• A Mother’s Survivor’s Guilt in the Wake of Sandy Hook

    Carol Ann Davis on the Impossible Task of Moving Beyond Tragedy

    How young were my boys when I moved them to a town, actually not even a town but a hamlet situated inside a town that would, within months, become the site of the largest primary school shooting in the country’s history? Luke, five, was sacerdotally young, Willem, nine, was too old not to be told certain things. So the one does not know some things that the other knows too well. The one knows things no child should know.

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    They live together without this mattering much. The older knows when to stop talking, knows how mystery enters through the smallest opening in a conversation about bugs, or which room to sleep in tonight, or toys, and he is vigilant to prevent any darkening wing falling, even momentarily, over his brother. If he can, of course, he will prevent any darkness coming nearer than a penny to an hour. 

    Within a year or two the youngest will have to be told. It is Luke, the one with no relationship to the events of that day, who will need to be told, though that morning he sat with his father offering the comfortable weight of his living body while his father slowly learned the gravity of the situation: first it was one teacher and she was shot in the ankle, then it was a disgruntled father who shot his wife in a kindergarten classroom, then a survivor under a desk in the office got word out—the first inkling of the blood-cold reality—it was much worse: a first grade classroom, every child. 

    None of this was exactly true. It was two first-grade classrooms. It was every child but one. It was several who huddled behind the teacher who shielded them. It was several escaping by him as he reloaded. And the children, understanding better than we, are said to have whispered along a long line one to the other by way of explanation wild animal wild animal wild animal.

    Hand on shoulder on hand on shoulder as they were escorted out of the school past the bodies, helicopters already wub-wubbing over their heads in a way that would come to feel oppressive, police-state-ish—under such circumstances wild animal was their understanding.

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    Luke is sacerdotally young in that he has taken a vow of devotion to early childhood, in that he wears its vestments, cape and sword, and carries its scepter—a juice-box straw. He will have to be told about the tragedy because he will follow this first grade class with its 20 forced absences through all his years of school. Not now but soon the first grade class will go to second grade and he will go to first grade. He will sit in its desks and drink its water, not now but soon to be confronted with the real of what had been imaginary. After a kindergarten lockdown drill a month later he told me, It wasn’t real. Real would be someone coming in with a gun. 

    And this is what it is not to suffer. This is the not-suffering, happy-ending story. 

    Recollection is not a perfect machine, as the body is an imperfect keeper of artifacts, but somewhere in my body, in my teeth perhaps, is recorded the following: I am interrupted during my university class by the wild eyes of my department secretary, who beckons me into the hall and says all schools in my town are on lockdown. Ninety seconds pass—not that long, less than a minute—before it is clear to me that Hawley School is not the site of the shooting, but Sandy Hook, a school closer to our house but by an accident of zoning not my children’s school.

    Until last year, they went to schools named for plantations, ate church-revival food, meat-and-threes, corrected those who said lima beans.

    I go back into the classroom without knees and elbows, without joints of any kind. Minus them it is all I can do to make myself sit upright. I am 40 minutes away by car and it is all I can do to sit upright enough to tell my students, end early, go and sit in my quiet office to collect my things—the things of before that will come with me to after. 

    Also engraved somewhere, another bodily artifact: a text from my husband, not wanting to cause alarm, reads I don’t know if you’re in class but there was a shooting here. Not Hawley School. Luke is home with me. Afternoon K cancelled. 

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    And this: the principal of Hawley School, in a voicemail to parents a few minutes later, as quietly as she can while still being emphatic, says: Please hear me: nothing has happened at Hawley School. I have opened every door and seen your children. And later my brother, once the news is on CNN, calls to ask: Do you have Willem with you? To which I say: I told you it wasn’t our school. To which he says again: Do you have Willem with you? I need to know he’s with you. To which I say: He is. 

    And this is what it is not to suffer that day. This is the not-suffering, happy-ending story. 

    Sacerdos, from the French and earlier from the Latin, literally meaning “offerer of sacrifices.” The children who live here, perhaps it’s strange to say, now glow. They do, they glow. Everyone can see it. No one can approach unmoved, and the children, understanding their role, shoulder, take on, burden themselves with us. Their skin nearly translucent, they walk around like that, glowing. They offer themselves like bits of mirror, and we accept. 

    We adults take their hands to cross streets, high five when goals are scored or just attempted, correct minor pronunciation errors so that they speak clearly, so that they will be better understood. Words they’ve read silently, foreign on the tongue, they now say. Choffer for chauffeur. So we explain: that’s from the French; a and u make an o sound, the ch is sh, and so on. 

