Several years ago my young son asked me, "How many more days until we die?"
It was bedtime and he was experiencing the pain and helplessness of grief for the first time.
To escape his question, I apologized and then lied to him. I said I couldn’t hear him, I wasn’t wearing my hearing aid, and I tried to distract him with his favorite lullaby so he could fall asleep. But when I wouldn’t answer his question, he raised his little voice way up, practically shouting so I’d have to hear him, and he begged me to tell him the truth. He wanted practical answers and wasn’t about to give up until he got some.
His need to hear the truth from someone he trusted outweighed my need to cushion him from it with a lie and a lullaby.
As I fumbled that night to explain how life and death and love works, in a way that my number-loving little boy could understand, it satisfied him for a while, and I felt like I became a better mother. I’d tuned in to my son in a way that I hadn’t before, and it resulted in our first conversation about what we can actively do to remember and honor those we love after they die.
Then on Valentine’s Day that same math and number-loving boy stepped off the school bus and surprised me with two red carnations and the other news of the day.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Mom! I love you so much. Did you hear about the school shooting today?”
On the bus ride home an older boy showed him the video that a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student posted on Snapchat while huddled in the corner of his classroom, the horrifying screams and sounds of war and gunfire blasting from the walls and doorway.
“I saw the video on the bus. It’s okay. It was just a few seconds long,” he said.
He has always measured the power of things by how many seconds, minutes, hours, days and years things last. But then he asked me this:
“Mom, how many kids died?”
I wanted to throw my hearing aid across the room and pretend I didn’t speak English. I wanted to pretend that I only spoke American Sign Language where the ASL sign for “shoot” and “dead” can look to the hearing-abled person like a game of charades or rock, paper, scissors – but this was no game. This is all too real and overwhelming, and for those few minutes as he stood there holding the carnations, I tried to stall the same way I’d done years ago, and I pretended I didn’t know the numbers. I pretended it was just another Valentine’s Day, and I took a long whiff of those sweet fluffy flowers, told him how much I love him, and asked him to put away his backpack. Then when he left the room I fell apart and pushed my burning eyes into the cool softness of his red carnations. I didn’t know how I’d ever be able to tell him the truth about the numbers, how much data I know about children who’ve been shot at school this year, last year, and all the previous years.
The day after the Parkland shooting, the New York Times published these numbers:
They came from the Gun Violence Archive, an organization that began tracking school shootings after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre: 239 school shootings nationwide, 438 people shot, 138 people killed. That’s an average of 40 school shootings a year since Sandy Hook, and an average rate of 23 people killed every year at school from gun violence.
I will never be able to accept what the numbers will do to my son’s beautiful mind and soul, but I know I must tell him the truth now and show him with actions, not just words, that there are steps we must take to end the number of shootings at schools. And I can no longer pretend that I don’t know the numbers. It’s my job as a parent to know them so that my child doesn’t become just another number and statistic.
It took me some time, but after hearing Emma Rodriguez, David Hogg, Alfonso Calderon, Delaney Tarr, Lorenzo Prado, Cameron Kasky, and so many other courageous Majory Stoneman Douglas teenagers, raise their voices to lead the way towards immediate change, because adults and politicians have consistently failed them, I finally had the courage to talk with my son about the number of deaths caused by gun violence.
These teenage survivors don’t care about politics -- they care about innocent lives. They only want to receive an education without the fear of being shot and killed by a military-grade assault weapon as they sit in their classrooms, cafeterias, football games, concerts, and churches. And they deserve action now. We cannot pretend we don’t hear their continual pleas for change or the overwhelming cries of all the children who’ve been murdered and silenced by an assault rifle over and over and over. Now is the time to keep listening with every single device we have to our youth in crisis, their teachers and parents, who remain on the front lines of what is now a war zone in our schools and country. And on March 24 my son and I will do just that. We will "March for Our Lives" alongside these brave teenage leaders, their parents and teachers, all the way up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C., and I’ll proudly wear my hearing aid so I don’t miss a word they say.
I am a mother and friend, but would I do anything to save my son after he sexually assaulted a woman? This is the question I believe all mothers need to ask themselves, and is ‘saving’ your child helping them or additionally hurting them and the person they’ve victimized?
I cannot begin to imagine how Emily Doe and her parents felt when they heard Judge Persky’s statement about the “severe” impact that prison would have on Brock after being convicted of sexual assault with intent to commit rape. The judge's "I don’t think he’s a danger to anyone" had to be a knife through their hearts. What about being a danger to Emily Doe the night he raped her? Did the judge not factor that in?
How does a young woman who was sexually penetrated and left behind a dumpster live with that? How will she and young women everywhere start to believe that college campuses are safe places for them if judges are more concerned for the rapist than the victim?
