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What It’s Like Here

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When my oldest was little, sometimes in uncertain moments fear would pile up on him in a great wave, the awful way it can for any little kid who does not yet have an older person’s experience of what fear mostly is like. The fear itself would be scary to him, alien and incomprehensible, in a way it isn’t for an adult. He could not always see it and he could not ever know what it would do. As it piled up it would become scarier than whatever caused it.

A little kid cannot know what an older person usually knows, that the fear probably will go away, and soon, even if all you do is wait and continue breathing. All a little kid knows is that the fear is getting bigger; it is inside and it is making itself bigger. A little kid does not know anything to do about it. All a little kid can do is hope that the bigger people will notice, and will know how to take it away, and will take it away. That is what crying is for: It is a way of asking for mercy.

Even when he was little, he tried to be brave. His lip would wobble. You would catch him in that in-between moment, the line in the center of the road, frozen between hiding the fear and showing it to you so that you would help him. 

There was a freak storm one summer afternoon when he was eight, a downburst, the kind of storm that happens every once in a while and mostly isn’t all that big of a danger to anybody inside a sturdy house, but it caught us by surprise and we hurried down to the basement. All at once the sunlight, so oppressively hot one minute ago, had been replaced by black sky, roaring wind, thunder so sudden and loud even indoors that adults flinched and threw their hands over their heads. The giant oak trees outside looked like some fist larger than imagining was yanking them around by their tops, like hair. Every window filled with what looked like explosive violence. It seemed impossible that the forest would not come crashing down on us. 

He was afraid and trying not to be. We tried to reassure him that it was OK, that just as quickly as it had come the storm would pass, that we grownups had seen two dozen summer storms more-or-less just like this one, that once you understood that you were not in serious danger it could even be kind of thrilling and fun to ride it out, that the worst that could happen is we might have to clean up some damage to the roof. (But then why were we down in the basement?) That hey, this is just what living in the forest will be like sometimes. What he needed, though, was not for us to tell him not to be afraid; he needed for us to take the fear away before it got too big, to make it not like this, and we couldn’t. His resolve broke and he cried, a little at first and then, briefly, a lot, before the storm passed. He was safe the whole time, or anyway reasonably safe, but the fear was just too big. He just needed Mama and Daddy to make it better: The bedrock of a little kid’s understanding of the world is that we can do that, and he was still, amid all his courageous bravery, all his earnest effort to be big, a little kid. 

I can picture his face that day right now. Right before the first sobs, the fear in his eyes turned to the most naked and vulnerable of grief. He had learned something awful, just then, that he couldn’t have put into words if I’d asked: That the storm and the fear would go away or they would not, but if they did it would not be because anybody took it away for him; it would not be because of mercy. It would just be what happened. That’s what it’s like here.

Parenthood is a lot of things. Most of them are wonderful. One of them, though, is the gradual painful piling up of all these small moments when you watched your kid learn something new and cold about the world, when you witnessed their gradual terrible coming to learn that bad things, fear and pain and loss, are not ever stopped simply by the fact that they make you feel bad, that that is not how it works in the world someone brought them into. When you could not give them what they’d believed you could. When you couldn’t make it better. When they were all alone.

It is hard to bear even the smaller of these moments. To love your kid is to wish you could give them the mercies the world withholds. To be haunted by a terrible ghost, the knowledge of what you cannot prevent them from learning: what it’s like here. You can only fail at the effort; no little kid anywhere ever gets a life as simple and joy-filled as they first think it might be. Even the happiest kid will have their heart broken when the world betrays them, and it will. Capriciously and without hesitation or remorse, likely without even noticing. The consolation is that they might also learn good things about it, that they might have adventures in it, that they have it in them to strengthen and grow into someone kind and courageous and good who can wring joy out of this tired old rag and share it with others. 

What if they don’t get to? What then? Nineteen little kids got shot to death in their classroom on Tuesday, in Texas, for no reason on earth other than that they were small and alive where a man with a gun who wanted to kill little kids could get to them. What was it like for them, for each of the 19 little kids who began the day as a sleepy bed-headed goofball and ended it in a morgue? In the last moments they ever got to have, I mean. As little kids stranded alone to face a darkness beyond description or understanding. I picture my son’s face. How can I not? I see him lost in his maelstrom, swallowed by it, not knowing what this is or why it’s like this. Pinned by something too big and terrible to comprehend. Wanting only for it to stop, for it not to be like this. I remember how he looked around for my eyes during that storm, for me to know what to do when he did not, for his parents to make it better—in that irrational little-kid way, for the possibility that the bad way this was making him feel, lost and lonely and small and afraid, might cause the world or someone in it to be merciful and to make it stop. Trying to be brave and hold his lip in place, and then crying as that gigantic fear engulfed him. I remember the grief on his face right before the tears came, and how sharply I wished I could have protected him from it.

But I also remember that a few minutes later, he felt better. That an hour later he was playing video games with his brother and cackling and doing weird voices. That the next morning we cleared a car-sized pathway under the tree that had toppled across the driveway, and drove to the beach. That life went on and eventually he became a healthy wiseass 13-year-old leaving socks all over the place. Kids are astonishingly resilient when allowed to be, when given a chance to be. He had learned something sad and disappointing during that storm, but he was not going to write the world’s verdict just yet, when it still had beach trips and Mario Kart and people who love you in it.

Those 19 little kids will never get to learn anything else about the world after what this country showed them in the violent, incomprehensible last moments of their lives, when the people who loved them could not protect them or be with them or help them make sense of it. What they learned then, whatever they learned, is the verdict. Watch America decide that this is the only way things can be. Watch it sentence more little kids to abbreviated lives and lonely, terrified, violent deaths. Watch the grownups squabble and roll the dice on every small new person who greets the world with eager curiosity, who doesn’t know better than to just assume that life can be gentle and guided by care. Watch them negotiate each little life against what they want to pretend to believe about some garbled shit written on a piece of parchment 200 years ago by no one who could imagine what happened in that school on Tuesday. This is what it’s like here. The next schoolroom filled with murdered children will include you or it will not, but either way it won’t be because anybody who didn’t want things to be like this could take it away, or because anybody with the power to take it away cared to try. It won’t be because of mercy. It will just be what happens.