I’ve been telling myself that I shouldn’t write about Newtown. That it’s not my story, not—kina hora—my tragedy. In the days after it happened, I even admonished myself for tearing up when the massacre was mentioned on the radio. It felt right that I was angry about our country’s ridiculously slack gun laws, and horrified that anyone—no matter how ill and vicious—would choose a classroom of first graders as his target. But my hot tears, my swallowed sobs seemed self-indulgent and misplaced to me, as though I was taking something away from the parents of Adam Lanza’s young victims, elbowing my way through the crowd to stand with them in the front line.
Thankfully, there are times when someone reflects something back to me and I remember to stop berating myself. This time that someone was President Obama who, wiping away his own tears, said, “I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do.” Of course, I finally thought. This is my tragedy, my story. It belongs to all of us. Twenty of our children and six of their educators were slaughtered. We all have to live with that. We all get to grieve.
In grieving, what I keep coming back to are the things, the physical objects that fill a first grader’s world. I picture brightly colored plastic barrettes and small baseball caps, glittery Mary Janes and size one sneakers with Velcro straps and light up heels. I think of sharpened number two pencils, and black and white speckled notebooks, backpacks with images of Sponge Bob’s goofy face, and those hats that look like animals lounging on top of kids’ heads. When I was nine or ten, I saw a report about a plane crash on the television news. All the passengers died, and as the camera panned the wreckage it paused at an intact overhead cabinet where a teddy bear sat wedged. That night I cried in the bathtub, haunted by the image of that plush bear and the idea of a child younger than I was who had taken it on that trip for company and comfort, who might have packed it just that morning with the thought of holding it again in a few short hours.
Now when I envision the parents of those six- and seven-year-olds who died in their classroom in December, I see them standing surrounded by their children’s silent belongings. Charlotte’s pink boots, James’ baseball gear, Avielle’s t-shirt with the horse on it, the box of taco shells on the kitchen counter for Noah’s dinner. I linger on the objects and how they appear to be waiting. I think of the promise we pretend to ourselves that such talismans hold. “Of course he’ll be back. There’s his stuff.”
It’s possible that, in grief, I focus on these objects out of fear. It’s so much easier to center on a symbol—that abandoned teddy bear on the airplane shelf—than on the horror of actual carnage and the terror and pain that made up the last moments of those beautiful children’s lives.
Veronique Pozner, mother of Noah, the youngest of Lanza’s victim’s, has had to be and is a much braver woman than I. Like Emmett Till’s mother before her, she chose to describe for the press, for us, exactly what her son’s body looked like after his murder. She believes that to truly honor Noah and his slain classmates, it’s important that we look, that we know.
I made myself read through Ms. Pozner’s heartrending description of her boy’s sweet little body after it was shot through 11 times. Doing so confirmed for me that this tragic story is, after all, very much about things. Primary among them, a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, a military-style assault weapon capable of firing at a rate of 45 rounds per minute. It was modeled after a gun designed during the Vietnam War. At that time, military leaders had come to realize that most soldiers were not expert marksmen; therefore, they had the best possible chance of triumphing over opposing forces if they could kill as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. In the sick logic of war, I suppose it made a kind of sense. But now that weapon is commercially available, which even some staunch second amendment advocates are finally admitting makes no sense at all.
The particular Bushmaster that was used to kill Charlotte, Daniel, Rachel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Dawn, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Anne Marie, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Lauren, Mary, Victoria, Benjamin, and Allison belonged to Nancy Lanza, the gunman’s first victim and mother. That monstrous weapon belonged to a mother, the mother of a boy she understood to be very troubled. It was one of two military-style rifles she owned, along with several high-capacity semi-automatic handguns. I don’t even know how to think about that, other than to be furious at her, to find her ultimately at fault for all those senseless deaths. Is that wrong? It feels like it should be—sure, blame the mother—and yet in this case maybe it’s not. Isn’t it our job to know our children? Aren’t we the ones who choose the objects we bring into our homes?
Of course the word home here ultimately means more than the houses we live in. It signifies our towns, our communities, this country. This morning I heard a disheartening report on the radio stating that the passage of strict gun laws in New York City and the federal bans proposed in response to the Newtown Massacre have inspired a backlash of increased membership in the NRA. An NPR correspondent interviewed attendees at a gun show in Albany who were anxious to buy assault rifles before the new laws took affect and up in arms, so to speak, at the prospect of having to register the arsenals they already owned. While several people made mention of the right to protect themselves and their families, no one spoke of the Newtown children or any other victims of gun violence. I thought of Veronique Pozner’s devastating depiction of the riddled shell that had been her son. I imagined the sobering effect of crime scene photos from mass shootings were they made mandatory viewing upon entrance to all gun shows.
Too many children are dying, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords said at the senate hearings on gun violence this week. Having survived a gunshot wound to the head during the 2011 Tucson shooting, her speech is painstaking, each word its own effortful little island. Too. Many. Children, she said again. Words that bear repeating.