the Senate vote on gun control legislation. My heart leaps. Something is happening in real time.  I click on a link to open the live stream and leave it open on my desktop all day. I can’t get any work done while it’s playing, so I listen for three minutes at a time, pause it for a while, and then check in again.The filibuster isn’t boring; it’s not what I’ve been taught to picture: a man in a tweed suit wiping sweat from his brow and reading from the phone book. Instead, each time I open the live stream, I see senators delivering considered, impassioned words. I see Elizabeth Warren invoking the names of those lost in Orlando; I see Senator Dick Durbin tell his colleagues, “If you use an AK-47 to hunt a deer, you should stick to fishing.”

Late that night, once my kids are asleep and my house is finally quiet I go online and see that it’s still going on. Everyone in my circle is tweeting with the hashtag #filibuster.

I have it too; I have the fever. I stay up past midnight. For the first time in a long time, I feel hope for our government. I see our officials working their asses off to push through legislation that they know their constituents support. I read speculation about how Senator Murphy can hold the floor for so long without a bathroom break. I am brimming over with gratitude for all the senators who took the floor.

At the same time: I doubt. I read forecasts that a vote on basic gun control measures still won’t pass and, sadly, I believe them. I brood over the senators who vote nay on these measures time after time and wonder how they sleep at night.

Friday, June 17:  It’s raining as I scramble across campus in my black cap and gown. I’m on my way to attend commencement at the community college where I work. By the time I reach my seat the rain has stopped, but the dark clouds loom.

Our president opens with words about Orlando. He comes out to the crowd of thousands as a member of the LGBTQ community, and spends some moments reminding us of the legacy of hate that his people have faced. Our people. I notice I’m not breathing. Instead I am sitting there frozen, feeling like one vulnerable body in a sea of bodies. I wonder if I were straight, would I feel this exposed? I look around the crowd and wonder who is listening, and who might be rolling their eyes, looking at their watch, wondering why we have to be talking about the gays, about tragedy and guns, when they just came to watch their nephew or daughter or cousin walk across the stage and be handed a diploma.

Our college president invites us to honor the 49 lives lost as the bagpipes play Amazing Grace. The bagpipes. They seem to stutter their way into the song and for a moment the whole thing seems wildly absurd and I stifle a laugh. But then the music lifts, and the sun comes out–sudden and blinding and hot. I lift my hand to shade my eyes. It’s one of those moments where even if you don’t believe in God, you can at least understand how someone could. You understand how someone might think that there’s an order to things, that the world runs on grace and forgiveness, and that even in tragedy the light that we bring to each other somehow gets recycled.

 

 

Advertisements

When Children Bear Witness

This week I hit a deer.

One moment I was participating in the morning commute, driving with the flow of traffic, headed towards the onramp on a long flat stretch of road. Both of my kids were in the back seat. NPR was on. The next moment I was moving into something, I was braking, colliding; I was hollering Oh no! Oh God! Oh no! It took a moment for the rest of my brain to catch up, for it to name the thing that was happening. I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for twenty-one years. I have seen deer run down my street like neighborhood dogs on the loose. I’ve seen deer eating grass on the hillside next to the freeway. I’ve seen deer run across the highway make it to the other side. And just as often I’ve seen evidence of the deer who hadn’t made it, the stains on the asphalt, the road-kill. I’ve told myself that this was a thing I never wanted to be: a person who hit a deer. And now that’s what I was doing. I was hitting a deer.

Oh no! Oh God! Oh no! I kept saying, until Smoke’s cry interrupted my panic. I came to, and remembered that I was supposed to be an adult and in control. The deer had landed in the middle of the road. All of the traffic had stopped. From what I could see in the rearview mirror Stump looked stunned and Smoke had tears streaming down his face. “I wish this could just be a dream,” he said. I turned on my blinker and pulled into the breakdown lane. I turned off NPR. I didn’t know what to do about a deer in the road, but I knew that it was my job to see this thing through. “I’m so sorry,” I told my kids. “I’m so, so sorry,” I was saying it to the deer too, and also to the world.

In the seconds it took me to pull off the road, the deer had vanished, had somehow made it to the other side of the road and disappeared into the forest. Traffic began to move again. I stepped out of the car to assess my vehicle: a tear in the bumper, a small dent in the hood. A man with blonde dreadlocks in a pickup truck looked at me and then shrugged. I made a series of pointless phone calls. The Humane Society didn’t answer their phone. Animal Services told me they would help an injured deer in the road, but they would not go looking for one that had fled. My insurance company, after taking my statement, reminded me that I’m only insured for liability.

I haven’t known how to talk to Smoke about what he saw that day. I don’t want to push him to relive those moments if he’s already moved on. But on Wednesday, the day after the collision, I overheard him speculating to a friend about animal heaven and when I asked him why he was talking about that he answered very plainly, “the deer.”

As for me, I’ve walked around haunted, thinking about the empty space in the road where I’d seen the deer fall. How could she have made it to the other side? It wasn’t until Saturday that I finally realized that Smoke had probably witnessed what I had missed. “Honey,” I began, “did you actually see the deer get up that day?”

“Yes,” he said, and he went on to calmly describe what he had seen. What I wanted to know was had the animal managed to fully stand, and Smoke’s answer was yes, but she had fallen several times before she figured it out.

For the rest of the day I thought about what Smoke saw, that he had witnessed alone something tragic and grim, an animal so hurt she couldn’t find balance. I hadn’t seen it; he had. My own eyes couldn’t mitigate the pain for him.

This morning when I woke up, I saw that my niece had posted about a shooting in Florida. I didn’t want that to be true, and so I pretended it wasn’t happening. Two hours later at a friend’s house, this friend checked her phone and made a comment about 50 people dead. I didn’t want to think about what 50 meant.

By lunchtime I decided I would need to take a moment and find out what had happened. I told myself to wait until I had settled Stump down for a nap so that I could be quiet, but instead I just sat down at my computer and googled the search term “news”. I was mostly numb as I read about the mass shootings that had happened in Orlando at two in the morning, and then suddenly, involuntarily, my body absorbed some fraction of the truth of fifty people killed, and my face contorted and froze. That was the moment that Smoke wandered in. “What?” he asked me. For the second time in a week, I struggled to gather myself enough to make words. I told him that in another state fifty people had been killed with a gun. I wasn’t sure what to say or how to feel, and so I asked him, “Would you mind holding my hand for a sec?”

He gave me his hand. It was smaller than mine—but not much smaller than mine—and a little damp, and every time I loosened my grip he tightened his own until the seconds turned into minutes and he asked me “What state does Uncle Will live in?”

“Massachusetts,” I answered and quickly added: “That’s not where the shooting happened.”

When I started writing this post about the deer it was Friday and I had no idea that I would wind up here. One minute I’m driving, the next minute I’m colliding. One minute it’s Sunday morning, the next minute I’m sobbing at my desk. And just behind me, sitting in the backseat or glancing over my shoulder, I have this seven-year-old boy who is grown enough to see things I don’t want him to. And I don’t know what to tell him. I don’t know what to say.

stairs