Friday, April 19, Cambridge, Mass.
This morning, I awoke to my nervous son, holding out the phone. It was the head of his school, calling to let us know that the last day of vacation camp had been canceled because of “the events in Watertown.”
“What events?” I asked groggily.
He paused—how can she not know already?—then gave me the brief outline of a gun battle with the bombing suspects and one still on the loose.
All the while, my eleven-year-old watched anxiously, eagerly. When I told him camp was closed, his narrow shoulders caved. It had been his last day to make “lacy candles,” to pick up the pillow he’d quilted.
There is meaning to be grasped here—I know there is. I will grasp it. And I’ll do the needful for my eleven-year-old, talking if he wants to, or not talking. Playing board games, giving him extra time on the iPad. We’ll keep reading The Two Towers. We’ll be fine.
But this week has left me exhausted and guilty for reasons I know are irrational. I have no idea how to hand over the whole bundle of my existential knowledge to my son. I don’t want him to grow up too fast, yet he wants and needs to know what’s happening. I appreciate the “Tips For Edgy Parents At Home In Lockdown Mode With Kids” emailed around by his school, and they are sensible. But I resent them, too. They’re wise and calm, expert advice from a psychiatrist, yet I don’t want more advice.
These “tips” don’t address my need to scream or to comfort my downcast son with more than happy movies. They don’t satisfy my need to shake a fist at the heavy overcast sky or the Fates or God or whatever butterfly wings determine our lives.
From the window beside the desk where I’m typing this, I see a helicopter circling. I hear the rumble of another above our roof, then the caw of seagulls. There’s nothing else but the wind around the roof. The street is empty.
Randomness. I thought I’d learned to deal with this, after infertility, after visiting Vietnam, after my mother’s recent death. But like any American, even a well-traveled one, I’ve just begun a journey that other people around the world have been enduring for decades.
After the morning phone call, I trekked downstairs for another bitter dose of TV news, switching on the screen to the replay of the early-morning gun battle, flashes of orange light against dark blue, which took place a mile and a half from our house.
My son came downstairs more slowly, and he missed the rattle of gunfire. Still, he hung back as the frantic TV reporter voices chattered on. He asked us within moments to turn it off—and we did. I began tracking tweets about it instead.
None of this was satisfying or secretly exciting, least of all to my son. Whatever novelty there’d been with the bombing at the Marathon a few days before—the tears, the anxious questions, the inability to look away—has dissipated. I feel a shift in this week’s collective mood, a settling into a new reality. I sense despair flapping inside me, like some trapped, oil-slicked bird waiting to fly forth.
My son hasn’t been his normally robust self, but he’s soothing himself with an ever-evolving sequence of music on Pandora. My husband is making soup. We’ve discussed baking brownies later.
“It’s like a snow day,” my husband says.
I hear another wave of sirens. I see the silhouette of wings against the rumpled sky.
My despair will fly away. It will go. I and my family are made of sterner stuff. Yet I’ve never been so grateful for my need to write. I’m grateful that the love of words I share with my son and husband, the desire to read about what others experience and the longing to tell our own stories, encourages empathy.
After 9/11, after Newtown, after bombings all over the world for years before the Boston Marathon—after Columbine, whose 14th anniversary is tomorrow—we’ll need to summon flocks of empathy for the victims, the survivors, even the perpetrators. For ourselves.
We’ll need to set free birds of every shade, from purple-black to white, in such numbers that they block the clouds. The noise of their passing will be that of millions crying we’re here we’re here we’re here. It will be the sound of applause.
A photo series from the Boston Globe, some very close to our neighborhood: “Search for marathon bombing suspect locks down Watertown, surrounding communities”
“Psychiatrist: Tips For Edgy Parents At Home In Lockdown Mode With Kids,” Common Health, WBUR, April 19, 2013.
Syrian photo in the opening: According the Guardian’s live blog today, “Syria protesters in the Idlib town of Kafranbel have expressed condolences to the victims of the Boston bombings in their latest Friday banner.”