Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Tag: college

Newtown- Four Years On

sandyhook-heart

I must preface this post by acknowledging I am not a gun violence victim (or a family member or friend of a gun violence victim) and, therefore, have no real understanding of its impact on anyone’s life. And while I can no more comprehend the destruction such violence imparts on a family any more than I could know what it is like to be an astronaut, anyone tangentially involved in the gun violence prevention movement has a story to tell. The story of what drove them to act.

My grandparents could relate every mundane activity that occurred on the day they heard about Pearl Harbor. My parents could describe the entire day when they heard about the assassination of President Kennedy. I can relate how desperately I wanted to gather up my twin second graders and wife and cuddle with them in the hours after the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11th. And so too, I can recall the horror and sickening feelings I felt learning of the events of December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut.

Again, my story is no more significant than anyone else’s, but, for what it’s worth, here is what I recall.

It was going to be another long day at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. After the always frenetic hour+ commute from Spring, TX, we began the day with my wife having blood drawn at 10:15. From the first-floor diagnostics lab, we proceeded to the imaging department on one of the upper floors where she would be undergoing a PET scan and a CT scan to quantify what effect (if any) her chemotherapy regimen was having on the determinedly marching cancer in her body. We settled into the waiting area for her name to be called. After a while, her name was finally called, and she was tapped with an IV for the tests and taken back to the imaging area leaving me alone. These tests take a long time to complete and were being done one after the other, so I knew I was in for long morning alone. I was able to snag one of the few desks I needed to connect my computer to work. After connecting to the internet and securing a connection with work, I pulled up CNN, as I always did, to see what was going on in the world outside the hospital.

The breaking news headline relayed reports of a school shooting in a place called Newtown, CT. Having graduated from the University of Connecticut, and knowing friends from across the state, I pulled up Google Maps to locate Newtown. I found it, a small community not far outside Danbury. The initial reports said that there were several casualties, but that not much was known, and the scene was still active. I remember pulling up the Hartford Courant’s website and the local television news websites to see if there was any better information. Reports were indicating that the shooting was at an elementary school and that there might be a child among the injured.

As we know, reports continued to be updated, first with five injured, then 10, then a report that many children may have been shot and some fatally. In the waiting area, where people tend to be friendly, if isolated, some with family or friends accompanying them to their procedure, others alone, looks began to be shared, as if we were all wondering if anyone else was aware of what was developing. Stares lingered a little longer than usual as if we were all sure that the horrible news we saw on our phones or computers was isolated to our nightmares and not actually what was really happening. We searched each other’s eyes in hopes that what we were reading was wrong. Waiting for someone to say it was all wrong. The reports continued to be updated. TV news crews had been dispatched and were on their way to the scene. A dozen killed. Then another update indicating maybe more. The scene had been secured, and the word was spread that the shooter was dead. I remember thinking that at least whatever horror he/she had unleashed was quashed and no one else would be injured. The number of wounded and killed continued to climb over the next hour into a dizzying number that I felt (hoped) must surely have been incorrect. There was no way anyone could kill the number of staff and children being reported. They were children! We all know how wildly exaggerated news reports tend to be in the midst of a situation. This couldn’t be true!

The waiting area became noticeably louder as people began to process and share what had happened. After several hours, my wife finally walked out from the back area of the imaging department, and as she walked toward me, I fought for the words to tell her what had happened. My eyes welled up with tears, and my throat was no longer capable of forming words. She was the one with cancer, undergoing all manner of torture to combat the disease, and here I was, hugging her and breaking down in tears. The ride home, as usual, regardless of the time of day took much longer than it needed to. I was quiet in the car. We did not have the radio on, listening to music as we always did. By the time we reached home, the final tallies were being calculated. Twenty-six dead, not including the perpetrator or his mother.

That evening, I was alone in my home office, shaking with anger. My wife entered to find me on my knees almost hyperventilating with rage. It was no longer enough to write about gun violence, I told her, I needed to get involved. She hugged me and said she understood and would help me as long as it didn’t consume me and send me into a deep depression. I promised, saying that I simply needed to do something. I knew it wouldn’t be me alone who felt that way that night. I knew thousands were already involved. I simply wanted to add my voice.

I had become angered enough by gun violence in America after the theater shooting in Aurora, CO the previous July 20th to write about it. The very first entry in this blog was simply a copy/paste of a blog entry written by one of the victims of that shooting, Jessica Ghawi. She had narrowly escaped a shooting in a mall in Toronto the previous June 2nd and wrote about the event and how grateful she felt.   The second to last paragraph of her entry reads:

“I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given.”

