Heather Whaley

U.S.A.

New Year’s Letter from Connecticut

On the Monday after our country, and the world, were still reeling from the horrific events in Newtown, I walked my daughter to the end of the driveway, hugged her too hard, and put her on the school bus.  The driver and I exchanged a solemn nod.  After the bus pulled away I cried deeply but silently in the driveway before going inside to get my son ready for middle school.  It was an act of faith on my part, and courage on hers to get on that bus.

The previous Friday I arrived very early to pick her up from school.  I wasn’t the only one.  More than one parent ran to the school the moment they heard of the attack.  Sandy Hook Elementary is about ten miles from my daughter’s school, and it was a struggle to wait until dismissal.  I watched as one by one the kids came into the gym, where they meet their parents.  They rushed, backpacks heavy, artwork in hand, to their waiting parents who each in turn picked up their child and held them closely.  It was overwhelmingly sad, knowing that a few miles down the road there were parents who would never again feel that mundane joy.  We were informed that the kids didn’t know what had happened.  I knew that would not be the case with my son, because so many middle schoolers have cell phones and iPads.  Sure enough he got off the bus informing me that someone had shot a whole bunch of people at a school in Newtown and now there were two gunmen on the loose.

I told him that wasn’t true.  That a man had gone to a school and a lot of people were hurt, but that he was dead and nobody ever had to worry about him again, and please don’t tell your sister because she doesn’t know.  He understood.  But it was Friday, and she’s allowed to play on the computer on Fridays. I didn’t remember in time that our home screen is CNN.com.  She would have seen the coverage on her way to Club Penguin.  When I asked about it, she said she hadn’t seen anything.  But later, as my son was working on a project to organize a field trip for the fifth grade, she said, “You could go to Newtown.  That would be depressing.”  My heart sank.

That weekend was rough.  My daughter, who is normally very independent, didn’t leave my side, showering me with kisses and hugs.  She slept in her brother’s room all weekend.   Then came Monday.

I was glad to be going to a meeting at the elementary school, because I didn’t want to be far from my children.  The meeting was at 9:30 in the cafeteria, and we were to discuss the best way to talk about the tragedy with our kids.  My husband and I had just arrived, our nerves still frazzled, our eyes still red from crying, when an alarm came over the P.A. system and the principal’s voice, tight with fear, said, “We are in lockdown. This is not a drill.”  It was as if my entire body had become hollow.  A strong breeze could have turned me to dust.  A door opened and the custodian said, “This way.”

We were ushered into the computer room, the lights were turned off, windows covered, we were told to sit on the floor and be absolutely quiet.  Parents started crying.  I might have been first.  I thought of my daughter.  She’s eight years old.  Her class was having a China Festival and she was so excited to wear the Chinese dress we ordered for her online.  She had picked out the outfit a week before, and it was all she talked about for days.  I pictured her hiding in the closet of her classroom in her Chinese dress.  It was lavender.  Of course I pictured those kids in Newtown hiding in their schoolroom closets.  I couldn’t breathe, and when I tried, the tears just came.

We are new to the school and I didn’t know any of the other parents I was with, but they grabbed my arm in the dark and told me it was going to be okay.  I felt overwhelming guilt that I had moved my children to this place, assuring them that it would be a better life, that it was a better place to be a kid.  In New York City they had never gone into “lockdown.”  I felt I had lied to them.  Across the room my husband was talking to another father whose tears ran freely down his face.  I wanted to know what was going on.  I found the teacher in the dark.  She said they had been told that morning there would definitely not be a drill of any kind that week.  Then I stared to listen to what was happening in the halls.  It was eerily quiet.  I was expecting, really honestly waiting, to hear gunfire.  I knew it was coming.  I just wanted to know what part of the building it was going to be in, and if I could run to get my daughter.  But it didn’t come.

A while later we learned that a suspicious man had been spotted carrying what looked to be a rifle at a nearby train station.  In reality it was a man with an umbrella.  It was raining.  Because of that man, schools in at least five districts had gone on lockdown on the one day when that was the second worst thing that could happen.  It brought the horror of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary right into those schools.

