Swallow

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Breathe.

The simple act of pulling the world in and swallowing. When I was a kid I used to hold my breath underwater for 74 seconds. I remember that number clearly because it was the neighborhood record. It was a feat to balloon my chest and deprive my body of the very thing it needs most.

Breathe.

When I had my daughters, the doctors had to put me to sleep. It was predetermined that I would have a cesarean, I don’t remember being asked or offered an alternative. The epidural didn’t work. The nurse tapped something against my spine and I jumped. He did it again, I jumped. Twice they tried. Then, they laid me on my back and slid a mask over my face. Breathe deep, a voice said. The lights were stars, the doctors were magicians. I was so passive. I so easily turned my body over to strangers.  I didn’t even know what agency meant. But I knew how to fill my chest with air.

Breathe.

There are nights when I wake up breathless. I have somehow pushed the air from my lungs, extricated the oxygen from my body. In my dreams there are kids- six, seven, eight years old. The same age as my twin girls. There is a gunman. They don’t know that he’s coming, but they know that something is sour. There are people screaming. Then, a door opens.

 

There is a space here-a pause.

 

Between the moment of knowing and the moment of dying. I sometimes imagine this space as a breath. A long, 74-second breath like the one I treasured as a child of their same age. I wake gasping for something.  I want to suspend these children in that breath, and I cannot. The air runs low. My daughter falling down the stairs when she was three years old. That scream. The one that woke me from a daydream. The one that cut through the air like a siren. I imagine a classroom full of those screams. How the walls must’ve ached with their echo. The air runs lower. The swallows in my chest fade, collapse, die.

Breathe.

The shooting happened on a Friday. My daughters were six. One was home sick. The walls could not contain my grief. I pressed my spine against the molding of our kitchen door and sobbed. The building could not hold me. The world could not hold me. Not tight enough. I wished for a jar to pour my heartache into and seal away. There was no shelf wide enough. My breath tasted like vinegar-it foreign in my mouth. I mourned the obvious-lives cut short, parents devastated, and the collective heartbreak of a community. But I obsessed over the terror in that pause. That 74-second exhale of air. The swell of life leaving their lungs.  That’s when the swallows moved into my chest. They’ve never left.

 

*A poem for the children of Sandy Hook.

To donate to the wonderful people who work tirelessly to prevent another Sandy Hook shooting in our country, click here.

A Letter to My Twin Daughters as They Turn Nine: Or, How We Failed You…Again.

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.

Mommy

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To help: Please consider donating today to either of these groups:

Moms Demand Action 

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