Given Judge Persky’s prison sentence for Brock Turner, why would any victim of rape ever come forward again at Stanford University or any other college campus when their voices and even eyewitness accounts are dismissed so carelessly, and the rapist receives the equivalent of a summer camp stay in a county jail?
But I digress -- I’m still waiting for Brock Turner’s mother to speak up about what she will personally do to make sure that campus sexual assault and rape does not happen to another Emily Doe, who was on the night of her rape the same age as Brock's older sister.
If Carleen Turner is like her husband or their friend, she may be doing anything to save her son, covering for him because it’s too difficult to face the truth about your own son’s sexual behavior, blaming alcohol for it, blaming fraternity parties, blaming promiscuity, but what is she really saying to young women, including her own daughter, about victims of rape?
Your voice doesn't matter.
Since this story has gone viral, her son’s name and picture are now plastered all over the Internet, her husband’s character statement to the judge forever part of public record and public scrutiny. Just "20 minutes of action," Dan Turner wrote in his request for leniency for his convicted 20-year-old son. The audacity and the infamy of that statement likely stabs at every mother's heart, Brock's mother, Carleen, at the top of the list. But what can she do about it now? How could she use her son's infamy to help Emily Doe and all women like her? What would I do if I were standing in Carleen Turner's horribly squeaky shoes?
Would I talk to high school and college students about the percentages of rape on campus and off campus? Would I tell them that 23% of female students are sexually assaulted on campuses every year, yet those numbers are drastically low according to two Mother Jones’ articles stating that sexual assault on or near college campuses have reached epidemic levels and that authorities don't receive accurate information from schools? Would I tell them that it's because victims of sexual assault are too afraid to speak out against their attackers, too busy blaming themselves, so the true number of sexual assaults are vastly under reported?
Would I meet with rape victims and form an organization that supports their recovery? Would I ask my son to do the same? Would I tell my son that in order to truly help him, first he and I must admit that what he did was not consensual, what he did was rape and that’s why a jury convicted him. But that would require a mother and a son to openly admit that he raped an unconscious woman. It might also entail both a mother and a son giving thanks to the two eye-witnesses that put a stop to the rape. Could Carleen and Dan Turner and their son, Brock, ever find the courage and decency to thank those Swedish Stanford grad students?
I look over and see both my young son and soon-to-be teenage daughter doing homework, just a few days now left in their school year, and I think about that sentence again and again.
"As a mother and friend, I would do anything to help my child and save him.”
How will I help educate my children about campus sexual assault? What will I do differently starting today? Will I teach my daughter about what it means to give consent? Do I share with her Emily Doe’s statement? Will I talk to her about the statistics? That at least 1 out of every 5 female students will be sexually assaulted or raped at colleges this year, and 1 out of every 3 college seniors will become victims? I say to myself, yes. YES.
And my son, do I keep quiet and let his father handle that conversation when he too turns thirteen? Because it’s uncomfortable for a mother to talk to her son about his sexual urges, right? My answer changes, No. I don’t care how uncomfortable it is! I need to have that conversation with my son in three years with or without my husband. I need to have that talk many, many times throughout puberty and into his young adult life. I need for him to also hear Emily Doe’s voice and what she wrote to her young attacker. I need to tell my son that I will not “save” him should he decide to sexually violate another person, whether he’s been drinking alcohol or not.
A son's actions must speak louder than his words, but his victim’s words must speak louder than everyone else’s.
Christophe "Bill" Henry, our snowman with the red Captain Marvel cape, melted last night, pounded by rain and wind in the wee hours. We found his carrot nose floating this morning in a muddy puddle that used to be his life.
Like Christophe William Henry’s nose, I too have floated in puddles like that, face down in muddy transformations, having moved too many times in the last four years ~ the first of which I found myself loading and unloading boxes in three different houses, in three different neighborhoods, in two different states. When you start over that many times, in that many places, there is bound to be a cesspool that forms around you, each place still clinging to you like algae, muddying-up the next “new beginning” that would much prefer to swim in fresh, clean, purified water.
So as I passed Christophe this morning after driving the kids to school, I slowed down and took a picture of him for posterity. I didn’t want to forget him, move on so quickly to the next place I had to be. I wanted to remember how handsome and strong he looked last night, even though the new morning had erased most of him. After all the time we'd spent building him in the late afternoon, we ran back to the warmth of the house in haste, forgetting to take a picture with him. Instead, we patted him on the back, kissed his soft white cheeks and wished him a peaceful night, leaving him all alone near the road. But he was a renegade snowman.. a pioneer, really. He insisted on going without a traditional scarf or a wool hat, preferring instead to brave his new, uncertain conditions on the East Coast with some of the favorite things he’d acquired along the way. I knew exactly how he felt. I just wish I had the guts to do it in a cowboy hat and a cape that said, "Shazam!"