Later I asked my daughter if she had been scared.  I told her that I was scared, because I had never been in a lockdown before.  She said that she was but she didn’t tell anyone.  “When we were hiding Alice said, ‘I keep looking at the crack of light under the door and thinking someone is going to put a gun under there,’ and I was thinking the same thing.”  Across town my son had been pushed into a different closet.  He said that he was “a bit” frightened because it went on for so long that he thought maybe “something bad was happening.”  When you think about it, hiding from someone who has broken in and is looking to kill you is just about the scariest thing you can go through.  Our children do that as routine.  It is part of their reality to know that some people are going to try to shoot them in the places they feel the most safe.

I don’t think we will ever be able to imagine the toll this massacre has taken on my neighbors in Newtown, and our country as a whole.  I can only measure it against the toll on my own children.  About a month ago I ordered fire safety ladders for the upstairs bedrooms in my house.  When they arrived I showed my son how to use them and he said, “Is this only for fires, or for if there is… something bad happening in the house?” Something bad.  Those are the words he has chosen to describe the most frightening and awful thing possible.

Perhaps out of guilt, or the constant reminder of how lucky we are that we have our children, my husband and I went totally overboard on the Christmas presents.  They got a foosball table. We gave my son a cell phone.  I thought that if he’d had one when he was stuck in that closet I could have texted him to let him know it was just a precaution.  My daughter has been desperate to get her ears pierced, knowing full well that I’ve told her she wasn’t allowed until she was in middle school.  But on Christmas morning, she opened a big box and inside she found a pair of earrings.  We went the next day to get them pierced.  I was worried that every time I looked at her earrings I would remember the kids who died in that school, but what I remember is how fortunate I am to have her, and to treasure every moment I have with my children.  When my son asks me to play foosball, I say yes.  Every time.

I don’t know much about mental illness.  I don’t know about what drives a person to commit mass murder.  I do know that those people have one thing in common.  They have high-powered weapons.  The second amendment was written by men who never conceived of the weapons available today.  Their intention was to enable citizens to fight against an oppressive government.  With muskets.  As our weapons have evolved, so must our laws pertaining to them.  In spite of what the NRA claims, nobody needs a Bushmaster rifle to shoot a deer.  The only thing you hunt with an assault rifle is people, specifically a lot of people in a short amount of time.  There is a lot of talk about making it harder for people to buy guns, but that’s not going to work.  Connecticut, I am told, has fairly strict regulations, and in any case, the weapons used in Sandy Hook Elementary belonged to someone else.  We need to get rid of the guns.  Period.

Our children are hiding in closets at school.  That is too high a price to pay for someone’s supposed “right” to own whatever weapon they choose.  Where is the line drawn?  In the U.S. an average citizen can own a grenade launcher.  Why?  I can go into a nearby Walmart and buy an assault rifle designed for military use.  Why?  The NRA argues that anything can be a weapon – a fork can be a weapon.  But on the same day as the shooting in Sandy Hook, a man went on a stabbing spree at a school in China. The difference is nobody was killed.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what kind of people want to own assault rifles.  Perhaps they would be a good pool from which to begin mental health screenings.  I can’t imagine there are all that many of them.  Certainly there are more people in America who want assault rifles off the streets than want them in their homes, so why are they so hard to regulate?  There is only one answer.  Money.  The NRA has a lot of money, and is a powerful voice in Washington.  It’s time to scream louder than the NRA.

This New Year I resolve to do everything I possibly can to protect my children, to make this world a place where my children can feel safe.  I will not allow the rights of some gun nut to come before the basic rights of happiness and security for my children.  I will not stand down, or grow discouraged because an old man thinks I am just hysterical and will eventually get over my knee jerk reaction to a tragedy.  What Wayne La Pierre doesn’t realize is that nothing infuriates a woman more than a man being dismissive of her anger.  It is a coward who believes in America the Brave, but arms himself to the teeth.  I am braver than him.  I am stronger than him.  I am louder than him.

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SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2011

The past few months I’ve been running in the morning, getting up early before my husband and the kids. But with school starting this week, today I ran after dropping the kids off. Their school is near the West Side Highway in lower Manhattan. I always run along the Hudson River to avoid the awkward jogging in place that one must do when stopped at a traffic light. Today, a beautiful, crisp morning, I ran west to the river and turned left. This is what I was looking at:

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That building with the cranes on top is 1 World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, under construction. I have lived in New York for eighteen years. The view from my apartment used to be of the World Trade Center. After it was gone, the view, in spite of all the buildings I could still see, was nothing more than a huge, gaping void. Today, running along the river, I was staring at this new building and, I don’t know why, but I decided to run there. I ran down to the pedestrian bridge, against the swarming mass of commuters emptying out from the PATH train, and stopped just in front of the site.