Forty-eight days later she was dead. I wish I had known Jessica. I was fortunate to meet her parents in October of 2015, six weeks after my wife’s death. They were as kind and compassionate as anyone I’ve ever met and doggedly determined to prevent gun violence. Sandy Phillips’ first question to me as she stepped out of her car was to ask how was I doing after my wife’s death. She had lost a child, and her involvement in the gun violence prevention movement was the reason I was meeting her, and yet here she was concerned about me! I had no idea she knew about my wife’s illness or death. She is an incredible individual and so is her husband, Lonnie.

So now we find ourselves four years out from the shooting in Newtown. There have been political victories and defeats in those four years and over 130,000 Americans killed by a gun over that period of time, including many in the over 200 school shootings since Newtown. The greatest shift in that time has been the involvement and organization of hundreds of thousands of people like me. People fed up with accepting gun deaths and injuries as part of “normal” American life. The gun lobby is still a juggernaut in Washington, D.C. and in state houses around the country, but it is no longer the only voice or position. Social change comes in glacially slow movements, but it comes all the same. I can never fully appreciate the scars this date has left on the family members and friends of those lost four years ago or in any of the other gun-related horrors before or since. July 20, 2012 and December 14, 2012 changed my life and forced me to add my voice to the thousands of others no longer willing to consent that gun deaths are acceptable. Four years on and the fight is not over, but we have never been so organized or vocal or determined.

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365 Paper Cuts

 

bleeding heart

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”     ― Thomas A. Edison

It was one year ago tonight that my best friend died. God, it hurts to write that. It seems like a lifetime ago and also as if it happened last night. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. I rest my hand on her pillow every night before praying that sleep will gently take me away to her, but I never dream, about her or anything else. I have come a long way since that night in September, but in other ways, I feel I have never left that room. The kids and I have experienced the “year of firsts” without Lisa as if this is some magical milestone beyond which grief is forbidden to pass. I miss so much about her that my heart aches just thinking of the reasons.

I miss her laugh. I miss her smile. I miss her voice. I miss her nose. I miss her driving. I miss her honesty. I miss her eyes. I could go on for as long as my fingers can pass over this keyboard. Edison’s quote seem particularly applicable today because I don’t feel that I’ve survived one year without Lisa as much as I have endured 365 daily paper cuts without her that will never heal.

 

“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”     ― John Wayne

One thing I do not miss is the suffering she had to endure. I taped the above quote on the refrigerator of the house we rented in Texas during her first round of treatment. I put it on the fridge for her to see, but now I see that it was meant for me. From chemotherapy to surgery to radiation, she never questioned or hesitated. She enthusiastically embraced every option offered to her until her physician assistant (in tears) told her there were no more options. Lisa was prepared to do more, but medicine had failed her. I look back at that quote now and see that the courage I wanted her to embrace is now exactly what I must adopt to survive her death and carry on.

My brother was in the hospital recently for treatment of a minor infection. It was the first time I’d visited a hospital since Lisa’s death. I hadn’t given any thought to how visiting a hospital would affect me. It was just what you do when a family member is in the hospital. My children were both concerned how visiting the hospital would affect me. As soon as I walked through the doors, all of the emotions swarmed me. Fortunately, my brother was well enough to be discharged the next day. However, shortly after that, my mother in law was taken to the hospital because she bumped her head when she fell. It was nothing serious, she was only taken to the hospital due to a state regulated precautionary requirement, but it required me visiting another hospital in the same week. As I sat there with her, waiting for her discharge papers, I can’t tell you how much I wanted to get out of there. Nothing happens quickly in a hospital and the memories exposed while sitting there were not healthy. Everything took me back to Lisa and her seven years of treatment. After having called M.D. Anderson a second home during all of her cancer treatment, I can’t conceive of a situation where all of the hospital memories won’t come flooding back to hit me in the face. We knew every corner of that hospital and felt like unofficial ambassadors because we ended up helping newcomers so often. In the end, there was no longer anything they could do for her so we both went home where she would die. Thoughts of hospitals paralyze me now.

