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.
This reads true … as good fiction is wont to do. How sad that it is so believable …
I know. That we can imagine it in such detail.
Just as powerful whether read or heard. Thanks for posting.
Is this Kathleen O? In any case, Thanks.
the power of the pen
And I needed this story. I read it only, if that matters. I am not Catholic, and always wished I could believe in God but never have gotten past the doubt, I was at Mass on Ash Wednesday only because I teach at a Catholic School. I think the ashes ritual is the creepiest of them all. That morning I hadn’t heard the news. The priest did not mention the event in his message. He spoke of love, love your life, live your life as a good person, be a good person. And had I known about the shooting I would’ve been sobbing, because of course his words were double sided. He was protecting the children, he was crying inside, he was speaking to everyone in the room all at once. I did cry later, while waiting for a stoplight and listening to the news. I needed to cry more and you sent me there tonight. Thank you. I love the way you are there in the story, questioning everything, because you care so deeply.
I didn’t realize the school where you teach is Catholic, M. Tough day for all Americans, but you make me see how these tragedies must hold particular grief for teachers. I’m actually sorry to have made you cry but it sounds like maybe you needed to? Have a good rest of your school week, to the extent you can. Will you have to offer reassurances to your students? If so, how?
True and good. I like the reading very much.
Personally I am too angry to weep.–angry at this pitiful, anti-everything, lying and posturing, ten steps back to the dark ages, fifteen tweets for personal interests, horrible, destructive, uncaring administration–This massacre–an expression of contempt made manifest The shooter–an abandoned child gone mad and mean, the victims–just kids on the verge of adulthood, the teachers–unusually caring and the parents–forever scarred.
It’s not the guns, not mental health alone that’s to be blamed..it’s both of course, but more crucially it’s systemic decay. But, thats a longer story.
Meanwhile, your use of Ash Wednesday as the locus of the the church service, and your mention of parents who inevitably are suddenly faced with regrets are two very strong points. Like I said, a very moving piece but I didn’t cry. It isn’t really possible to cry when grief is so deep, it’s forged it’s own neural pathways–when practiced detachment is the only compassionate course available..
Of course it’s both guns and mental health. And of course the republicans are failing on both counts.
I go to detachment somewhat naturally and not necessarily nobly. I think it’s why my writing gets hyperbolic so often — as an attempt to balance me out.
To be sure you understand, my ‘detachment’ is no where near noble, though I practice with many who are purposefully practicing the four noble truths, and in the service of others.. It’s self defense, albeit compassionate, but towards myself.
It is only this morning that I felt ready to read this post … the written words between you and Michelle … so much truth. My head and heart hurt …
Yes the sameness of the tragedy and the unique pain it imparts. The response is definitely different this time, don’t you think. It is clear that for guns to be sensibly regulated, the GOP must be voted out. Even high school students seem to get this.
Here I am finally reading this and all choked up. It doesn’t get better as the days go by. I too have to pull back, detatch and practice self-care. I of course agree with you and Michelle both. Our country stinks right now.
With all of that said, I must add that I adore listening to a writer, you in this case, read their work aloud…for only the writer can express the deepness in all of the right places. Thank you.
It is hard to keep up with the onslaught of awful these days. Thanks for taking a listen, though.
Just read Michelle’s post and listened to you read aloud what I had only read till now. Wow just wow … I / we have to believe that finally change is possible. It is all so overwhelming…..
It IS so overwhelming. But aren’t we blessed that this recent tragedy offer one (major and goose-bump inducing) silver lining : those kids! THOSE KIDS!!!
Just one teeny example: watching the student named Cameron register to vote almost made me cry.