(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.