    Mine were not born here. Mine were born in Charleston, South Carolina. Until last year, they went to schools named for plantations, ate church-revival food, meat-and-threes, corrected those who said lima beans. No, they said, it’s butter… butter beans. Mine loved their Brown House, which they named themselves, loved the near-dark walk to the pool, loved Jack’s Cosmic Dogs and the beach, the half hour it took across the Stono River causeway and River Road to get there. 

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    But they are adaptable, easy with burdens. Now they love the snow. They love snow days. They love Blue House and pledge never to move, though we’re renting and can’t afford to buy. And now they see that lightning bugs appear in more than children’s books, that hills can be a part of a yard. Their father has hung an old-fashioned plank swing up between two trees on a hill, so that to swing forward is to fall and be caught by the certain rope, by an enduring constancy. Even after, they trust the certainty of being caught. 

    Into the spring months of after my oldest writes a poem that says Our super power is staying together. 

    Has together changed for him in a few short months? Which bad thing changed it? There were so many in a row, they were hard to count up and think through. Happening upon us here you might wonder if one can witness such suffering and not suffer oneself. 

    No, more blue than that. Like tatters . . . 

    Later Willem’s teacher would tell me the busses’ arrival that day was, for her, the scariest moment. What would they find when the busses opened?

    In Central Park, a standoff: you will wear your coats. You will wear them and you will stay near us. But they both run off ahead as if they own the place. This is weeks afterward—how are they not scared all the time? But that’s us, not them. It’s we who look upward brokenly, not them. We forget we are the scared ones 20 times a day, and not before we have said with too much force: You will stay near me. You will. 

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    Like trying to catch water in your hands. 

    I know what it took to put Willem on the bus the first day after, but what did it take to get onto that bus? The most normal act in the world: walk three houses up, wait for the bus. Hear its big brakes, its idling engine, watch it stop. Wait for the door to slide open and step the three steps up. 

    That was a Tuesday after it happened on a Friday. Later Willem’s teacher would tell me the busses’ arrival that day was, for her, the scariest moment. What would they find when the busses opened? Who would come? They stood outside, every one of the staff, to welcome mostly full busses back to Hawley School where Nothing has happened. 

    Please hear me. 

    Google “Hawley School” and you will see pictures of those busses pulling in that day, courtesy of CNN: moon-faced smilers peering out the back of the bus, as on any bus in the country. But it wasn’t any bus, it was #8, Willem’s. What seat was he in that day? His usual, third from the back, though I know it not from pictures. It stays with me, a compulsive counting of rows to his usual seat.

    After the bus left our street, I couldn’t stop myself from driving to the grocery store parking lot across from the school and counting windows to find his classroom. Top right, facing Church Hill Road. A bank of four windows facing a road momentarily not lit with sirens, not yet carrying mourners to or from the churches. And busses tucked away at their midmorning idle. 

    I have opened every door and seen your children. 

    With the boys that day in Central Park it is early spring—windy, sunny, not warm enough without a coat.

    Earlier, the butterfly room at the museum had seemed full of sleepy blue Morphos loping along on wingspan alone. The big kids in the room, Willem called them, using his own cosmology. But smaller, less colorful ones fly everywhere, too. The room is humid, tropical, and the volunteers make a parlor trick of walking around with Luna moths on the rims of their ears and hats. I spend more time than I should trying to get a shot of Luke in profile with a Monarch flying by, and then try just experiencing the Monarch flying by the straw-headed, breathing loveliness of him.

    I put my camera down. Willem gets wind of me, common enough to him by now this peculiar stillness combined with a sudden gravity, but is it too farfetched to say he grabs it off me, tries on its weight? I don’t want it to, but the thing in the air that flashes brokenly also belongs to him. He doesn’t say anything. He too likes the look of his brother here. 

    Luke stands very still because he is enjoying the sensation of a wing flying so close to his ear. I am saying to myself, Benign near-flying thing. Benign near-flying thing, fly on by. 

    I understand what that day was like for Luke, at home with his father when afternoon kindergarten was cancelled, and I understand what it was for me, a numbing ride toward Hawley with nothing but Willem on my mind: countryside numb, barns numb, Dunkin Donuts sign numb, cumulonimbus numb, sunlight numb, stoplight-stop-sign numb.

    All those calls to family to say the boys were okay—brain-wracking calls, who to call next, who will worry—and each call met with a little less comprehension than the last, everyone getting off the phone with me quick. Social-isolation-numb, and dumb. 

    This was early, remember; we knew more sooner, though knowing didn’t mean helping. And who wants to talk to someone so nonchalantly about such a thing: There’s been a shooting but the boys are at another school. It was one in a million and we were two, we were two in a million. 

