Twenty Pum’kins

A variation from the norm today, folks. For those of you who have come to expect another chapter of The Secret of Cawley’s Skull every Wednesday, I am putting that off until tomorrow. This is the fourth anniversary of the murder of 26 good souls in Newtown, Connecticut. Of all the horrific shootings that have occurred either since that day or leading to that day, there is a unique place in my heart for the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims.

More accurately, there is a unique hollowness in my heart for the 20 Sandy Hook kids, first-graders all, and the six marvelous staff members who lost their lives trying to protect those babes. I would like to think—even though nothing significant has turned politically in response to that particular horror any more than all of the other similar horrors—that it was a turning point in the history of us. That on December 14, 2012, we became a different sort of species. A sadder species.

I am sorry that I cannot articulate more precisely what that change is, or how it has manifested itself since; there is not a word for it in my vocabulary. But it has something to do with an indelible presence of sorrow injected into the national bloodstream on that day—a shadow laid onto our collective conscious that will never lift.

Nor should it. Sorrow of this magnitude isn’t something adults should try to ignore or forget. Children are permitted to believe, for as long as they can, that all is right with the world. But we—the grown-ups—must acknowledge the sadness, respect it, try our best to keep as much of it out of our children’s lives as is in our power to do so, lift ourselves and struggle on from those inescapable tragedies we can do nothing to prevent.  

But then, what happened at Sandy Hook isn’t one of those inescapable tragedies, is it? It could have been prevented, and I’m convinced the honorable people of America know it. Had we been as alert as we should have been, had we been as conscientious to the existential needs of our national community as we are to the contrived and false needs of that vicious, firearms-worshipping death cult that lives amongst us, Sandy Hook might have never happened. Perhaps this would explain why so many of the death cultists continue to insist it didn’t happen—that it was a conspiracy, a hoax, an intricate plot to undermine the cult’s creed—because they, too, sense Sandy Hook was a turning point.

At any rate, I wrote a column within two days of the tragedy. Had to. I could not not write it. I had to do it while it was still as fresh as the blood on Sandy Hook’s floors and the sob in America’s throat. I remain proud of, and satisfied with, that column, not because of any vanity over the writing, but because as a general condition, it is so damnably hard to say with any precision what one feels needs to be said—what needs to be taken from inside and exposed in full to the light of words—about something so awful And on that day, more so than all but a small handful of other essays from 22 years of trying, I feel like what I wrote said just what I needed it to say.

I rerun it here, today, just as it appeared in The Boise Weekly at the time. If it seems overly sentimental, I’m sorry. But there are things we should be sentimental about, and if the great loss at Sandy Hook isn’t one of them, I don’t know what is.

* * *

20 Pum’kins

Some Pain Should Never Go Away

As you probably know, every year Boise Weekly closes up shop for a period extending from a few days before Christmas to after New Year’s Day. As a result, the column you are reading now, plus the preceding two, were due on the editor’s desk well before my normal deadline day. This one, especially. As I begin to write what you’re now reading, Christmas is still nine days off, and New Year’s Eve is over two weeks out. It’s Sunday evening, December 16. I just finished watching the memorial service in Newtown, Connecticut.

I have always tried to make my first column of the new year light and playful. Some of you, no doubt, would say “silly.” That’s okay. I don’t mind writing silly. In fact, I often wish I were more silly than I am. My nature is frankly not very playful. In what little playing I do, it is usually with words and the fantasized eccentrics I concoct for what I intend to be your reading pleasure, whether it actually works out to that end or not. This explains why in past new year columns I have presented you with such flufferies as fake predictions for the year to come, or a phony newsletter from an organization (The Society for Making People Better) that exists nowhere but in my imagination. Think of it as a New Year’s resolution that I know can’t possibly last—a wish that both you and I begin a year with a lightened heart and maybe even a laugh or two.

With that in mind, and with the early deadline for this piece looming, I set out yesterday morning to come up with 1000 words that fit the bill—light, playful, perhaps even silly. After hours of struggle, I gave up, having produced nothing that reached even the level of mediocre. I went at it again this morning with the same result. Everything I’d written was leaden instead of light, ponderous instead of playful, soggy instead of silly. And I knew why. I knew exactly why. I could not let those 20 kids go out of my mind.

You are reading this, at the earliest, 19 days after the abomination that took place in Connecticut. Maybe you’ve moved on. Maybe you’ve already done what we all must do after such things happen, and maybe you’ve entered into 2013 with a heart almost back to being unbroken. Maybe you’ve already tucked “Sandy Hook” into that ribbon-tied bundle in your soul’s cedar chest where you keep “Columbine,” “9/11,” “Katrina”… all those sad, sad pin points in time when we know as a people that we’ll never be the same again, but we have to keep slogging along anyway.

I’m not there yet, nor do I want to be. My heart does not want to be unbroken yet. I’m not ready to stash this one away yet. I still hear the wailing, the sobbing, the hopeless, desperate silence, coming on this night from twenty-six households in Newtown. I’m still imagining what that level of pain would do to a father, a mother. I still cannot stop myself from thinking how I would have been destroyed had something so unthinkable ever happened in my own life.

I was blessed to have been able to pick my daughter up from school throughout her elementary school years. Blessed to be there when she and 25 pum’kins like her came bouncing out of their classrooms. Blessed, every day, to see her face go reliefhappybrightbeaming when she saw her dad there waiting for her. It is a memory I wouldn’t mind being my very last, when that time comes.

Tonight, I want to hold tight to the dreadful vision of those little pum’kin faces in Connecticut asking How can this be happening? as the understanding of their situation unfolds. I want to share in the terror of their teachers, and I want to grasp what kind of bravery it took for those teachers to put their wards’ lives ahead of their own. I want to be one in grief with their mothers and fathers, stricken down as though their souls had been shriveled on the spot to a cinder by the notice their own little pum’kin is never again coming home. I want to be left dumbfounded by a horror so incomprehensible, and I want the whole nation to be dumbfounded with me.

So my friends, nothing silly coming from me this first week of the year. Nothing playful. It wouldn’t come, even if I wanted it to. Instead, I must do what I have done often on this page, to shift the weight off my heart onto a page full of the best, most appropriate words I can drag out of my innards. Writing has always been my way to heal. It is the only way I know to speak of the unspeakable. In real speech, I neither talk like this, nor could I even if I tried. It is only through this slow, internal, reflective process—contemplating with each word, each phrase and sentence and image, how to get from what I wrote seconds ago to what I would wish to write next—that I can give those 20 little faces, those 20 little pum’kins, the final attention they deserve. This is the last chance for me to tell them how sad we all are they’re not coming home. So I have to make it as right as I can. Tomorrow, the day after, sometime next week, that ache to keep my thoughts on them, on their bright little lives, will begin to drift away. Unlike their mothers and fathers, their brothers and sisters, I will eventually let them go.

I hope this doesn’t sound silly, but right now, as this December night winds down, I want those 20 little faces inside of me, living on as long as possible. Back when this was happening, I hope they lived on in you, my friends, for as long as you could hold onto them. I hope when we all look back, we’ll know there were a few days when those little pum’kins belonged to all of us, all across this land and around the world—a few days when we all mourned them as our own. I can think of no other response to such a thing as this.

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