1 World Trade is really quite eerie when you imagine what it is replacing – you can see them – really see where the twin towers once were. Craning your neck, looking up into the empty air, it is hard not to picture the people who were just sitting at their desks, turning on their computers, drinking coffee, and ten minutes later hanging out the window about to jump, or the busboys with their faces pressed hard against the floor of Windows on the World trying to breathe. This morning, in front of the site, I was stopped in my tracks. I stood, staring for a minute, and then I just cried and cried. I didn’t even know that I was still that sad. Mostly when I think about 9/11 I feel angry. Not only angry with the people who did this, but also angry at the tourists who go down there sightseeing, ticking “Ground Zero” off their list before catching the matinee of Mary Poppins. I hate the street vendors who sell American flags, souvenirs, pictures of the towers, pictures of the towers on fire, and the people who buy them. I’m angry at stupid right wing politicians like Sarah Palin who praise the virtues of small-town America and the people that live there, and lambaste the “liberal elite” that live on the east coast in lefty places like New York, all the while waving their flags and saying “Never Forget,” and cheering a war against people they know nothing about in the Middle East. The reason New Yorkers are so “lefty” is that it’s hard not to be tolerant and compassionate of your neighbors. It’s much easier to hate what you don’t know, the unfamiliar scares everyone, even my kids know that. And these small town virtues, what might they be? Helping your neighbor? Sticking together, being strong and proud of where you come from? Because that’s what we New Yorkers did in the days after 9/11. While it’s nice to say that the terrorists didn’t win, in many ways they did, because it’s just not the same here anymore.

It was religious fanatics who did this, not Muslims. The guys who run the deli down my block don’t mind if you’re short on money, and they’ll let you come back later when you’ve got it. They’re Muslim. They used to have a sign in their window, written in Arabic, saying their meat was Halal. It’s gone now. They took it down September 12th. The week following the attack I got into a taxi with my husband, the driver wore a turban. In front of us on the plastic partition he had pasted a sign reading, “I am not a Muslim. I am a Sikh from India. I love America.” That’s not something you ever would have seen in New York City prior to 9/11. In New York, a turban wasn’t out of the ordinary. My husband and I both cried, because while the attack was against America, it was also against our hometown, and it was also this cab driver’s hometown, and it was all so sad. Religious fanaticism that rejects any sort of reason is dangerous regardless of the religion from which it was born.

Every year, I hate September 11th. I hate the beams of light that blare up from “Ground Zero” as a memorial, and was really glad they didn’t have them this year. I hate the reading of the names. I hate the flags. It’s too sad. I don’t want to remember that. It was horrible. But of course, nobody has to tell me to “Never Forget.” How could I when the wail of a fire engine’s siren turns my blood cold, and the sight and sound of a fighter jet fills me with deep, gray sadness? I won’t forget checking in with everyone – the guy at the coffee place, my doctor, anyone I saw really, in the days that followed, to see who had lost friends and family. “Is everyone OK,” we’d ask each other, and hold our breath for the answer, knowing that nobody was OK. Not really. I will never forget the smell, like burning plastic mixed with an acrid sweetness which lingered in the air, for even as long as late October when my husband and I came out of a movie on 19th street, and it was as strong as it was in those first days. I don’t remember the movie, but I remember that smell. I remember every time I take the subway, drive through the Holland Tunnel, get on a bus. I was four months pregnant on that day, and when my baby was born I wouldn’t let him out of my sight, wouldn’t even let him sleep in a different room, and when the time came for him to go to nursery school, I sat in front of my window, staring in the direction of his school, waiting for a plume of smoke that would send me tearing down Eighth Avenue to get him.

This weekend, all the warnings, and the advice to be “vigilant,” whatever that means, has brought all those awful feelings back, and it is, this year, as if it happened yesterday. I’m crying more. I canceled the babysitter tonight because I just felt like being home with my kids, and I’ll probably stay home for most of this weekend. I hope that this anniversary brings some sort of closure, not to the pain, and horror, and sadness, because that will never go away. But to the media’s constant reminding us to “remember,” because that’s not necessary.