As the news comes in, the only sound I want to hear is my goddaughter’s voice. But her mother, who I’ve known since we were both college freshmen bonding over a love of Easy Rider, James Dean and Ethiopian food (and our shared guilty pleasure: crying during Oprah), isn’t picking up the phone. Perhaps she has seen what I’ve seen: the words “children” and “massacre” in boldface across tickertape; photographs of crumpled faces and siren lights; an image of little ones holding hands—heading to a checkpoint, not a playground. Her daughter, my goddaughter, our darling dumpling girl, has just turned three. The years between that morning my friend called to tell me she was pregnant (“Are you sitting down? You’re driving? Well, pull over.”) and the afternoon she pinned a banner that read “You’re three today!” to her dining room wall have passed like a finger-snap.
While facts and figures fill TV sets and computer screens—numbers of bodies, ages of victims, makes and models of guns and calibers of bullets—my friend is no doubt taking her daughter, my goddaughter, out of pre-school. They will go to the park, and the little girl who sings lullabies to her stuffed animals will mimic the pigeons as they hop around the trashcans. I will sit in my office and open a Gmail folder full of pictures from her birthday party; she holds a cupcake in her chubby hands, holds it oh-so-carefully to avoid smearing pink frosting on the bright orange jumper I bought her last summer, the one with a cartoon monkey (her favorite animal du jour) dancing over the heart.
There’s a lot I can say about guns and the people who cleave to them against common sense, but that thought does not hold, not for long. They are obliterated by the fact that the youngest victim, Noah Pozner, was only six years old, just a finger-snap older than the little girl who’ll call me at 7:30 on a random Wednesday and ask to speak with Tova, my German shepherd, so she can “tell her I love her.” There’s a lot I can say about “mental illness,” and how it’s such a detached, sanitary term for such a savage range of human experiences. Then I read about how Emilie Parker’s father was teaching her a second tongue, how she greeted him in Portuguese on the morning she died. My goddaughter closes our calls with “bell! Bell! Bell-a!”: her first and favorite word in Italian. Her voice is as bright and sweet as the word.
I don’t know—and don’t care to know—if Newton is Obama’s “Birmingham moment,” or if his memorial speech was his Gettysburg address. Though I have endured great violence and, more than once, been unmade by rage, I don’t care to know the answer to the question posed in so many headlines: What do we know about the shooter? Why did he do it? I stare at pixelated images of a skinny kid hiding under his bangs and I wish I could believe in Hell.
But anger without action is a luxury. A luxury we’ve indulged in after Columbine, Blacksburg, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek and so many places in between. We hear the words “schizophrenia” and “home arsenal;” “loner” and “genius IQ;” “white supremacist” and always—always—“guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and our bellies curdle. We question the wisdom—hell, the sanity—of a woman who kept a Glock and a Sig Sauer an easy distance from a boy who couldn’t feel pain; we condemn her for an obsession with the end of days that ended the days of so many innocents.
Yet we’ve all fallen short: We’ve been the children who switched lunch tables to avoid the “weirdo”; been that guy or girl who had one beer too many and still coasted home on a cop-less highway; been the neighbor who hears a thud and a whimper on the other side of the wall and never picks up the phone.
My goddaughter will grow up in a world where a boy with the goofily precocious habit of carrying a briefcase to his classes can pump multiple rounds into bodies as small as hers. I wring my hands around this realization, but, in truth, it’s the same world I grew up in. A world in which there is often no why. Only the great unfathomable how: We must all move on in the aftermath.
I long for the smothering comfort of an “us” and a “them,” the comfort of having someone to punish. I say I want a simpler world for her sake; really, though, I want it because I am selfish, because I know I could never bear to hear my friend sobbing on the line, hear that I will never see the baby who cooed in my arms as I stood before a God I’m not sure exists and vowed to love and protect her. But every hour of every day, there are mothers and fathers who hear “I’m sorry” from people with badges and there are the brothers and sisters they must explain it all to; every hour of every day, there are people who must bear their losses, who must learn how.
Even when I am not consciously thinking of her, my goddaughter is always there. She’s there whenever I pass her favorite foods – hamburgers and pears – in the grocery store; there when I swear the dog is smiling; there when I pick up a book of quotations from the Dalai Lama and unthinkingly underline “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” She is on my lap as we flip through a picture book full of celestial skies and dark planets, birds in the air and beasts of the sea, the hills of Ireland and the streets of India; she pounds her hands against the pages and gleefully squeals “love, love, love.”
We will seek out the whys, for another news cycle at least. We will interview the shooter’s schoolteachers and his barber, neighbors who never spoke with him and his mother’s bar friends. We will debate whether he was embodying some Eastwood-esque hyper-masculinity or the victim of an overly “feminized” culture. It’s a palliative gesture, like knuckling a tiny itch through a full-body cast. Hate is easy. The harder thing, the thing that cracks us open and will never let us be as we were, is knowing that all we can do in the face of insurmountable pain is love, love, love.