 

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”     ― Seneca

Lisa’s suffering is over, and we’ve had a year to establish a life, living only with her memory. We have made progress because life goes on. The kids have graduated from college. We have moved back to Rhode Island. We live in a condo in an area we’re not familiar with but which is close enough to family and familiarity to provide some comfort. However, the idea of starting a life without her is at times challenging and at other times seemingly impossible. I still feel guilty for living. I feel guilty for never dreaming about her. I feel guilty for not making the most of this time with my kids, who will be gone this time next year. If our roles were reversed, I could imagine Lisa doing much better than I am now. I feel as if I’ve aged 50 years in the past 365 days. But life goes on, and I am trying to do the best I can. I hope the next year sees me and the kids continue to develop a new “normal” where we can laugh about the good times and not dwell on the bad; where we can think of Lisa as the beautiful, energetic whirlwind she was, full of flowing blond hair and a joie de vivre rather than the pained shell we saw at the end. I’ve survived 365 daily paper cuts without her. The wound will never heal but hopefully, the nerve endings will dull a bit. This week will be particularly strenuous. In addition to today’s commemoration, the kids’ birthday is Tuesday, and Lisa and my anniversary would have been Friday. At least I have the kids to lean on. I treasure my children and am so glad to have them around for the time that I do. They have gotten me this far. I can’t imagine where I’d be without them.

I’m ending this post with a poem by Hermann Hesse titled Stages. I hope you appreciate its message and hug your loved ones tighter today.

 

As every flower fades and as all youth

Departs, so life at every stage,

So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,

Blooms in its day and may not last forever.

Since life may summon us at every age

Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,

Be ready bravely and without remorse

To find new light that old ties cannot give.

In all beginnings dwells a magic force

For guarding us and helping us to live.

Serenely let us move to distant places

And let no sentiments of home detain us.

The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us

But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.

If we accept a home of our own making,

Familiar habit makes for indolence.

We must prepare for parting and leave-taking

Or else remain the slave of permanence.

Even the hour of our death may send

Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,

And life may summon us to newer races.

So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.

That Buzzing in My Head

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When I was in college at the University of Connecticut, three hundred years ago (from 1983-87), we endured the occasional bomb threat.  Students rolled their eyes and trudged outside into the slush soaked mud where grass used to grow in the fall (before students commandeered it for the traction and width it provided instead of risking a broken neck on the iced-over and far too thin walkways). 

Bomb threats were a nuisance, they disrupted classes and schedules and not once did they prevent a test or quiz from being given.  If class was cancelled, they were given the next day.  We all knew who had called in the threat.  It was always some nitwit who had been out partying the night before instead of studying.  He was either hung-over or just plain unprepared for the exam.  No media frenzy was created.  Parents only found out about the threat if students bothered to mention the disruption to their schedule on their next visit home.  Sure, there was always that buzzing in the back of your head, “but what if it’s real,” however, we pushed that aside and went about our business.

In the years since, the world has changed, both for the better and worse.  The internet has evolved as our main source of information.  IPhones, iPads and MacBook Pro’s have replaced landlines in the dorm room, student discounted newspaper subscriptions and renting a typewriter in the bowels of the main library for $1.00 an hour.  We have also endured the paradigm shifting event of September 11, 2001.  The equivalent of our grandparent’s December 7, 1941 (but closer to home) and our parent’s November 22, 1963 (but more personal), enduring that day changed forever the way we see ourselves, our country and the world.  It was as if, in the instant the second plane hit the South Tower, we ripped out the partially written pages of the rest of our lives and inserted blank, blood stained pulp instead.  Living in Rhode Island, halfway between the origination of the flights (Boston) and their initial targets (NYC), my children’s elementary school was in lockdown mode for hours, my wife stationed outside the main door waiting to scoop them into her protective arms.  Unimaginable horror had reached our shores.  The great oceans that had buffered us in two world wars gave way to the globalization of terror.  Nobody was safe anymore.  The buzzing had intensified.

Now my children are in college, freshmen at the University of Texas at Austin.  Three days ago, they suffered through what I remember as a disruptive, but innocuous event caused by an unprepared knucklehead.  Instead, they heard the campus-wide siren wail for attention followed by text messages to clear all buildings.  A caller, who claimed not to be a student and affiliated with Al-Qaeda, said he had placed bombs all around campus and that they would detonate in 90 minutes.  Two other schools also reported bomb threats that day.  The FBI is investigating to see if they are connected.  My children, although they performed quickly and efficiently in evacuating campus together, were shaken by the event.  Following the adrenaline crash that night, they were almost nonverbal when we video chatted with them.  You could almost see the effect the buzzing in the back of their heads was having on them.

I’m all but certain this was the result of yet another unprepared student, separated generationally from my era, but convinced, nonetheless, that this was the only way to avoid a catastrophic grade.  However, given the world in which we live, that faint buzzing in the back of my head now takes on the scream of airliners overhead and the horrific thud of those who decided to jump rather than burn.  I will never forget those sounds and I can never assume that terrorism, either foreign or domestic, has not visited upon my children’s lives.  Text messaging and phone calls link me to them during these times, if the cellular network withstands the spike in usage.  We have to let them leave the nest and fly, but now I no longer shrug when I hear of a bomb threat on campus.  The buzzing is too loud.