Everything feels off-kilter since I started reading and hearing about the elementary school massacre in Connecticut on Friday. Even the Christmas tree we picked out yesterday morning is listing—as if unable to right itself under the weight of the carnage.
Shaken by Friday’s atrocities, I awoke Saturday morning and felt the need to do something together as a family. We decided to go buy our tree. But the first place we visited wanted $40 for the small evergreen we were eyeing. So we dashed to a second spot in the minutes we had left before my husband went to coach a basketball game and before our older daughter’s ballet class. In our haste, we chose a tree with a crooked trunk.
But somehow, as my husband and I spent nearly an hour this morning trying to get the tree to sit upright in its stand, our kids alternately playing and bickering in the background, our lack of success in achieving symmetry seemed fitting in this post-9/11 world where youth are becoming terrorists—where a disturbed boy of 20 accessed a cache of assault weapons that enabled him not only to shoot his own mother dead but also to mow down 26 other people, most of them 6- and 7-year-olds, before turning a gun on himself.
Obviously, no one can make sense of this monstrous event or answer all the questions that plague us in the aftermath of gun violence. I, myself, am worried about sending my nearly 6-year-old twins back to kindergarten tomorrow. Luckily, on Friday, I had already fetched them from their half-day of school when I started reading online about the slaughter. The fact that the children who died were my kids’ age and that their teachers, principal and school psychologist were also murdered brought this bloodbath too close to home, as it has for many parents—including our president.
In emails, my twins’ teachers assured me that they did not plan to make formal statements about Friday’s tragedy but that they would obviously have to address, in the most reassuring way possible, any child’s questions that might arise in the classroom. My husband and I, like most parents, are shielding our three kids from coverage of the slaughter, trading off reading the newspaper in rooms separate from them, switching on CNN only after they are asleep, and making sure we flick the channel back to the weather before shutting off the television.
But ultimately we know we cannot always safeguard our children. We cannot sequester them at home out of fear of what some person might say or out of terror of some greater horror. Even if we hide them away with us for a day or two, hoping that the initial shock waves of this current calamity will subside and quell the need of other children—who may have accidentally seen the news or of older kids who are already too aware of the terrors of this world—to discuss Friday’s carnage, chances are at some point, at least one of our twins will hear something. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher shared with me that her own daughter had been in kindergarten in September of 2011 and that although they did not expose their little one to the news, as a mother she recalled how frightened she was when her daughter started asking questions.
Many of us feel a similar fright now. I’ve read much advice, since Friday, about how to talk to one’s children if they ask questions about this massacre. Most experts say to tell kids that their parents, teachers and caregivers are making sure that they are safe, that they are loved and that this was an isolated event. And while these measures seem rational and prudent, they also feel slightly inadequate and dishonest. Friday reminded us that adults, even the most steadfast ones, cannot protect children from unforeseen events, or even from frightening chatter—not to mention bullets—in the hallways of schools or in the neighborhoods of this world. ‘But we can keep trying,’ I thought this morning, as we adorned our home for the holidays.
“I think everyone will like how we decorated our house,” my older daughter said, as she put her last ornament on our tilting tree. Earlier, her twin brother accidentally smashed one of the colorful bulbs on the floor. Georgia dropped a zebra from the ceramic menagerie we suspend from pine branches every year, cracking off one of its legs. And then Jane, 2, had her turn, shattering another glinting orb in her rush to find a place for it.
Each time something broke, we ushered our children from the living room so they wouldn’t cut their feet. I swept the large pieces into the dustpan and sucked up the slivers with the vacuum before telling our kids it was safe to return. And when the floor was finally free of shards and we stood together admiring our lopsided tree, I wished that I could somehow tidy up and right the world for all the children in it.