Driving to dinner last Friday night, my husband turned down the radio and calmly said, "Not that it will ever happen -- because it won't- - but we should talk about what you should do if a shooting ever breaks out while you're out somewhere with Buddy (our nickname for our almost 3-year-old son)." My husband has a military background and is a big believer in preparedness. But even he lost his cool -- and as he says, a piece of his soul -- that day.
While my head was still throbbing from the news that entire classrooms of babies were slaughtered in Newtown, Conn. just hours earlier, he took me through the steps of what would increase our chances of survival. It's not lost on me that he feels the need to start the conversation by trying to convince both of us that there's nothing to worry about -- like if we say it enough, it will be so. This is what now passes as Friday night conversation.
A few months ago, I wrote a magazine article about living with cancer. I remember how many survivors described the complex balancing act that is their "new normal": Relinquishing reality as they've known it and surrendering control of every part of themselves while pursuing every means of healing and living. This weekend, it became painfully clear to me that living a "new normal" isn't limited to those with cancer. It is what being a parent has become.
At Sunday night's Newtown interfaith prayer vigil, the President described being a parent as forever having your heart live outside of your body. He talked of the joy and anxiety that accompanies bringing another human being into the world. When we made the decision to have Buddy start preschool in September, I felt sick to my stomach for weeks, even though it was only for three hours, two days a week. It wasn't because I feared a gunman, but because I knew it was the beginning of trusting someone other than myself or my husband with him, of letting him take his first true steps into the world without us -- and that we would have to trust the world to return him to us without harm.
Since that first day of school just a few short months ago, I've wept for parents who lost their babies at the hands of their trusted nanny, grieved for children whose innocence and lives were taken by child rapists posing as people who cared for them and wondered what kind of world we live in where young men can senselessly open fire in movie theaters and in shopping malls. Just days before the massacre at Sandy Hook, I told my husband that I didn't feel comfortable taking Buddy to the mall anymore given the random shooting that just happened -- at least not during the Christmas season, when stores are packed and there's a lot of opportunity for carnage. Last year, he probably would have told me that I was being irrational, but in the "new normal," no fear is irrational, it seems. Because what we once considered sacred or unthinkable or untouchable has been proven not to be anymore.
Years ago, when I was a teenager, an older cousin who lived in Israel visited my family. I couldn't fathom how she would choose to live in a place where, at any given time, a suicide bomber could decide to blow up a bus or a café full of families and children. But now it occurs to me that our situation is not so different. Only that here, there's not always a cause attached easily attached to the killing.
Since Friday, a 60-year-old man was arrested in Indiana for threatening to "kill as many people as he could" at a school located 1,000 feet from his home and an 18-year-old Oklahoma boy was arrested on charges that he was plotting a mass shooting and bombing at his high school. These are just the ones we know about because they were stopped in time.
While we're all talking about important issues whose time for discussion is long overdue -- the mental health crisis in this country; the habitual desensitization to violence that could cause someone to view children not as human beings, but as objects that can easily be destroyed; gun control laws -- none of it can fully explain what we've become as a society. After all, how do we explain the members of Westboro Baptist Church, the group known for protesting outside funerals of slain U.S. service members because they believe we're all being punished for our acceptance of gays and lesbians, who announced they'd picket at vigils for the Sandy Hook victims ""to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment"? What possible explanation is there for a caller who threatened to kill people during Sunday mass in a Newtown church, forcing an evacuation in a community that was already ravaged beyond comprehension?
Just as the shooting itself, there are no words. Other than, what next in our "new normal"?
If I sound hopeless, it's because today I am. Today, like many of us, I have to accept that I can't protect my son -- despite everything I would give to make that not be so. Today, I look at random faces at the grocery store or restaurant, and I wonder what they're capable of doing. Today, I feel the kicking of the little girl who's growing inside of me -- the baby I prayed so long and hard to have -- and I wonder what kind of world I'm bringing her into. One that I couldn't have imagined just a few years ago.
But the thing about being a parent is this: Tomorrow morning, I'll put on my brightest mommy smile. I'll hold my son and bury my face in his hair and neck as I drop him off at preschool. I'll breathe in his sweet little boy smell, and tell him how much I love him, and that I'll be back in just a few hours. I'll fill him with hope for the day ahead of him. I'll walk back to my car and drive away like millions of other parents, knowing that, in that moment, he's living the joy of what should be all of our "normal." And tomorrow, I'll be even more grateful to have another day with him, as the world around us continues to do what it does.