I watched a disturbing film the other night in which a British photographer, mourning the death of his teenage son, takes revenge on one of the local gang members who has been terrorizing his alcoholic grieving existence with acts of violence. In the end, there is a bizarre twist and change of heart…. it was difficult to watch.
So many of my friends 'forgot' to have children. It could have happened to me; I was sailing through a relatively self-centered existence when I found myself unexpectedly pregnant. At first it seemed a little 'conceptual'… not much change in my day-to-day. I ignored it, denied it… and suddenly in my 5th month or so, I thought I was miscarrying. In the ER, the Drs. scolded me a little for my callow attitude. It was a hot summer night; walking downtown I began to acknowledge that I was carrying life, and by the time I got home, I was teary and praying. Cricket, I called the baby-- because that's how it had felt… don't leave me, Cricket. I got on my knees by the bed and begged my version of God to give me a chance. Next day I began eating well, frying liver for lunch-- making better choices… talking to my child silently, singing-- chanting, whispering in the dark, sending internal messages and listening.
I'd never felt this sort of intimacy before… I even dreaded the separation of birth, but that turned out to be another revelation. How could anything, anyone… be so perfect and fascinating-- so miraculously lovely and infinitely compelling? Instincts kick in… protection, love, compassion, empathy… the utter dependence and trust of an infant… the complete fulfillment of maternal devotion. The smallest discomfort is a challenge-- a pain or illness is your own wound… you will lie down in front of cars for this being, give up blood and organs, sacrifice all creature comforts for a train set.
As they grow and separate further, you obsess over their daily absences and little independent lives-- you worry, pace, long and miss. Their sweaty face after a ballgame is like celestial radiance. Their victories are joy, their losses are devastating failures. My son had a seriously trying teenage spell. Arrests, troubles, suspensions-- he was cooler than cool, gangsta-tough, but so vulnerable. I spent scores of sleepless nights; days were worse. An illness or flu which kept him in bed --- my only respite. There were panics and police visits… one night where I had a terrorizing call from a weeping mate of his who informed me after many minutes of distress that he was in jail. My relief was beyond anything I'd ever felt; for a moment I was sure he'd been killed. That moment-- the paralyzing, gut-shaking wrench of perceived loss-- taught me something about the impact of this kind of news. The emotional range between life and death-- is massive.
Recent acts of terror-- the relentless sequential delivery of statistics and details-- have stacked up into a skin-thickening coat of familiarity. In countries of civil distress, violence and death are a fact of life. In New York, we live with daily shootings, muggings, elevator shaft accidents, crane collapses and drownings. Domestic abuse, rape, cruelty and gang wars, concert violence and pediatric cancer-- heartbreak and suffering, neglect and wheelchairs. We read, we watch news, we speak of it… we cry at movies, at ASPCA commercials, at sad songs and when our boyfriends or husbands stray. But when I hear and see recent news of these mass killings, I think only of how every tragedy everywhere has a mother, a father… how the very possibility of my own child being taken from me is beyond any tolerable grief. Unbearable: this is the operative word. We have all lost parents, friends, husbands… but our own child-- the thing we created and nurtured and carried as our own-- this is an unfathomable hole. In the moment where I misunderstood that phone call, so long ago… I experienced the unbearable… and have never fully recovered. I don't know how the parents of the Trayvon Martins and the Eric Garners-- of every single child in the Orlando incident, in the Paris incidents-- Nice-- the shopping malls, the schools and movie theaters-- of 9/11-- how they can go on. I have seen them go on, with varying paths of bravery-- some wanting revenge, some choosing forgiveness and mercy, some using medications or alcohol, seeking some peace or cause to fill part of their 'hole'… some discovering nothing but suicide relieves the pain.
Looking back to our own childhoods, so many of us find them lacking; possibly my own son will dis his childhood-- after all, he grew up without a father. My own father the hero failed to protect me. Times were different, he was not a natural parent, and he missed things-- people who wait in the wings to take advantage of children's innocence-- bad people. We grow up and must learn to cope with these violations. Some people hoard possessions to compensate for things they missed-- they collect lovers to try to forget their own neglect-- they seek new pain to purge that which someone inflicted on them.
But we devoted parents-- who take a vow every single moment-- for our babies, for our toddlers and adolescents-- for our naughty, bratty budding gangsters and our angelic young men with sparkles in their eyes-- we swear we will not let these things happen to our children. We speak gently to them-- we touch them with tenderness, we listen to their tiny terrors and bad dreams, we dry their tears, we cheer them on and share their defeats and try hard to give them some independence and core while we fight for their innocence and defend them with all we are.
And then there is a random train ride… or a subway psycho… a black plastic bag underneath their foot… an assault weapon at a rock concert-- a plane crash during a happy vacation… rifles in a classroom. How do we process this, we careful, passionate, doting parents? Every single senseless murder and death is a tragedy of incalculable proportion-- a catastrophic event-- a searing, ripping, unsealing pain that scars over only temporarily but opens like an unhealed wound with every memory. Statistics are a leveling, distant thing… but death and grief are relentless bedfellows. The dream of gravestones, of blood and tears and the remembered joy of birth-- how does one reconcile these things, how does anyone go on from such a gatepost?
The end of the film-- the hideous staging of revenge-- and the victim was clearly a perpetrator of heinous evil-- provided nothing but further grief, twisted non-closure, the sick panicky epiphany of regret, of human frailty and the utter fragility of even the roughest child-- of the line between death and life. And the power of the crossing only reminds us that all this violence has a kickback-- a reaction, a consequence-- a hideous rippling brushfire effect--- and how the sorrow from an unnatural, premeditated murder or random death-- for the mothers-- gentle or tough-- is an utterly crippling, indelible life sentence.