Place: my unborn baby’s room, rocking in her big yellow chair. 11 years ago.
I look around the room and see all the pretty warm things I have put into place, all the soft colors, pale pinks and yellows, lavenders, sweet-pea greens and fine white organza. The iridescent curtains catch the streaks of gold hitting the windows and I pray that she will like it here on Earth. I want to protect this mystical angel growing inside of me with every ounce of strength that I have left. I want to keep her peaceful and warm in this chair, in this little room, while I try to prepare us to walk through the big world outside in heavy overcoats -- a world that in ten years might be colder than it is today and too painful to explain.
“I will protect you from all that is yet to come. I will teach you well. I will try to not repeat the mistakes I made before I found you, before I rocked us here in this sanctuary,” a promise I make with my hands connected across my enormous belly.
“We will spend our days and nights rocking in this big yellow chair with the baby white stars and moons. We will sort this world out together. My secret angel, I promise you this.”
I look over to the empty crib and see him sitting all alone on newly laundered lavender sheets. He is the very first present that I brought home to this room and this chair, a placeholder, the size of a newborn. His colors match the gingham crib bumper that I picked for her at first glance. He is patchwork, made from bits of tattered pieces of cotton that gives him the form of a young rabbit, sporting a tummy that might make a lovely pillow for her heart-shaped face. I see this baby girl, whose eyes I can only imagine, hugging him with her buttery arms and lacy fingers. He’ll bring her comfort when she’s alone, I think, when she awakens and there is no one there, when she needs someone or something that is just her size. She will tell him about her world of magnificent shapes and hands and colors. Oh, the stories she will tell him as she giggles and bites and chews on his tender paw.
I wish that I had never given that old safe-haven away, wish I hadn’t replaced it with another. If only I could rock her in it now, eleven years later, glide and roll her worries and the pain away… but at least he is still here, even if he clashes with all the new colors. He is still as patient as he ever was, content to sit alone, awaiting her return to this strange, earthly place.
It is the day after. Twelve years ago.
6:00am: The piercing urgency of my alarm clock is both sickening and sobering. A new day arrived, but the pounding of my heart nails me to the bed frame. I can only move my eyes; my body is too shell-shocked, too mortal and disgusted by its own inconsequential problems. I was thirty-six years old yesterday and dreaming of becoming a mother, even if my body hadn’t given its approval yet. Just twenty-four hours later, I’ve aged a hundred years, and I am no longer convinced that I want to give birth. How could I bring another innocent child into this vicious world? How blind had I really become to the unspeakable terror in the world? I can hear the cries of the suffering, the children and the parents, the brothers and the sisters, wailing this morning, the brutality and the depth of their loss so severe the tears and the pain may never end. I’ve been so locked inside my own woes about unsuccessfully conceiving, sloshing around in a fertility bubble that hadn’t popped until now, the day after, September 12. Maybe you can adopt, I say to myself.
7:00am: The idea of adoption temporarily soothes me and I've managed to hit “snooze” every five minutes for the last sixty minutes. At least one arm appears to be functional. I can see a sliver of light through the curtains and the sky shows signs of becoming blue again. The sun rose, and that is surreal enough. At first glance, the morning looks to be the exact replica of the morning before it, yet it feels nothing like the morning before it. It’s the anti-Christ of the morning before it. If yesterday was a living nightmare, today is hell personified. Today is also reality, and I have to decide if I will face it with eyes half closed or eyes half open. But, I’ve barely slept. Did anyone? Will anyone ever sleep soundly again? This might be what worries me the most; a world with no sleep and raging insomnia, revenge, its only answer -- a world void of trust and rest and time to be vulnerable. A world running on fear.
Do I attempt to drive into work and carry on with “business as usual” today? Is that what Corporate America expects of me? And if I say, no, and the rest of the team says, no, then what? We lose our jobs? I want to tell my boss: none of this stuff matters. I don't care anymore about corporate earnings, market-share, and the latest, greatest consumer gizmo? Thousands of people were slaughtered, obliterated in front of our eyes on a sunny Tuesday morning!
I want to tell him, I'm quitting this pointless job. I'm going to do something with my life that matters, but I’m afraid to lose my income, and I go limp again. You need the money, I convince myself. Your future, adopted, child needs the money.
I am a walking contradiction and I know it, every muscle in my body knows it. I can feel my body trying to tell me, Please don’t go back to your selfish ways. I will hold you hostage here in this bed until you make a decision one way or another. I ask my feet for permission to pee, and then tell my heart that I will have an answer after I’ve looked long and hard at myself in the bathroom mirror, hoping strength might make an appearance.
