For the first six years of your lives, your birthday was a joyous occasion. I help parties, crafted invitations like a Pinterest mom, baked you cakes, and bought you toys. Your daddy came home from work, painted us with kisses, and tickled your soft bellies until your laughter rained on us. We had a normal life. We had good days and good years, and the promise of a better tomorrow. When I asked you either of you what you wanted to be when you grew up you answered through crooked smiles and missing teeth: artist, teacher, singer, painter.
Then, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School happened. You had just turned six two days prior, and one of you-Samantha-was home sick. The news broke that a shooting had occurred in a school. Having lived through Columbine as a college student, Virginia Tech as a young adult, I had weathered these types of events before in this country, and I’m embarrassed to say that I gave little mind to the headlines when they started to pop up across the TV screen.
Your fever climbed, your cheeks burst into red, and the network news anchor was breaking into our regularly scheduled programming. I will never forget that moment, the sippy cup of ice water in my left hand, a damp washcloth in the right, I stood motionless as I watched lines, ropes of screaming children being led from their elementary school by even more distraught adults. I steadied myself against the wall and watched as we learned of the dead, the massacred, the innocent.
“I wasn’t sure how the parents of those slain children would go on, but I thought maybe, no I was certain of it, I was sure that we would pull together as a country and help them through this.”
Hours later, the names started pouring in, floating across our TV screens like a fog. I did what every parent in America did that day: I hugged you both like it would be the last time. I held you against me until I was afraid you would melt. I held you to fill the void for those parents, all of those parents in Newtown who would never see their babies again. I called my mom with a sob in my voice I had never felt before. I don’t know what to do with this, I cried, this pain is unbearable. I wanted somewhere to put the anguish, a jar with a tight lid that would never open again. If I feel this way, I thought, I cannot imagine what those poor parents are feeling. I wasn’t sure how the parents of those slain children would go on, but I thought maybe, no I was certain of it, I was sure that we would pull together as a country and help them through this.
I thought that day was the hardest. But I was wrong. The hardest part of the Sandy Hook Massacre for parents around the world was ever trusting that our children would be safe in school-ever again. The next morning, it was all I could do not to keep you home. What if there’s a copycat? What if someone tries it here? What if? What if? But Daddy insisted, we keep going, keep moving forward. That morning, there were more parents outside of the school than usual. I will never forget letting you walk through those doors again. I stood there, with at least a dozen mothers and fathers, just watching you with tears streaming down our cheeks.
I thought that day was the hardest. But I was wrong again. The hardest part came in the days, weeks, and even years afterwards, when-despite twenty children and six adults being murdered in an elementary school by a lone gunman-we as a country continue to fail them and you by doing nothing. There have been efforts made by many, the strong voices in a choir of ignorance, singing out for justice, for help, for empathy, but the choir is loud and those voices are drowning by themselves.
Your birthday has never been the same for me. Not because the events of that day overshadow your life, I don’t want them to. But because I can never give you what you truly deserve on your birthday and every day in between, and that is a safe place in this world. I can’t yet say to you that a really bad thing happened and we fixed it, or at least tried to make it better. Instead, the deaths of those 20 children have made our world less safe, and now a simple trip to Target or the mall is a risk. Your birthday has never been the same because I have never been the same. I have failed you, the country has failed you, and I don’t know what to do to make it right.
At night, even now, I close my eyes sometimes and imagine the fear and panic those who died and those who survived experienced in those classrooms. It haunts me. I look at parents walking through the streets with a gun tucked in their belt and a first-grader on their arm, and I wonder how on earth you can reconcile the two? I think about the 52 parents in Newtown who are celebrating the holidays with one less person at their table this year. It’s unimaginable that you will grow up in this world, that you will fear taking your kids-my grandchildren-to school, that you will be in a crowded space and have your heart pound out of your chest because someone bursts through a door or moves in a way that could signal terror.
On your birthday, my sweet babies, and every day, I am sorry my voice isn’t strong enough, but I pray every single day that it will be heard.
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