This empathic piece of fiction was written in class this morning, the day following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. For the prompt, we were to select a postcard and I picked the one pictured above. I hope the recording isn’t too slow to load. I use video from my phone because to convert an iPhone audio requires a laborious trip through iTunes and a widget on WordPress which would cost me $13/month (?!!!). This time, I’ve written out the prompt-response as well. Virtually everything written here is made up and the fact that my imagined scene happens in a wintry clime ought to drive home that fact. That I can so easily render a scene like this speaks to the abysmal failure of our government to control guns.
Every Ash Wednesday from Now Til Death
Heather’s face made the front page. The ash mark more strike than dot, a face crunched in grief. A lost child. A lost child. Another headline. More bodies to count.
Bodies. Children. The teacher who dies saving a teenager or two. Even the sight, crisis over, of high school students filing out of the building with their hands up crushes the spirit.
This is who we are. This is it. Automatic rifles for everyone! Anyone! A soul-less party paralyzed by the Almighty NRA dollar. Let’s pray.
No really. Let’s pray. The profusion of lilies along the altar and lining the steps up to the altar sweeten the air to a sickening degree. The lovely trumpet shapes, the silky pure white, no defense against the death rot sure to come. To the petals, which will shrivel and brown in decline, to the child in the casket, who will shrivel and brown, and to the priest, and to each and everyone of us sitting there.
The priest comes out without his usual sturdy authority, climbing the lectern in a weary resistance. What shall he preach? That God has ways we know not? That He takes the good ones early? That faith will restore even them that despair.
Tilly and Glenda sit in front of me. They didn’t know Drew very well. I, not at all. The fact that I am separated by four or more degrees might make me feel an intruder were it not for the fact that the wreckage rained down by a hail of automatic bullets hit all of us, hit our entire high school body. While some, like Drew’s poor parents, pay a bigger and everlasting price, not a single parent of a child at the high school and not a single high school student emerged unscathed.
The priest clears his throat. Whimpers can be heard and choked sobs from up front.
“It is easy,” he says, “to have faith when the sun is shining. When the tidings are glad, how smooth the extension of our hands, one to the other. When our tables sag with bounty, it’s no challenge to acknowledge the bounty of Our Lord. But in times of darkness, when every message is soaked in tears or blood or both, that is when we are tested. That is when our faith must rise up and meet God’s mercy.”
I fought his every word, even as I was swept up in the intended goodness. It occurs to me that I cannot pinpoint when I stopped believing in God — or at least, in anything but a very remote Supreme Being, one that governs how molecules spin and bounce but has no message or care for any of us individually. How could believing in a God who lets senseless violence of this repetitive magnitude happen offer comfort?
We grieve for Drew. All the soccer games he will not play, the girls he will not tease or tempt, the glories of the flesh essentially unmet, the challenge of growing up, never to be confronted. Holidays for his family, ever after a nightmare. And, no doubt, there will be two excruciating anniversaries a year — the fixed one, February 14, Valentine’s Day, and the roving one, every Ash Wednesday from now ’til death.
What should Drew’s mother give up for Lent? What a hideous idea! Will she become a mother on the Grief Circuit, trying to effect political change? She might want to look at the blank page of Sandy Hook parents’ results before undertaking such a public and exhausting route.
Some parents will close their doors and lock them from the inside. Others will testify before Congress. Still others will go on as before, but hollowed out, a gutted replica of the life they were leading on Fat Tuesday. None of them will ever be the same.
The upstretched arms. The drape of satin embroidered with the old Catholic symbols. When did Drew last receive Communion, I wonder, and why on earth would it matter? Was it a source of contention in the household — one of many conflicts which will, in replay, seem so utterly inconsequential?
Is there any of us who can love our children so hard and so deeply that at this lily-sickened moment, there are no regrets?
Of course not. And anyone who suggests as much, I guarantee you will not be a parent, or at least, not a parent of teenagers.
By all counts, Drew was a good kid. Sam didn’t know him well — different circles and so on. But it was apparently only the usual and forgivable delinquencies — alcohol at parties (but never when driving), a little reefer now and then, a lot of enthusiasm for the school prank, and the usual amounts of contempt for certain teachers. He would’ve gone to college. Studied engineering or biological data collection. He would’ve fallen in love — perhaps for the second time, I don’t know. He’d have hunted for work, recycled, called Congress, made spaghetti. All the acts of a life gone dark.
“Christ be with you.”
“And also with you.”
I’m too far back to hear the words clearly. Murmurs only. Drew’s mother crosses herself, returns to her pew. Husband waiting for her. A non-believer.
Tilly turns and whispers to me, “It’s almost enough to make me consider going to Mass again.”
I mouth the words, “I know,” but I don’t know. Nothing can immunize against this loss. Nothing can fill the void it cracks open.
I’m surprised how many young people (friends of Drew’s) are receiving Communion. I would’ve thought they’d have fallen away already — the way each generation speeds up the progress of the former. In our generation, you went through the motions until college, where you went to Mass exactly once, never to return. Don’t kids these days refuse sooner? Maybe at the same time their recently Bar Mitzvahed friends stop going to temple?
We file out to crisp air and a pewter sky. People mill about, unsure how to be, unwilling yet to leave the group. But I don’t want to be standing awkwardly by when Drew’s parents emerge, so I head to my car, boot heels clunking on the cleared sidewalk in some sort of reassuring percussion — I’m alive. I’m alive. My sons are alive. Alive.