8:00am: Strength is thinking about calling in sick, and I am motionless again but in the Living Room, crying to the sounds of the news and the number of fatalities. I can't calm down, the numbers are too much for my body and soul to comprehend. I can't begin to make the phone calls I need to make to my gynecologist, to my boss to cancel today's schedule. The only thing I can think to do is sing and rock myself back and forth. I can see myself from above, and I know it doesn't look good... a woman who wants to be a mother rocking herself on the floor, singing a lullaby she wrote for a baby she has never met. It's something a "real" mother would do when her child is inconsolable, and I am certainly not her, I may never be her. But, I tell myself again and again how much the world needs mothers, an endless supply of mothers, and I keep rocking and humming the peaceful melody.
My tears don't stop but I can see through them now. My body aches less and less and I am able to get up off the floor. My heart and soul are still confused, still cracked and frail, but they support each other in their grief. They begin to row in sync again ahead of the current. They consult with my body, and I walk over to the phone and dial the numbers.
* * *
On September 12, 2001, I discovered I might actually have a chance at motherhood.
*Mothers help comfort and heal the world.*
They allow us time to cry, time to rest, time to trust and time to gather our strength so we can begin again.
* * *
"They are?" I say, "When did this happen? Because I don't think I got a memo from school about it."
Is this some kind of Pig Latin trick? She could be speaking in tongues, her tone has been very preachy lately. There is a new sound in her voice and it has me wondering where my little girl went. Is she just hiding or is she gone for good?
"Mom... I'm ten years old now."
She might have well said she is twenty one and moving to Paris. And when did I become Mom? I thought I was still "Mama." But, that was a whole week ago. Apparently, I've been upgraded or downgraded, depending on how you look at it, to "Mom...," a title used with a long, condescending pause, punctuated by the "...". It fills the kitchen with the invisible yet necessary, You just don't get it, do you lady?
It's true. I don't. I must have blinked -- while she was dancing in her favorite dress, her crown and wand pinker than pink, spinning and spinning until she almost crashes into the bushes, putting on another impromptu outdoor performance while I make lunch. Her baby brother is seated in his bouncy Megasaucer, clapping his dimpled hands to the best ballet performance he has ever seen, we have ever seen. A juice box nearby in case she's thirsty after the show.
Now I'm scratching my head, trying to find a canteen? It's a ten year-old's 'must-have' accessory at lunch. Are they hiking to lunch tables in the middle of the Petrified Forest now in fifth grade? It appears my little mermaid grew permanent hiking legs while I was busy trying to figure out how to turn her back into a baby with a juice box.
I find an aluminum "canteen" which I used yesterday for my coffee, and I fill it with lemonade instead. It could be worse, I think. Just wait until you are filling it with piping hot coffee for her hike to the airport to catch that plane to Paris. I know exactly what she would say if she could hear my thoughts.
Today I cancelled everything on my list and delighted in doing almost nothing at all. Alongside my daughter, though, I accomplished all the things that weren't on my list -- the things I hadn't anticipated, the things I forgot and neglected. A Friday spent snuggled up on the couch with my little girl leaning on me under baby soft blankets gave me back the perspective that I lost during the busy, itemized week.
It took an unforeseen fever, a sore throat, and a missed day of school, but it is a day that I’ll look back on in ten years and miss the living daylights out of -- my daughter and me shuffling around in matching slippers and dirty hair, but cozy and warm in our clean pajamas.
We wrote and made a donation to our favorite charity and watched the sky flurry. Then, when the sun warmed it up with big patches of blue, we decided on macaroni and cheese for lunch and watched all of our favorite home improvement shows, our bowls balanced and steady in our laps, commenting on curbs that appealed to us. Yet, I felt no need to improve my own "curb" or house today. I cleaned nothing, and the kitchen counter is littered with medicine bottles and dishes, the trash is over-flowing, and the boxes lined up in my office and bedroom still sit alone and cold, awaiting my attention after almost five months in our new house. They can wait some more. My daughter’s temperature is down and she is smiling again. The house and my life is perfect as is today, my to-do list still chuck full of “do's” and not one “done.”
What I did today cannot be quantified with a check mark, but I suspect in ten years it will be all that really mattered. I'll watch my daughter pack up her own boxes soon enough while she makes, then crosses off, her own to-do list in the world. And when I help her unpack those boxes in her first apartment, I'll think back on quality days like this one, mastering the art of doing nothing while accomplishing everything I was supposed to do.
The sun is sliding down the sky and the light is fading, the television still on. My son is back from school and they are cuddled up under the blankets now watching cartoons, his big sister still sneezing and blowing her nose. The cat and dog have joined them, and there's hardly any room for me. I tell them all to scoot over, I want my sweet spot back.
Kleenex tissues and slippers, popcorn kernels and Legos scatter the floor, but I resist and tell myself, don't get up, just sit and let it be. It can all wait. The cleaning lady comes tomorrow... besides, she’s never seen this episode.