(Photo courtesy of my daughter Veronique, his mom)
We lost our grandson Noah in the Sandy Hook shooting on December 14, 2012. He was 5 on the above picture. He was killed three weeks after he turned 6.
Five years ago as I was walking at the edge of the surf (we now live near the coast), I was thinking that it had been months since I had last dreamed of Noah or seen any « signs » of him. What I call a « sign » is something unusual in the outside world that makes me hope that Noah is still around somehow, somewhere, if only in spirit.
Almost as soon as the melancholy thought crossed my mind, the ocean washed up a boy’s sneaker a few feet in front of me.
The shoe was full of sand and of course dripping wet, but it looked new. It was the size shoe a boy of about 8 or 9 would have worn. Noah would have been that age by then. I didn’t pick it up or otherwise touch it. But I took a picture and walked on, both shaken and comforted. When I retraced my steps half-an-hour later, the sneaker was gone.
The whole thing was pure coincidence. Sure. But when you have lost someone very close to you, you live for these coincidences. Sometimes you call them « signs. » At least, I do.
This year, all around the world, whole families are caught in a web of absence woven by the pandemic: cold pillows, empty chairs, stilled phones, muted voices, silenced footfalls, and abandoned clothes, books and favorite things. For too many of us, gone are the hand in ours, the arm on our shoulders, the cuddle, the patient ear, the face at the window when we come home. We hurt and we grieve.
Even when we don’t personally know someone who died of COVID, we watch, hear or read the news, we talk to friends. Last week in one single day the virus killed more people in the US than died on 9/11. And so many of us are learning to live with traumatic grief that it feels almost like an indulgence to recall those who were murdered in the Sandy Hook shooting of December 14, 2012.
But grief is grief. Some say it gets easier with time. And maybe it does. But it has been my experience that it isn’t the case when death is random, sudden, brutal.
I know I will never resign myself to Noah’s death. Even after eight years his absence is gutting. I miss him, his eyes, his smile, his impishness. I miss the everyday and I miss the milestones, I miss seeing him with his four siblings, I miss the man he would have become, I miss the life partner he might have met and the kids they might have had. I just plain miss him.
Grief sometimes feels so heavy and cumbersome that it stands in your way like a boulder and you find yourself stuck in front of it, trampling the same ground over and over, ensnared in a web of absence.
The image isn’t mine. I found it recently in a novel by Maggie O’Farrell and it stuck a chord. Yes, since Noah’s death, our family has indeed been struggling in the tendrils of such a web.
The novel, Hamnet, is centered on the death of a boy and the family upheaval that followed. The boy’s name was Hamnet (or Hamlet, apparently the spelling was interchangeable in the 16th century) and his father was William Shakespeare. Like Noah, he was a fraternal twin.
The story is partly based on a historic fact: Shakespeare did have a son named Hamnet who died in Stratford-upon-Avon at the age of 11. The cause of his death is unknown. In the novel he succumbs to the plague.
O’Farrell imagines the path the plague followed to Stratford. Her description is riveting. Such a random chain of events, both avoidable and unavoidable. The bacillus came as stealthily to the little town as the killer who found his way to the Sandy Hook Elementary School eight years ago on that fateful Friday morning.
As long as I live, I will be haunted by the thought of this dead soul parking his car and approaching the school, determined to murder everyone within its walls. He had enough ammunition with him and if his weapon hadn’t jammed, he might well have succeeded.
As long as I live, I won’t forget either that this terrible day could have been worse: two of our granddaughters, Noah’s twin and his older sister, were there too. But they were in another part of the building and thus, by sheer luck, they were spared.
Like COVID today, the plague was blind. In the fictional Shakespeare family, it was on course to kill Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith. But like Noah’s, Hamnet’s sisters both survived. Hamnet didn’t, even though Judith had been of fragile health and he had been the strong and healthy one.
After his death, the family was torn apart. Mourning the same beloved little boy, they felt isolated and cut off from one another, unable to understand or even simply accept that grief could take different shapes for each of them. Tempers flared. Misunderstandings, resentment and rifts followed. I’ll say no more for fear of revealing too much of the plot.
But this I will say: vicariously living through this fictional family’s tragedy helped me understand how come our own family had nearly imploded at the very time when we needed each other the most.
The night after I finished the novel, I dreamed of Noah for the first time in months. In my dream, he was a teenager. Just as he would be today if he had lived. I was crossing a high school cafeteria and he was sitting at a long table among other kids. I knew him right away. He didn’t see me. He was pensive, his face bathed with light and if I had to describe him in one word, I would say he looked serene. He still had his extraordinary eyes and his very long eyelashes. Even my dream I knew it couldn’t be Noah since he was dead. Yet I also knew it was him. I woke up.
