I’ll come right out and say it. You’ve thought it already. We all have. Why did the massacre at Virginia Tech happen? Could the killings at West Ambler Johnston Hall and Norris Hall have been avoided? How can I make sure nothing like this ever happens to my child?
To say that the tragedy at Virginia Tech is a parent’s worst nightmare is the grossest of understatements. Losing a child is our biggest fear, our unspeakable dread. From the moment we first anticipate having a child, we mentally cross our fingers, we pray, we make bargains with the universe and hope to God to beat the odds. First there is the lurking shadow of miscarriage, then SIDS. Next we worry about bathtub drownings and fingers in electrical outlets, spills down steps, tiny feet wandering into streets, poisons masquerading as cleansers, improperly installed car seats and drunk drivers, and previously harmless-looking (but now potentially malevolent) strangers. Risks, threats, and ubiquitous hazards haunt the early years like specters of potential loss.
I remember one night some months after our twin sons were born. My photographer husband and I had taken our barely-mobile babies to his art opening, where they spent the evening rolling about on the floor at our feet, while we mingled. As socially starved new parents, we dug into our conversations with gusto, each of us occasionally taking our eyes off the boys — once, horribly, at the exact same moment. When we looked back the babies were gone. “Where are the boys?” We shot each other worried glances. Then, faster than I’d ever seen him move, Craig darted out the front door of the coffee shop and frantically scanned up and down the street, prepared to chase down whoever had stolen our children.
Seconds later, Will and Macky were both discovered far under one of the coffee tables, where they’d somehow managed to roll themselves, just inches from where we’d last seen them. They were fine. But as I exchanged a glance with Craig across the room, panting with anxiety and relief, I understood in an entirely new way not only how much I loved our children, but how terribly much I now had to lose.
In the days after that episode (and after other isolated incidents since), I felt myself on high alert. But it isn’t practical, even for near-paranoid parents like me, to live perpetually at Code Orange. We simply can’t keep our children safe by the sheer force of our will. While we outgrow some of our fears — sometimes as suddenly our children outgrow their shoes — equally overwhelming, palpably real dangers inevitably step in to take their place.
Almost two years ago exactly, our family experienced a terrible loss: Craig’s 17-year-old cousin was killed in a single-car accident, on the way to her prom. Samantha was absurdly brilliant (she planned to attend M.I.T., most likely on scholarship), supermodel gorgeous, a wonderful practical joker, infinitely kind. Her family adored her; everyone adored her. How does a person move forward after losing a Samantha-sized piece of his or her heart? How do the families and friends of the murdered Virginia Tech students go on? How do we, as parents, cope with this heartbreaking reminder that the children whose survival and happiness so consume our lives can be taken from us in an instant?
In a world in which 9/11 can happen, in which “school shootings” are a phenomenon requiring a plural “s,” in which the number of deaths that occur in Iraq every day dwarf the obscenely high body count in Blacksburg, hope has become an increasingly precious commodity. We are raising our families in a different reality than our parents raised us, it’s true. Yet every generation faces its own moral and spiritual crises: its Vietnams and Holocausts, its Crusades and Revolutions, its genocides and witch burnings. It is, indeed, our responsibility, as parents and as people, to do all that we can to prevent dark acts by mustering all the goodness that we can; by living in the light to the greatest degree possible. In the aftermath of tragedies, the questions become more personal: Will we respond with hate and fear? Or will we choose the less traveled road of hope and love and light?
Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s when life is at its darkest that such light often shines most pure and true. “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair,” wrote Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. At a Virginia Tech memorial made of 33 pieces of limestone, a note left at gunman Seung-Hui Cho’s stone read: “Cho, you greatly underestimated our strength, courage, and compassion. You have broken our hearts, but you have not broken our spirits… Love, in the end, will always prevail.”
That, for now, may be the only answer we get to the question Why? In the end, maybe that’s the one thing we really need to know.
“I love you,” I tell my children. “I love you forever and forever.” I gather them in my arms and I whisper it against their salty skin. The good in my life now seems especially golden. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. But right now, my sons smell like fresh air and cut grass; my daughter fits perfectly in the curve under my arm, at my side. And I can’t imagine another day as sweet as this.