Early Friday afternoon, I glanced at my e-mail as my daughters ran up a hill to play in the giant ZOO sign. That morning, a sunny brisk one, I had thrown out the plan to drop one daughter at school and run holiday errands with the other in favor of an impromptu adventure.
I steered the car toward the National Zoo and its new carousel. We arrived about 9:30 a.m, so early that the zoo was devoid of other humans. So alone were we that my older daughter, in kindergarten, insisted it must be closed and began a campaign of whining to force her mother to “stop breaking the rules.” I began to question my last-minute change-up and considered loading us back in the car to head to Target.
Just in time, we spied a young woman behind the “Closed” carousel kiosk. She and other staff took pity on us and opened the gates early. That meant the girls had their choice of gloriously rendered animals to ride. The kindergartener’s mood abruptly changed. “I want the giraffe!”
The operator set the ride in motion and for a moment we were all caught in silent anticipation. After that, I can’t recall if there was accompanying music because my girls’ squeals provided my personal soundtrack. There was no question there’d be a second go round.
It was one of those sublime moments that are never captured in surveys results about how happiness plunges after kids are born.
“Is this where Charles’s kids go to school?”
That was the first e-mail I noticed hours later when I thought to check my iPhone. It was from a friend whose job it is to monitor breaking news and who is normally too busy to e-mail.
“I know you are usually off on Fridays, Janice, but do you want to file a post?”
That was the second. From an editor.
I had no idea what either referred to. But I knew it must be bad.
I soon learned of what had happened 300 miles north at about the exact time I had been following two skipping children into the zoo. It was something so awful that there is not a word in any vocabulary on earth to describe it. Why certain families are graced and others cursed at any given moment is a mystery too wretched to comprehend.
As for the e-mails, the responses to both were “no.” For two different reasons.
The first note was about family friends who live in sleepy little Newtown, Conn., a place so quaint that the local paper has a column “written” by a cat. A place our friends chose because of the good schools and the Brigadoon-like neighborhood feel.
Our friends are raising their two beautiful daughters there and have sent them to the elementary school. Now, those girls are in the middle and high schools, so they were fine, physically at least.
The second question had come to me in different forms and in different circumstances over the past 20 years. Part of journalism is priming oneself to react to tragedy with a mixture of grief and adrenaline. This has been less part of my existence in recent years, as parenting blogs, by their nature, are not breaking news venues.
That said, some events demand a break from routine no matter. Each time I have been alerted to a mass shooting involving students, I have dropped everything — usually plans involving my daughters — and rushed back to my computer to pull together a reaction piece.
This time, I didn’t. I wrote back, “Sorry, I’m with my girls.”
It was reflexive response, not considered. Something about Newtown struck me in a different way.
Part of it, of course, is because so many young children were murdered. Children the age of my own daughter. Children the age of those of the NPR commentator I heard choke up as he tried to report the news that afternoon. The age when any parent knows, the world is a mix of fact and fantasy, with bizarre, hilarious, electrifying leaps of logic. An age of wonder, for the child — and the parent. An age when choosing whether to ride on a painted giraffe or ostrich should be about as difficult a decision a kid should face. Not whether to duck under a desk or cower in a closet.
Another part had to do with timing.
It just so happens that I will write my last On Parenting blog post at the coming week’s end. This iteration of the blog is taking a break for now.
I had mixed feelings about the blog’s conclusion, as I will certainly miss the daily education I receive from experts, thoughtful contributors and readers and the opportunity to explore the merry-go-round of perspectives, advice and emerging theories.
At the same time, I’m ready, for now, to give up the metaphors. I’m ready to refrain from checking the phone, filtering experiences into blogable bits. I’m ready to, for just a little while, feel the warmth of my daughters’ backs, hear their squeals and try to grasp these ephemeral moments in real time. Especially after Friday.
Newtown is a turning point in a broader sense too. These shootings are mobilizing Americans tangibly. “Gun Control Now” was a refrain expressed immediately on social media, on protest placards and referred to, obliquely, by an emotional president who now has the political gravitas to move on what should be a foregone conclusion.
Amid all the coverage of the gruesome massacre on Saturday, there was a small story tucked inside the New York Times international news pages. Apparently there had been an attempted school massacre also in China, a country that has suffered its own scourge of school attacks.
There were two differences in the China case: One was that the attacker attacked his 22 victims, many of them children, with a knife.
The second difference: Several students were injured, most not seriously. There were no deaths.