I don’t know how to write this letter to you.
There aren’t any words.
It keeps happening but nothing happens.
All there are are words.
Yesterday morning we were home together, both of us sick with a virus we had managed to dodge for two years before catching it on a recent trip. You were cuddled up on the recliner watching Disney while I sent out work emails from the guest room nearby.
As it approached lunchtime, you asked for your favorite kind of Macaroni and Cheese. I went upstairs and made you a bowl, remembering as I always do when I make it that, in your opinion, your mom’s was a little better. By the time I returned with my second-tier version, you had fallen asleep, your head on one arm of the recliner and your legs stretched out over the other.
You’re only a few weeks away from turning eight but, in that moment, I saw you again as my tender baby. The one who would put his head against my chest on days when he had a fever, and I would feel the warmth of his small body and hear the steady beating of his tiny heart interrupted only by the occasional sucking on a pacifier.
I remember thinking then that there was nothing I wouldn’t do to protect that child, to keep that little heart beating.
1,600 miles away from my little reverie, in a small Texas town near the Mexico border, a tragedy was unfolding.
Even before all the details came out, some were easy enough to guess. A troubled young man with unhindered access to guns choosing to commit as hateful an act as he could imagine. There are so many shootings in this country that follow the same basic pattern that it is nearly impossible not to become numb to them, whether as a defense mechanism or just due to the sheer volume.
But as the news about this one trickled in, horrified pain pierced through the numbness.
Early reports of two children killed turned into 14 children and one teacher, which later became 19 children and two teachers. And more injured.
An elementary school. One that housed second through fourth grade classes. Kids about your age, all of them.
The murders committed with assault rifles the killer apparently purchased legally just after turning 18.
Parents being asked to give DNA to help authorities identify their children’s bullet-shredded bodies.
Every new detail bringing new horror and heartache.
I spent the afternoon reading the updates, occasionally crying for children whose promising lives had been snuffed out of this world only hours before. Kids your age you might have played with over the weekend in an online game, whose avatars will never again appear next to yours. Kids that might have grown up to become a college roommate of yours someday. Kids who, like you, might have woken up that morning excited to watch the Warriors – Mavericks game later that night.
As all this was on my mind, you played away on your iPad, happy and oblivious to this new, awful reality of the world.
You went outside to shoot hoops for a few minutes. You asked me to lower the hoop so you could dunk a little better. I lowered it, grateful for the opportunity to help, and then walked toward you. You thought I was coming to play defense and prepared to dribble around me. You were surprised when I wrapped you in my arms and told you I love you. “I love you too, Dad,” you said. I nearly started crying again.
Late in the afternoon, you took another nap. Your chest rose and fell under a soft blanket. You fought off a bout of chills and talked a little in your sleep. I wondered what you were dreaming about, and hoped it was nothing scary.
I couldn’t stop watching you.
19 little bodies, all about your size.
When you woke up, I didn’t say anything to you about the shooting. What was there to say?
Then last night before bed you told me you had seen a thumbnail for a video on YouTube, whose description said 19 children had been killed in Texas. “But I didn’t watch it,” you rushed to add.
“Yeah, that happened, buddy.” I admitted to you on behalf of the world. Once again, I was tasked with being the messenger of all its evils, like it or not.
We talked for a while. I tried to find words. I was honest without sharing more than you need to know at your age. I asked if you had questions. I apologized on behalf of the world.
As it sank in, you said, “I don’t like intruder drills.”
“I don’t like them either,” I said. “I wish those didn’t have to happen. But I’m glad your school does them. It’s part of how the grown-ups that work at the school are working to keep you safe.”
“I’m scared to go to school. I’m scared someone will come and shoot me,” you said.
“Oh, buddy,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I can understand why you would feel scared. But your school is a very safe place for you to be, and I wouldn’t let you go there if it wasn’t. Nobody is going to shoot you.”
“How do you know?” you asked. “You don’t know the future.”
“You’re right,” I admitted. “But I believe that. I have to believe it.”
I told you about Mr. Rogers’ quote (or, rather, Mr. Rogers’ mother’s quote) to “Look for the helpers.” I told you that one of the most important things we can do is try to make the world a little better place for others, and that if we focus on that it can give us hope. And I said maybe this tragedy would lead to some changes that would make it harder for another person to do what this killer did.
You have – I have to believe – many years ahead of you to grow as cynical as I have, so I didn’t share with you how skeptical I am that anything will change given our country’s history with gun violence.
Nor did I tell you about the school in Connecticut where a scene very much like this one played out a decade ago and how, despite that, no new federal laws were passed that would make access to firearms more difficult.
I didn’t tell you that many people seem willing to accept the loss of children your age as the price of nearly unrestricted access to high-powered weapons. Weapons not designed to fell a deer or repel an 18th century army, but designed to kill many things in a short amount of time, even if those things are children young enough to still believe in Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy.
I didn’t tell you that already some people are advocating for more guns, not fewer.
One other thing I didn’t tell you: that I’m even more frightened than you are.
I fear that, like those poor parents in Texas, I might never have the chance to stop something tragic from happening to you at the place where you should be safest, second only to our home.
I worry all the time that your school could be the next Sandy Hook or Robb Elementary, names everyone now knows for the saddest of reasons.
I’m terrified that I wouldn’t be able to keep that precious little heart of yours beating.
No, I didn’t tell you any of that. I tried to put on a brave face. I must have been more convincing to you than I was to myself because, as we finished chatting, you told me that I had somehow made you feel a little bit better. Before long, you drifted off to sleep.
Through the darkness, I could just make out your chest rising and falling, calm and steady. You were safe and breathing, for now.
I lay awake, though, listening and worrying and grieving.
And, somehow, despite everything, hoping.
There aren’t any words…. And yet your words touch deeply…
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Caleb, this touches my heart. I grieve for our country and it’s inability to make changes to keep children, grocery shoppers, church goers safe. I grieve for the world my grandson faces because the adults in the room are acting like spoiled infants
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Alternating between waves of rage at our collective inability to make better choices to protect our kids, and grief, thinking about all those families as I load my own 8 year olds on the bus again and again and again. I, too, ended up telling my kiddos about Uvalde, which felt impossibly hard. And then they overheard the news comparing it to Sandy Hook and I heard from the back seat, “wait, this has happened ANOTHER time?!” Oh, my dear child, if you only knew. I hate that this is their world.
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I hate that for them, too.
Caleb, your thoughts and writing show your wisdom and caring. May your journey continue with love and kindness. Thank you for sharing.
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