The question is floating around, the first thing we ask when one parent encounters another: “What are you telling your children?”
I gave Zachary some simple information – there was a shooting at a school in Connecticut – in case a friend at school brought it up. “My friends don’t talk about those things,” he told me. I asked him not to mention it to his siblings because of Benjamin’s fears. The other two don’t need to know, since I doubt it’ll trickle down to first grade.
First grade. The children were in first grade. Their grandparents had already bought their Christmas gifts. Maybe they’d ordered a few last-minute ones that will arrive this week, too late to go under any tree. Their parents were working with them on their reading, teaching them to tie their shoes. Their siblings don’t know what to do about the half-finished Lego kits spread across the living room floor.
Benjamin likes to read the newspaper on Saturday mornings. Today, I took the news section out of his hands and gave him the magazine. He’s in first grade. He’s too young.
A friend of mine buried her father today. He was a good man, a father of nine children, a grandfather, a man whose religion instructed him to be “the first to love.” His was a protracted illness, one that robbed him of his memory and his speech. His life was longish, although too short for those who loved him, and made meaningful by his service to others and to God.
I want to quote here from the eulogy, delivered today as a good man was laid to rest in Philadelphia and 26 families in Newtown, CT, were ravaged by a grief that is beyond reason:
“One day, M [one of his daughters] asked him to give us some words of wisdom that we could pack away, for when we needed him and he was no longer with us. With great effort, since he had already lost much of his fluency, he gave this wisdom: The meaning of life, the essence of our human experience, is to know deep suffering and to choose to face it with love. She asked him, ‘Daddy, what about people with wonderful lives? They won’t experience the meaning of life?’ Smiling at her naiveté he told us, ‘Everyone suffers deeply, at some point in life.’”
It’s a wonderful life. It is deep emerald green and pungent moss and gritty sand between our toes. It’s a strong, rich life. With it comes senseless tragedy and unbelievable sorrow that – if we are lucky – we can face with love. I understand this a little more every day. The misery I grew up with is not so unique, because everyone suffers deeply at some point in life.
First graders cannot understand this. First graders should not be asked to understand this. First graders should live in a world of ponies, rainbows, puppy dogs, Legos, Komodo dragons, and recess rivalry between the boys and the girls.
Yet, tonight, there is a group of first graders going to bed in Connecticut with a hole in their group. When they go back to school, some of their teachers and their principal will be gone. They will grow up in this town with 20 of their number missing. There will be ghosts that follow them through second, third, ninth grades. They will graduate high school 20 short of their numbers.
There is also a group of first graders not going to bed at all.
Everyone suffers deeply at some point in life.