KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The television is showing an endless loop of frightened teenagers at a school in Florida, while in the next room my daughter rummages through drawers in search of candles. Her high school is holding a vigil in a Missouri park to mark the death of a classmate in a car crash.
What happened here was an accident and what happened in Florida was a crime, but beneath that difference lies, like bedrock, the word that lands as a blow to the chest: dead. These young people, voyagers on the stormy passage from the harbor of childhood to the anchorage of maturity, are lost at sea. Their unfolding mysteries, their unredeemed promises, are gone like the light from an extinguished lamp, radiant one moment, dark the next.
I think every parent of every adolescent, in that dread hour when a crack opens in the barricades we build to keep out such inklings, imagines what it would be like. Perhaps we’re trying to inoculate the heart, to endure a needle-prick of pain and fear to ward off the far worse reality. But every day, some number of us — far more than one, in places all over the world — lose the awful lottery.
Robert Frost, who had six children and outlived all but two of them, wrote from cruel knowledge about the gulf between the imaginations of bystanders and the pain of the thing itself. “The nearest friends can go / With anyone to death, comes so far short / They might as well not try to go at all.”
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Yet try we must, because that’s what it is to be a parent. Unless you are deceiving yourself, you know down deep that your most important job is the one you can’t always perform. It’s your job to keep them safe — though not every danger can be prevented. To keep them healthy — though not every disease can be avoided. To keep them alive — in a world where death bats 1.000, given enough time at the plate.
Maybe it’s because I’m in the teen phase of parenting that these images of candlelight vigils, and tear-stained hugs on sidewalks marked with police tape, have made such an impression on me. Living with teens is a constant reminder of fragility and precariousness. It’s a tightrope walk that lasts for years. I understand enough about statistics to know that the odds are massively in favor of safe crossings. But that doesn’t make the day-to-day feel any less perilous.
Kids are released into the world before they know how the world works — and that can’t be avoided, because the most important life lessons can be learned only by experience.
And what a fierce experience it is. The adolescent years blaze with intensity. It’s all sense and no sensibility. They leap more eagerly, love more intensely, plunge more rashly, brood more deeply, forget more easily. When they go off the rails, they go farther and faster. So it is that boys go berserk in schools, but old men don’t shoot up nursing homes.
All we can do is cling with white knuckles to the odds, the hope that our lottery number will never come up; that our treasure won’t be in the speeding car that — among thousands like it — spins fatally out of control; that our precious gift won’t be walking out of the one door of the one school where the sociopath is walking in; that our fragile flower won’t plunge over a cliff of depression without a bungee cord to spring her back; that our child won’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time.