"There's a grief that can't be spoken
There's a pain goes on and on
Empty chairs at empty tables..."
It's a brilliant image, isn't it? The empty chair, the empty desk, the empty room.
Dickens used it too- when the Ghost of Christmas Present tells Scrooge "I see an vacant seat in a poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved."
And in Oklahoma City, the victims of America's worst domestic terrorist attack are remembered with 168 empty chairs.
Since last friday this is the image that has stuck with me longest...the empty chairs in the room.
I admit to having difficulty dealing with these events. Like other first responders I have spoken to we tend to view them through two perspectives at once, both professional and personal. I have in the course of my job at least twice taken calls from people actually with victims of a shooting. One was a carjacking and the other a drive by shooting. I have taken lots of other calls on shootings and stabbings and other ugly things. I have also been to workshops teaching dispatchers how to respind to shooting incidents. I have watched surveillance videos of some of these incidentsin the course of rhis training. What other people find inconceivable we know all too well. The dispatchers, mrdics,and police officers who responded to this call are deveatated too--please have a thought for them as well.
But of course we're not just professionals we're parents and grandparents and spouses too. We know better than most how easily it could be our kids instead. My children attend innercity schools (the kind ironically, that many involved in these mostly suburban tragedies thought they were escaping.) Each of.our high schools and middle schools has a full time officer assigbed to the school. I am mostly ok with this. There is certainly some deteremt benefit to their presence andif there has to be someone with a weapon at a school lets make it a professional. But it isn't a cure all and sending one's child out the door in the morning remains an act of faith.
When you are a parent you don't just worry about their safety, you worry about their worry. You want the to be cautious, but not paranoid. And you wonder how this long string of tragedies has afffected them.
Sunday mornimg while waiting for the football game to start, my son I watched Forest Gump again. It's a favorite film for both of us. One of the things that has always felt true about the movie is the steady stream of assasinations that play like background music through the film. If you grew up in the 60's and 70's you know how it was. You can mark your ages by who died each year. From JFK to Lennon, it was the soundtrack of our youth.
And as I sat watching my son watching the film (and what did any of us do this weekend except watch our kids?) It occured to me that a similar story is playing out for my son. Born a few months after Oklahoma City
He was 4 for Columbine, 6 on 9/11,saw VA tech at 12, and Aurora CO just before his 17th birthday.
For our kids there is also rhe chilling reality that their victims of their youthful nightmares weree ordinary people just going about their lives.
All this went through my mind all weekend as I struggled for words and had none except to express my inarticulateness. I watched as muchnews coverage as I could stand knowing sooner or later some detail would crack me. After Virginia Tech it was a mother with her daughter's well worn point shoes that broke my heart. This time it was learning that at least one of those little girls was a Daisy Scout. My daughter was a Daisy, srill is a scoutin faxt, but I cuuld picture clear as day that little girl in her blue vest and that bubbly enthusiasm Daisies and Brownies always seem to have.
I don't know what the answers are but we need to have areal conversation about these several issues. I revere the Constitution as much as anyone, but surely the Founders never meant this. And we need to talk about thestigmatizing of mental illness, the lack of help for families, the lousy iinsurance coverage. And we need to adfress the culture of violence among young people, the feeling of cheapness of life that so many seem to share.
We need to do this before our hearts are broken again by another empty chair at the table.