My son warmed up with his cross-country teammates, readying themselves for their race. Nearby, girls from dozens of high school teams stood at the starting line, waiting for their race to begin.
As the song swirled around all of us — the runners, the parents, the friends — the girls at the starting line broke into song, singing along with loud, strong voices. Dozens of girls, representing dozens of teams, they were brought together in that moment, vibrant, full of life, energetic.
Tears collected in my eyes and dripped down my cheeks. It was a beautiful moment that left me shaken. The camaraderie, the sweetness, the life inside those girls took my breath away. I didn’t even know them. A few deep breaths helped. But the underlying reason I cried can’t be breathed away.
My son — my vibrant, athletic 14-year-old — is a mass shooting survivor.
His life continued because the gunman chose to enter the classroom across the hall, instead of his. It’s a sobering fact that is never far from my consciousness, though I wish it could be. Seven years ago, on Dec. 14, 2012, Will was a 7-year-old second-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My son is alive and so many other children are not because of a choice of turning left vs. right into a classroom. Directions. That’s what separated my family from the families of students across the hall. It’s nothing and everything all at once.
I am so glad my son was there, warming up for a race. Stretching with his teammates, his face broke into a broad smile. Then a laugh. He’s alive. And that’s why I cry. The beautiful moment reminded me, in full emotion, how precious times like that are — and how close we came to never having them at all. It heightened my sensitivity and turned moments like this into vibrant, stunning ones.
After 12/14, I could never return to the stoic self I was before — the one who was unaffected by sappy commercials and unfazed by movies. I was sturdy, unwavering. Only in moments of extreme stress did tears prick my eyes. Now, though, the emotions are always at bay, just waiting to overflow. Seeing my kids really living life can do it. Watching my daughter perform onstage. Seeing my son run. Parent-teacher conferences. Tromping through the snow to chop down a Christmas tree.
Those tears are joy and gratitude, tinged with sorrow and mourning. Happiness comes with a painful edge as the mother of a survivor. I hurt for the other mothers. And yet, I am embarrassed, too. Will I be shunned for my big emotions? Do I even deserve to have them? Part of me feels like I need a permanent disclaimer tattooed on my arm: “Sorry I’m crying, my son survived a mass shooting.” But I don’t really want that, either. I just want to be like the other parents. I want back the normalcy that was stolen from my life on 12/14.
No one tells you that when your child survives a mass shooting, you never return to the person you were before. But I’m telling you now. Those early feelings of “I just need to get home, and everything will be okay,” or “We just need a few weeks to adjust and it will be back to normal,” are wishful thinking. It may take weeks or months or years, but you will realize, eventually, that there is no back to normal. Nothing can be the same again.
I am blessed and cursed, grateful and despondent. I never forget the 26 families whose loved ones never came home again. I think of them every day, even at this meet, at moments of joy that I’m grateful to have.
At the meet (really, at all meets), tears gathered in my eyes when my son ran past me on the course. I’m grateful for the armor of my sunglasses, but when he crossed the finish line, slicing more than a minute and a half off his lifetime best time for a 5K, I didn’t hide the wavering in my voice or the tears in my eyes. The gravity of my emotions is real. It’s who I am now. And perhaps I have to own it, instead of fighting to hide it.
I’m so proud of him and the young man he’s become. I am so grateful that he’s here. Crossing the finish line — and setting a personal best — isn’t just a good race performance. It’s so many things to me, as the mother of a survivor. It’s life, happiness, living, going on.
So I’m sorry that I am crying, but I am just so happy he was able to grow up.
Sarah Walker Caron is an award-winning writer, editor and author who shares her experiences as a mother and home cook. A mother of two, she lives in Maine and blogs about food at Sarah’s Cucina Bella. Learn more about her at SarahCaron.com.