    All of that I have, artifacts stored in the blood, in the teeth, but what the day was for Willem I don’t have. In my mind he is in his classroom with his teacher behind those windows facing Church Hill Road and he is hearing sirens, too many, going on too long. There is the beginning of the helicopter sound that will grow so familiar. He is unsure where any of the sirens are going, but they don’t stop at his school and this is all he needs to know.

    Soon he is told I’m here to pick him up and he gets his things together and walks toward the office. In my mind it is not the drawn, still look of me at the end of the long hall that traumatizes him, but the sirens he’s heard for hours. 

    But in the weeks that follow he corrects me: I was in the music room. If it had happened at Hawley I would be right there, the first classroom in the building. It would be me. Before I can take in that he has already made this calculation coherently enough to form such a sentence, before my breathing returns to normal, he corrects me about something else: I’m not traumatized. Why are you trying to make me feel something I don’t feel? 

    Why are you trying to make me feel something I don’t feel? No, more blue than that. Toward precision, but never at it. I can get close but I cannot get there to where he is. 

    It’s on this drive that I first notice the glowing; I count the fingers of his hands, hold his left with my right, drive with the other.

    He is new here but he is a ready friend, all long hair, shirts worn backward and inside out. Part of my leadership style, he says when anyone asks about his fashion. Sometimes his jokes are a little far out, a long way around a short block. He is a boy to be admired; I could not have talked to him at his age. 

    He has a friend who carries a picture of one of the lost children in his pocket. Willem saying this out loud is weeks in the making. The night he tells me, we are lying in his bed until he falls asleep. I ask what that was like, and he says the picture looked a lot like Luke. After which he has a stomach- ache and can’t sleep. 

    I keep him home the next day. Stay close to me. Stay near me, offerer of sacrifices.

    To which I say: He is. When I answer my brother on the phone on the day of, when I say that Willem is with me, it is because I have gone to pick him up. Time is strange, but I get there. My spine has knit together. I have left the university classroom where I teach, I have spent I don’t know how many seconds sitting in my office chair in what feels like an air-amber solution, and I have driven the 40 minutes home to Newtown. Home. To. Newtown. We are new here, but now we’re committed. 

    Please hear me. I have opened every door and seen your children. 

    To which I say: He is. 

    He is with me because I have stood in the lobby of his school—a lobby that will come to resemble the inside of a pillow, full of hand-made snowflakes and well-meaning notes of consolation—while someone is sent to bring Willem down the long hall from the room on the second floor—the room of sirens, I call it now in mind-privacy, the church of nine years old an echo chamber of helicopter blades—and we have driven home together.

    It’s on this drive that I first notice the glowing; I count the fingers of his hands, hold his left with my right, drive with the other. On the way, on the sun-filled twisty turns of Schoolhouse Hill Road, I’ve told him in quick, short sentences what’s happened and he has said he understands. He has said, I still feel safe. He has said, Let’s go home to Dad and Luke. We should  be together. As he utters these sentences I am grateful for the steering wheel. Without moving my hand from his lap I one-hand the hairpin uphill onto Walnut Tree Hill Road and we are almost home. 

    Please hear me. I have opened every door and seen . . . 

    In the pictures from that day in January a few weeks later, the butterfly’s a dark blur near Luke’s ear, going too fast for its orange to show, as vestments are sometimes closeheld to the body. Or it’s not there at all, as vestments sometimes disintegrate into nakedness, as vows are effaced if too lightly held.

    Luke holds his breath for the interval it takes the thing to pass, then breathes in big, deep breaths. It has passed so close he has heard it. He breathes his living-boy breaths into this early-childhood air, soon gone. It was a dark wing; it passed quickly. And it was benign. 

    And this is what it is not to suffer. This is the not-suffering, happy-ending story, the one I get. 


    The Nail in the Tree essay excerpt From “Nail in the Tree” by Carol Ann Davis, Tupelo Press, March 2020. Used by permission.

    Carol Ann Davis
    Carol Ann Davis
    Carol Ann Davis’s first collection Psalm appeared from Tupelo Press in 2007, the same year she was awarded a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts; Atlas Hour followed in 2011. A former longtime editor of the journal Crazyhorse, her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Agni, The Threepenny Review, and Volt. In 2015, an essay she published in The Georgia Review was named a finalist for a National Magazine Award in the Essays and Criticism Category. She lives in Sandy Hook, CT, with her husband and two sons, and serves on the faculty at Fairfield University, where she teaches in the Fairfield University Low-Residency MFA Program.

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