the unthinkable

I hope you’ll forgive me for not writing about anything that’s remotely connected to limb loss this week. After the horror of last Friday, it’s hard to think about doing anything funny, clever, or “on topic.”

I didn’t learn about the shootings in Newtown, CT until after I had cleared security at JFK. I had a flight to Orlando to attend a work-related holiday party Friday night. After getting cast-scoped for what felt like the 732nd time this year, I headed to a restaurant to grab a pre-flight lunch. As I sat at the bar awaiting my burger,  my phone buzzed. I glanced down to see a “new text” notification from my wife. “Hear about horrible elementary school shooting???? Connecticut. Number dead keep going up. Heartbreaking.”

I asked the woman sitting next to me if she had heard anything about a shooting in Connecticut. She replied that she heard something on the car radio on the way to the airport but hadn’t gotten the details. I caught the bartender’s attention and he flipped the channel to CNN. As we watched the headlines scroll by on the screen and realized the magnitude of what we were watching unfold, she asked no one in particular what the world was coming to.

As I stood to board my flight I called my wife and left her a message. I knew lots of people were dead, many of them children, but not much more. I tried to express what I was feeling to her cell phone’s voicemail. I couldn’t.

Upon reaching seat 6D, I immediately tuned the plane’s satellite TV system to the news. For the next three hours I watched reporters discuss what had happened. First, it was the older brother who had gone into the school and shot his mother and her students. Then both brothers had driven up from New Jersey together and the older one had committed the act. By the time I landed in Orlando, the younger brother appeared to be the shooter. Reporters blamed the confusion on the fact that he may have been carrying his older brother’s identification. Reports circulated that someone connected to the shooter was dead in Hoboken (quickly debunked) and reports emerged about a second crime scene in Newtown.

No one could accurately state who had done this and why. The madness of events on the ground felt infectious as you watched. The only pause from this swirl of rumor and insanity came when the President held his news conference in the middle of the afternoon. As I watched him deliver the facts then known, struggling to read through his statement, I realized that this was one of those singular, horrible events that I’d remember in bizarre clarity for the rest of my life. I’d forever know where I was when I heard the news.

People of my father’s generation talk about the JFK and MLK assassinations this way. I’ve had the experience twice before. First, it was the Challenger exploding. I was taking a Regents test and watched one of the proctors react with whispered disbelief as the Athletic Director came in and told him the news. On 9/11 I sat in my small office at the law firm, unable to get any news from the internet because everyone else was trying to visit the same 3 major news sites at the same time. I ended up listening to reports of the first tower crashing down on the radio, the reporter getting increasingly hysterical as he realized that the entire tower was actually gone.

I can barely remember the last time I cried. I didn’t when my grandmother was hit by a train when I was in 9th grade. I didn’t when my mom died of cancer in 1995. I never cried at any time after my accident. As I reached back trying to figure out the last time I felt tears running down my cheeks, it eventually came to me: freshman year in college. I decided to break up with my girlfriend, a decision that lasted for about two weeks. (Her name was Cara. Fortunately, she took me back. We’ll be married 20 years next week.)

But as we flew over southeast United States at 30,000 feet, I felt an overwhelming … sorrow. I kept thinking about my daughter (7 years old) going to school and never coming out. I imagined myself getting a text from her school, rushing to get there, not being able to get to her and eventually being told the unthinkable. I thought about how the holidays would never be the same for those families. Ever.

And I found myself taking my reading glasses off and placing them on the tray table in front of me. And I rubbed my eyes. Again. And again.

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