Friday, December 14, 2012

No Words

I have no words that are adequate to describe what any parent, any person, any rational human being feels about the tragedy that unfolded in a Connecticut elementary school today. I have not watched the news. I have read a few articles about it. My mother called me to inform me right after it was publicized, telling me "you don't want to know this." And I didn't. I couldn't think about it right then, or at least I could not think about it in relation to myself or my own children. A few hours later, I sat here crying.

I hardly ever, ever cry.

And I don't know what to say.

I just deleted three paragraphs of text about my kids, about this day, about the comfort of normalcy, even when normalcy is getting as angry as you ever get at your 3 year old son because he is completely, wildly out of control and misbehaving at the CVS minute clinic where you spent the evening, only to find that three of the four of you have strep throat.

But that didn't seem right. So I'm going to talk about guns.

I am sick of hearing that such a conversation politicizes something personal and tragic. There is nothing personal about killing 27 people who never did anything to you. People have the right to take themselves out, but people make terrible, horrifying decisions that impact the lives of other people and sometimes, some awful times, take the lives of tiny children. Children who spent the last short minutes of their short lives in terror, probably asking for mommy or daddy.

There is nothing personal about living in a city that has 500 homicides a year, most of them via gunshot, of living in a place where it is not uncommon to hear of a dozen people getting shot in 24 hours.

It is not personal. It is political.

I won't get into the fact that the founding fathers did not foresee the kind of weapons that we have today, nor, probably, the kind of lunacy. They did not have media nor copycat killers. They also did not all agree on the right to bear arms, which we often conveniently forget. And as a collective, they upheld slavery and believed that women were not full human beings. So perhaps we could stand to modernize their words.

If now is not the time to do something about this problem, then when is the time?

Close to 11,000 people are killed with handguns in this country every year.

How many people successfully defend themselves with weapons? How many lives are saved in the name of self defense? I would like to see one legitimate statistic on that. I doubt it is in the ballpark of 11,000.

It is unconscionable.

If people are going to judge me for being too political, or hate me, or change their opinion of me, then I will offer a quick solution to that problem. I will do what I am good at, and tell a personal story.

To all those who ask, wouldn't you want to defend yourself? Wouldn't you like to be able to protect yourself and your family? I have a question: Have you ever been the victim of gun violence?

Because I have.

No, I have not been shot. But feeling the coldness of metal at your temple, while a scared kid tries to decide whether to pull the trigger, still qualifies.

I was 24 years old. I had been dating a 28 year old man for a few weeks after he pursued me for a few months. He was the second person I dated, and the first person I slept with, after I ended a very long and very serious relationship. He was also entirely wrong for me.

He taught me that I didn't know how to date. I was so used to being independent, so used to the total lack of jealousy and the comfortably separate lives that my previous boyfriend and I had shared for all those years, that I didn't know how to be normal, to live by the rules men expected women to follow. After all, the last time I had really started dating, I was all of 17.

So, when I was invited to a colleague's birthday party, a lively affair at a sushi place one Saturday evening, I did not invite my boyfriend. This was not out of spite, nor negligence. I just didn't think he would want to go, since he didn't know anyone, and, well, I kind of wanted to go by myself. He really wanted to see me that night, so I said we could meet up afterwards. He sounded hurt, but I was clueless. I did not understand why that would bother him.

In his doggedly pursuant fashion, he met me at a bar after dinner, we had a drink, and he proceeded to escort me home on the Green line. It wasn't very late; maybe 10:30, and I had not invited him to spend the night. We were not sleeping together yet. It still amazes me that he did those things in those early days--escorted me home, hoping he would be asked to spend the night and yet not expecting it, and then taking two different trains home to his own place.

We boarded the train, which only had two cars running. There were maybe 8 other people on the train car. We were the only couple, and the only white people. Those things became relevant later, though neither of us noticed at the time.

At one stop, two young men, the oldest no older than 19, entered the train. As soon as they got on, they cocked their guns. Everything on the floor, they said. Money. Phones. Now or you gonna get it. The older one was laughing, acting as if he did this every day, because, well, he probably did. The other one was younger, and terrified. He was shaking, his hand was faltering with the gun.

He was, obviously, the one to fear. The one who might make a mistake.

He was also the one who walked over to us.

Give me your bag! he was screaming at me. I slowly started to hand it over. No purses, bags, or wallets had been stolen at that time. Only cash and phones. What's this, what you got? He was rifling through my messenger bag, pulling out some insufferably nerdy novel or whatever I had in there. I told him to just take it. I had my hand in the bag, and I slowly removed my keys, because I didn't want them to have my address and my keys; that was, bar none, perhaps the dumbest thing I've ever done. He didn't notice, luckily. He started getting more agitated. I was terrified of my boyfriend's potential reaction. He was a tough guy, a guy with quite a storied past, a guy I didn't know well enough to trust in that situation.

He looked at me but didn't move. He handed his wallet over when asked. Then, things got more interesting. The kid put the gun close to my head. He was playing cool, looking at his buddy, trying to look like a big man.

What you gonna do about it, white boy? What you gonna do?

There was the gun, metal and all, right there. At my head. Right there.

My boyfriend shook his head, and said, take it all man, take it. No one's going to stop you. You shouldn't do this man, just take it.

And he did.

