The first four days
“There’s been a shooting.” My friend Lisa calls just after 10 AM. “All the kids are in lockdown.”
I no longer have children in the school system, so I don’t receive the robocall with this information. I put down the Christmas card I’ve just opened from my friend Bud and his husband Rick. The card is a still from the final scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Jimmy Stewart has one arm around Donna Reed and in the other holds Zuzu. Rick’s head has been photoshopped in for Jimmy Stewart’s and Bud’s for little Zuzu’s.
“Turn on the television,” Lisa says.
The local news channel is running a crawl and I see the words Sandy Hook Elementary. I know it’s nothing serious, because that’s our school. Our first house in Sandy Hook abutted the school grounds. For nine years we treated the schoolyard as an extension of our backyard. Lisa is still talking, listing all the people we know in the building. We hang up and my phone begins to ping with texts. Little, little kids go to that school. If anything, it’s a disgruntled spouse . . . that’s what it is. I decide to meditate, to pray. The phone rings. I check to see if it’s my daughter Hannah, who is supposed to drive home from college today for Christmas break.
I can tell by the way Hannah speaks those two syllables that she knows.
“Maybe it’s nothing,” I say.
“Erin just texted me. She’s at the hospital and they’re going crazy. It’s not nothing.”
“Keep packing.” She has a 450-mile drive ahead of her. “Just keep moving, OK?”
“Love you, too.”
We hang up, but I don’t go back to meditating. I go to the computer. And then I call my son in Brooklyn. I was with Nathaniel the night before, watching him perform in an experimental theater piece about a boy clown and a girl clown. There were no words, just music and movement. He was the boy clown, with dark red lips and those little black crosses above and under his eyes. At the beginning he is Chaplinesque funny, innocent and vulnerable. By the end he’s lost everything.
I can tell from his voice he doesn’t know.
I jump from computer to TV to landline to cell. It’s eleven or eleven-thirty when my daughter calls again. “Danielle’s parents got evacuated from their house by a SWAT team. It’s Adam Lanza,” she says. “He lives across the street. Yogananda’s cordoned off.”
Danielle’s family lives around the corner. Growing up, Hannah spent so much time at Danielle’s that the school bus driver once asked if she had a meal plan there. It will be hours before the correct identity of the shooter is announced on television.
I’m sitting on the edge of the couch, shivering. The number moves from three to eight to twelve. Reporters are crying. When the crawl reads twenty I scream. I am alone in my house and the sound travels into the empty bedrooms, down the stairs, past all the Hanukkah decorations. The sound is one I will hear from others during the next several days. It’s a gasp and a shout, a reverberation that lives on the border between plea and protest.
I call Nathaniel again. When I hear his voice I sob. He begins to sob, too. I have not heard him cry in three years, since his dad and I told him we were separating. Later in the afternoon his dad will tell me that Nathaniel got sent home from work.