Earlier this week, I went out after I put the baby down to sleep. I drove to Lowe's to look at washers (because a household with four children and a broken washer is a very scary place to live). The poinsettia plants were half-off and wilting from their perches outside the store; the Christmas tree tent was barren , and that felt right somehow. I walked through the store slowly, unable to process my thoughts , feeling like I was wading both physically and mentally through the molasses I had used to make gingersnap cookie dough earlier in the evening.
Sadness and exhaustion have weighed heavily on my sagging shoulders since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School that claimed the lives of 26 people, 20 of them little people much like my own. Instead of listening to Christmas music or enjoying the lights, I've been reading post after post on Facebook and Twitter and watching videos of tributes and interviews. It's been hard to laugh or relax. I waver between focusing intently on my children, who seem like they are in Technicolor suddenly, and being distracted to the point of forgetting they are in the room. I've been angry, I've been righteously indignant, I've been incredibly, soul-crushingly sad. I've been scared. I've had to explain to my older children that someone very sick in his brain hurt 20 children. Killed 20 children. And my children have had to learn how to navigate their school days now with newly locked classroom doors and teachers a little jumpier than they ever have been before.
I sat in chapel on Wednesday with my Kindergartner at his Episcopalian school for Lessons & Carols. I listened to the children sing "Silent Night" and to the words of the Christmas story, noting the fourth grade angel's braces and the quivers and breaks in the voice of the timid second grade soloist. I realized there were children singing in the pews whom I have known since before they were born, since their mothers were pregnant, and now they were standing in the light streaming from the chapel windows, their cheeks pink and their eyes shiny -- just like my own youngest son, Ben, who sat beside me and good-naturedly let the baby tweak his nose during the service. I remembered a quote describing one of the slain little boys from Sandy Hook as "full of life," and I thought how children are -- by definition -- full of life. Elementary schools are full of life: life at its best, at its most hopeful.
I'll be honest. I don't know what comes next. I don't know what will solve the problems we so obviously have in our country or what will fix where we are broken. I have opinions and I have ideas, but I don't know what will work. I do know that I am very eager to hear some thoughts and plans that do not involve more guns. Until I hear from our government about what we will do to prevent more massacres, I find myself feeling helpless. Yes, I can commit 26 Acts of Kindness in honor of the victims. Yes, I can help my children make snowflakes to send to Sandy Hook Elementary. I can sign online petitions and call my representatives. But I have still been feeling naked and raw in the wake of what happened.
Tonight, my little gaggle of children piled into my bed to watch Elf, all damp from baths and swathed in new Christmas pajamas because it is finally, for five minutes, cold where we live. I watched the boys jostle each other and coo at their sister and smiled when my 8-year-old bellowed with unabashed guffaws at Will Ferrell's belching Buddy the Elf. And I realized that I can do something.
Since the shootings, my friends and I have been hyper-aware and sensitive to our children. We have been purposely cataloging what six looks like. We have been more present, more tolerant, less exasperated. We say "yes" more. We're not as worried about spoiling them and we're more worried about cherishing them. Though I have bemoaned more than once that these murders happened in the middle of Hanukkah and right before Christmas, I also have noted that because of the timing, we all have been even more cognizant of our blessings, more appreciative of our rituals and traditions. Because of those 20 little faces that were lost, we are treasuring the ones who are still here even more.
I've been fully immersed in the sadness, but I am moving beyond it now in honor of the lost. I'm resolved now to revel in the wonderful and the good, both in Sandy Hook and in my own little house. After 9/11, I was struck by not just the profound horror of what happened, but also by the incredible goodness of the fallen heroes. I am a little ashamed to admit that I was surprised by how many heroic people were on United Flight 93 that day, for instance. I expected and knew first responders like firemen and police officers would act bravely, but it actually comforted me to know that on a random flight, on a random morning, that many truly good people were on one plane. I have had the same realization about Sandy Hook. One terrible, awful morning also showed that in one school, there were heroes, big and small -- the principal, guidance counselor, teachers and aides that lost their lives trying to protect the children, and the children that saw the face of evil and somehow survived. I will not let the one very troubled, very bad man who committed such violence in the school that morning overshadow the many amazing and good people who were there too. I will not let that one deep dark void swallow up all the light that shone like a beacon that day -- defiantly, persistently -- despite the intense sadness.
Those 20 little faces looked an awful lot like the ones that are right here under my roof and tucked in their beds, fingers sticky from candy canes, toes curling out of red and green striped cotton jammies. What I can do to honor those children's lives, now and in the months and years ahead, is to remember how this feels now: remember to say "yes" more, to be more tolerant, not to let the little irritations and annoyances cloud the clarity that my children are little and full of life and precious. What I can do to honor the fallen heroes of Sandy Hook Elementary School is to remember that we are guarded by heroes disguised as our neighbors, our teachers, our friends. When something like this happens, it is easy to feel paranoid and scared, but we can choose to look beyond those feelings to the truth: there are a lot of things wrong in our country, but there are also a lot of things right. In the next few weeks, while I am able to slow down and focus and enjoy my "village," I am going to celebrate a world in which Grace, Josephine, Madeleine, Avielle, Charlotte, Ana, Noah, Olivia, Dylan, James, Daniel, Allison, Emilie, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Chase, Jesse, Catherine, Jack, Victoria, Mary, Dawn, Rachel, Lauren, and Anne Marie were born and lived and loved, if for too short a time. It is a wonderful life, in spite of everything, and we owe it to them to live it with joy and love.
Follow Allison Tate on Twitter: www.twitter.com/allisonstate