The recent elementary school shooting in Newton, Connecticut shook me hard. I kept picturing Eliot's elementary school, where I drop him off every morning and watch as he blends into the straight marching rows of five- and six-year-olds walking single file into their respective classrooms, so orderly, looking so tiny with their backpacks almost as big they are, strapped to their backs. There are little voices chirping, "Hi, Eliot! Hi, Eliot's Mom!" and grinning faces, and tiny bodies stooping to pick up dropped mittens and homework assignments all along the hallway.
Eliot wasn't even at his own school that Friday--he was out sick and at his dad's house. I called three times just to hear his voice over the phone. I wanted to hold him, touch his cheeks, and smell his hair. I was sick thinking of the mommas and daddies who wouldn't be holding their just barely school-aged babies that night, or ever again.
Over the weekend I thought hard about what to tell Eliot, or whether it was appropriate to tell him anything at all about what had happened. It seemed weird not to discuss something of this magnitude, something that shook my world and immediately made me want to hold him tight. Then again, if it wasn't on his radar at all, I could get away without the hard discussion, right? I could preserve his innocence at least a little while longer, I thought. I didn't want him to be scared to go to school. I wondered if other kids at school would be talking about it. I wondered what they'd heard on the radio, on television, what snippets of adult conversations had fallen on their listening ears.
When I picked Eliot up from school on Monday, I tried to be casual. I asked him how his day was like I always do, and I waited to see if he would mention anything. I didn't bring it up.
I don't know how to do this parenting thing. It's really all just trial and error. At the hospital, when you give birth to a child, they tell you not to shake it, and that's basically it. That's all the instruction you get. "Don't shake the baby." They don't prepare you for what to do when he's five years old and the world has gone crazy and elementary students just like his sweet little self get murdered while learning the alphabet. They don't tell you what to say or whether to say anything.
Oh, don't get me wrong--plenty of people will tell you what to do. EVERYONE will tell you what to do. That's why I had to take a Facebook hiatus this week. So many people, talking so loudly and angrily about what should be done, and why this happened, and how not to have it happen again. So many different voices, saying different things, yelling different things, until it all just blends into a cacophonous, unintelligible noise. I had to step back from it. I had to remind myself that we all really want the same things. We all really want to keep our children safe. We just have vastly different ideas about how to accomplish that common goal. Everyone has an opinion, and plenty of them will broadcast it, preach it, sing it from the mountaintops, but no one really knows what the right answer is.
Finally, I remembered to listen to the one person who always has the right answer when it comes to parenting: my son. He's the one from the very beginning who has taught me how to be a mom. When I don't know what to do, I hold him to me and I listen.
Today, while sitting at the kitchen table, he drew this:
"Can you tell me about your drawing?" I asked, politely (making what I hoped was an emotionally neutral face, but what in reality probably looked more like horrified disbelief).
"It's a bomb that hit a plane and destroyed everything, and this guy fell out and died," he said.
"Oh, yes, I can see that," I said.
"No one survived," he said.
"That's pretty terrible," I said.
I told him that sometimes tragedies (like the Titanic) happen, and when they do, it's scary and sad, and then we all try to think of ways to make sure something like that never happens again. I asked him if they do anything at school to try to prepare for bad things. He immediately said, "Yes!" and described a fire drill they'd done earlier in the year. He told me, "They care about us and they want us to be safe." I nodded my head in agreement and said that's absolutely right. I asked if they do "any other drills" in addition to fire drills, and he said, "No, my school doesn't believe in tornadoes."
What I gleaned from this and the rest of our conversation is that my five-year-old is aware of catastrophe. He knows that terrible things happen and people die, and he tries to wrap his head around that just like we do. But he doesn't know about Sandy Hook. And I guess that's the way we'll keep it for now.