…our grandson Noah was gunned down inside his classroom together with nineteen of his classmates and his substitute teacher. He had barely turned six.
Gun violence has claimed so many victims since that terrible Friday that I sometimes feel embarrassed calling attention back to our own loss. Have you seen the story of this woman who lost three of her children? I started reading it but I couldn’t go on. My grief seemed like an indulgence compared to hers.
After Noah was killed, I became acutely aware of the passage of time. As the days, the weeks, the months went by and piled up, it felt as if we were being swept away by a powerful river while he remained on shore, shrinking by the minute until I feared he would disappear. For the longest time I couldn’t sleep at night as if by remaining awake I could hold on to the days when he was still among us.
But the days have piled up and Noah has shown no sign of receding into the abyss. In fact I spend time with him every day.
In my mind he is both still a six-year old and a pre-teen. I can’t quite picture the way he would look now but I know he has grown. He was a gorgeous child and he would certainly be a handsome young boy today. But there is only so far I can go in trying to imagine him at twelve before my heart breaks. So cruel and so unfair that he wasn’t allowed to grow up.
Still he is never far away.
A few years ago on our first Christmas Eve in California a yellow bird landed in the bushes near the house. I was coming back from getting the mail or the paper when I saw it. I took out my phone and slowly came closer and closer. It didn’t move. Just sat there and stared directly at me. And there was something so peaceful in the way it held itself that I felt suddenly comforted. Even happy. As if a message had been sent and received.
A couple of winters later I saw the same exact bird in a local gift shop. Made of felted wool, it was sold as a Christmas ornament. I bought it. It now sits on a shelf in my kitchen and I see it everyday as I cook and bake. It isn’t much. But it is a link. If only to the memory of a moment when I acutely felt Noah’s spirit and presence. On a Christmas Eve too.
Sure, you might say Noah has become an imaginary grandchild. And I am his imaginary grandma.
Except that Noah did exist. Every time someone asks me how many grandkids we have, I choke up inside. It hurts to say “eight” instead of “nine.” But if I say “nine,” I have to account for them and explain what happened. And it isn’t a story made for small talk with strangers.
There was nothing imaginary about Noah. And six years after I last saw him alive, the glimpse of a little boy with a full head of dark hair at the market or in an airport is still enough to make my heart drop precipitously. A bit like your stomach drops when your plane hits a turbulence. When that happens, all the protective layers built around his death fall away. And the pain is revealed, raw and naked.
There is nothing imaginary about that pain.
I haven’t experienced all of the stages of grief everyone kept telling me about: shock, yes; denial, yes; anger, yes (not so much at the murderer whom I hardly think about but at a culture which normalizes guns and gun violence and at the elected officials who protect this culture whatever the human cost). But that’s it.
No depression (sadness, yes, but that is very different); no bargaining (there is nothing left to bargain for); no acceptance. Definitely no acceptance.
I may be deluding myself about the survival of Noah’s spirit. Or I may not.
I know for a fact love has survived. I grant you it may be all that’s keeping him alive. Or it may not.
The result is the same. I am his grandma. And I love him.
Tonight I will light a candle and place it in the window. In memory of Noah and all the ones whom we lost to cold-blooded murder on December 14, 2012.
It would be a small comfort to know that you are doing the same across the country and around the world. Tiny dots of light against darkness.