This all happened in one El stop. They exited, we all looked at each other in shock. The entire train car had just been robbed, I had been threatened, this was some crazy shit. I said that we needed to call the police. Interestingly, a few other guys got off the train as soon as they heard us say that. They had looked terrified too, and they had lost money, but you know what?

They, also, had guns, I'm sure. Lots of people do, when riding lonely trains through the west side of Chicago alone. And they didn't want to mess with the police. I will point out that they did not have the time nor inclination to use those guns to protect even themselves.

As an aside that is not really an aside, I will point out that young black men with gang affiliations are by far the most likely victims of handgun violence in Chicago. Someone fitting that description gets shot in Chicago almost every single day. Probably all young men in gangs pack heat, right? And I have yet to ever hear a story where one of them is able to stop himself from getting shot because he too is carrying a weapon. Not when it happens in the 60 seconds it takes to get from one train stop to the next, not when someone drives their car down the street, rolls down the window, and you don't even have time to pray to God before you're gone.

But I digress.

We told the driver of the train what had happened. She was maybe 22 years old, and way out of her league. She called the police, who made the brilliant decision to meet us at our train stop several miles away, ensuring that they would never catch those kids nor get my bag out of whatever trash can it was lying in right outside the station. They also were weird when we saw them, unsure of how far west we were when we mentioned the train stop where it happened, talkative and almost uncomfortable. They made jokes about how we would never take the train again, right? We responded that neither of us had a car, so, actually, we would be back on the train on Monday. After a long interrogation period, they asked if we would like a ride home. Well, since we don't even have a dime between us, we have no phones, and we've just been robbed at gunpoint, we would rather not walk, officer. And then, upon arrival at my apartment building, they asked us this:

So, did anyone get shot or anything?

And I couldn't help myself. Do you think if there were people bleeding to death on that train that I would have been talking to you about the contents of my bag? They glared at me, I left the car, and there was no mention of an entire el car of people being robbed in the news, and nothing ever came of it. About two months after we had broken up, some officer called me to ask if I wanted to look at mugshots. I didn't, since so much time had passed, and I wasn't sure I could remember.

That night, I let my new guy spend the night.

In the back of my mind, I began to wonder more and more about him. I could not shake the memory of him explaining in exact and almost disturbing detail the make and model of the gun. Because he knew about that. He seemed almost excited by the story.

But here is the punchline: It is probably because he did not attempt to "man up" and protect me that I am still alive. He did everything right. He looked down at his hands, gave in to his own impotence in that situation, and that kid with so much to prove took the gun away from my head.

We were both scared, and angry, that night. I was paranoid the next day, but I did not experience any long-term trauma from that incident, unlike the kids who lost their innocence today. In fact, we told ourselves that our odds must go back to zero now, right? But of course we both knew that that is not how odds work.

Our relationship was dramatic, and ended badly. I found out a few years later that he had died at age 30, and I never have learned exactly what happened to him. He had told me at one point that he was in love with me. I did not feel the same, and I did not know what to say, and that is when everything spiraled downward. I didn't believe him, to be honest.

But now I know that he did love me, at least in the normal, human way that people love each other, in that they don't want to see harm come to one another.

He knew that he could not have stopped that kid from pulling that trigger by reaching for his own gun, if he had had one. Everyone on the train knew that. Maybe, if the gun had been at HIS head, he would have fought. But he didn't sacrifice me for bravado, and I will always be grateful to him and to his memory for that.

There it is. That is my story. It is more authentic and relevant than the hypothetical scenarios often thrown about in tragic times like these. And it is by experiencing that story that I can honestly say there is no scenario in which I would feel safer knowing that more people had guns, even if such people were hellbent on protecting me.

I'm sorry if this post is offensive to some, or if people think that this is a time to mourn, not evangelize. I believe it is impossible to do one without the other in this circumstance.

I cried earlier today. I yelled at my son. I listened to my daughter sing Christmas carols in her room, practicing her Elf part for the school play. I forced my husband to give in to our son's demands for his mama (pacifier), because tonight, of all nights, I could not stand to hear him cry.

I have the right to these moments. So did other mothers, who have lost that forever just because they sent their children to school. My heart breaks for them, and for so many others. But heartbreak will not bring their children back, nor stop this from happening again. Neither will prayers, hugs, or love.

If we must get into discussions about protecting our rights, fine. Let us protect the right to live past kindergarten.


  1. Katy, I agree with you on these gun issues. I cannot foresee a single instance where my owning a gun would actually save or protect myself or my family. Having guns in a school (lots do and my own town has been having discussions about it for a while now. The school that my eldest will attend next year...) will only mean that there are more guns in the school. It won't mean that the kids are safer. It won't make me feel more secure. How about controlling who buys guns? How about actually CONTROLLING the guns that enter our country? How about a punishment that fits the crime for possessing an automatic weapon or other illegal weapons?

  2. When I was about 10, I used to shoot a pellet rifle. One day, after many attempts, I successfully shot a blackbird. It fell to the ground instead of flying away when the gun when "pop." I watched it die. Realizing I had needlessly destroyed this living thing, I decided then and there never to shoot that pellet rifle or any other gun again... Older now, I would consider revisiting that decision for the sake of the 17-year cicadas, watching them get picked off as their burgeoning hordes emerged from the earth by ravening flocks of seagulls. And maybe racoons. But my aim would be to maintain a balance with nature. I cannot fathom where firing an automatic weapon for FUN is something that people who live in a place that is at PEACE ought to want to do?!