Our family has been through difficult times since 2012 but over the course of this past year, the ground has shifted. The boulder blocking the path forward has moved. An opening has appeared. I am neither a spiritual nor a religious person. But I am a firm believer in the power of love. Noah was a loving little soul. He adored his parents and his siblings and they adored him back. Nothing and nobody in the world was more important to him. Except maybe Angry Birds, tacos, gangnam style dancing and playing tricks. Why, a few days before the shooting he had been banned from the cafeteria and made to eat lunch with a teacher all week because he wouldn’t stop messing with other kids’ lunches. By her account the teacher had a great time spending lunch time with Noah and I heard he had too. What we will never know is whether or not he would have been deterred from annoying the other kids again once the banishment lifted…
On Monday I will light a candle and place it in the window in memory of Noah. I will light one for his classmates and for the educators who died at the school on that awful day as well as for the millions of victims of gun violence everywhere.
I will also light one for those who died of COVID. I am so very sorry to see their families and friends join the ranks of the traumatically bereaved.
Finally because even dead souls were alive once and beloved and nurtured, for the first time in eight years, I might also light a candle for the lost and violent boy and for the mother he killed before making his way to the school.
I can’t bear to say or write his name but I think of him now and then, always with a shudder. I suspect that on that tragic day he was ripped inside by both an icy despair and a burning hatred and that madness drove him to try and inflict the same pain on others. It is probably a stretch to think he has found peace.
But I believe Noah has.
Karin Anderson says
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings, Farine! I, too, believe in signs like you describe, and find them a consolation.
Thank you, Karin!
Rosel & Jim says
What a beautiful and touching tribute! We believe our loved ones who have passed can still look over us! If so, Noah will be endlessly loved. Rest his soul.
Merci, Jim and Rosel. He will be forever missed and loved, that’s for sure.
I’m so sorry! And thank you for sharing so much with us, it helps us to better understand what we don’t personally know.
Thank you, Frank! Yes, I believe sharing is important as it makes it more personal, more real, less of a statistic.
Jack from Pennsylvania says
You are brave to share this. I wept all through to the end. I’ve had similar “contacts” when loved ones have died.
C S. Lewis wrote of his despair after his wife died in “A Grief Observed.” It has comforted me to think he believed there will be a meeting of our loved ones some day. I believe it.
Thank you, Jack! I will look for the book if it is still available. I too believe that those we loved aren’t gone forever. I take comfort from it.
Jack from Pennsylvania says
You can download a pdf of “Mere Christianity ” by CS Lewis free. It is a compilation of many of his writings. Fascinating stuff. I’d suggest you read it. Included is “A Grief Observed” and “The Great Divorce,” which is a concept of Heaven based on scripture.
Merry Christmas and God bless.
Thanks, I’ll look for it.
Janet H. says
Thank you MC for putting words so eloquently to all of the emotions you have experienced and continue to experience though these past 8 years….I can still remember the night I first read your account as though it were yesterday. How horrified it all was – how unbelievable that it had happened to you and your family but most of all to Noah and all the others who were slaughtered along side of him. ( I only knew you because of your site here which was such a catalyst to budding baking adventures.)
Your honesty and gift with words continues to touch me in very personal ways as I trudge through my own life’s circumstances with grief. Thank you for the reminder that comfort can come from unexpected places at unexpected times even in the most confusing of times.
This time of year I find comfort in the following words written by Howard Thurman:
‘I will light candles this Christmas.
Candles of joy, despite sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage where fear is ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days.
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens.
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.’
I so wish you didn’t have to write what you share, that it never happened. Thank you for showing up here year after year lighting my way with your words – a whispering reminder in my ears to keep Noah alive in my memories too as he is part of my life now as are you due to your words although I never had the pleasure of meeting him or you in person. Words are powerful.
Janet, i am all out of words. Thank you so much for being the loving and giving friend you are, I too wish life had spared you. So much has happened in the eight years since we met in this space. Maybe one day we will meet in person. I really, really hope so. Sending hugs and hope in this super strange holiday season.
Yael Levi says
Your words reveal the pain and vulnerability that time does not heal. Your raw emotions convey that you haven’t forgotten love and beauty. May Noah’s memory always be for a blessing and may the tendrils of the web draw you and your family closer as you each remember and cherish Noah in your own ways.
Sending you love and strength with each passing day and milestone. May you continue to see ‘signs’ that keep Noah close to you and warms your heart.
Thank you, Yael! Take care and stay safe. I miss coming to your neighborhood around the holidays this year. Maybe next year? I hope all is well with you and yours. Hugs, MC
Sending you and your family much love and warmest best wishes, xxx
Thank you, Carol.
Your writing and sentiment are lperfect for this moment. Thank you. Sending you love and lighting candles with you.
Merci, Julie! Je t’embrasse, MC
Stacie Baker says
Noah is the name I always remember from this awful tragedy. My son was 6 that day too and looked something like Noah. He’s 14 now and I just am so sad for all the moments your family has missed with Noah over these past 8 years. Wishing you peace. He is not forgotten.
Thank you, Stacie! Please give your son an extra special hug for me.