We learn about the horror too early in the morning these days.
Standing in the kitchen waiting for the coffee water to boil, hearing only the muted roaring and thumping of the gas flames on the metal pot, I act against my better instincts and reach for the iPhone sitting on top of the silent kitchen radio. The screen is so still and black that when I move in to check the news, I see the pale reflection of my hand like something rising up out of a dark pool.
The house sleeps. I want a few minutes to write before my kids wake up, so I have to be quiet. The phone doesn’t make any noise, not like our local public radio guy with his boisterous celebrity birthday greetings, his warnings on windy days to “tie down the dachshund!”
But no Stan this morning. Stan is an esophageal cancer survivor, and now that he can speak again without coughing and hiccupping, Stan is loud—even at low volumes. His voice is like the rooster’s crow in our family, calling the kids down to breakfast, and so I choose the phone instead, holding my thumb in the indentation to alert Siri and her circuit-board friends to my presence: I’m here, it’s me, tell me what’s going on. At my touch she comes to life, lighting up with a menu of colorful buttons, a handheld portal to everything I’ve missed in the night.
The world is reeling from the massacre in Orlando two nights before: forty-nine people killed in cold blood as they danced on Latin night at Pulse, a gay nightclub named in honor of a brother fallen to AIDS—the sound of his heartbeat. I’ve been reading the stories of the victims: the couple whose families will honor their love by planning a joint funeral instead of a wedding, the Hoosier with the colorful bowties who was always ready to help, the top-hat-wearing entrepreneur who ran a gay cruise line, the joyful young man who worked on the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios and made J. K. Rowling cry at the unbearable news of his slaughter.
In audio released after the Orlando shooting—I can’t listen—twenty-four rounds fire from the shooter’s legally purchased MCX in nine seconds. The victims at Pulse were all together on one night, the body count staggering, the knowledge of what hate can do making me sick to my stomach, and I know we lose more people than that to guns every day in this country. Every day. We can’t even pay attention to each loss, each family on its knees, rocking in keens of grief. The news becomes a smear of blood. A spill. The horror is so huge. Unthinkably, unimaginably huge.
So we don’t think. We can’t imagine. Our thoughts are with the families, we say. Our prayers are with the victims.
But maybe the victims don’t want our thoughts and prayers.
They want something else. They want to open their eyes to a different world on a different day. They want their brothers husbands fathers sons sisters wives mothers daughters lovers friends to not be dead. They want to not have been shot. They want full use of their hands and brains and spines. And hearts.
I am thinking about guns. I am thinking about children. Under my bare feet, the tile feels cool, the glass on the phone silky smooth when I touch the fat white bird with the pad of my finger. I am so tired. That bird is framed in blue, I think. Tweet tweet.
Orlando again? A child? A lifeguard and a father? None of this makes any sense. I haven’t even had my coffee. The silver kettle begins to scream—No! Shhhhhh!—and I flip the phone onto the counter, face down. I don’t want to look. I don’t want to know. I reach for the handle, forgetting the potholder, and pick it up anyway, too hot on my palm, pouring the water over the grounds in the French press and watching them bubble up, black and steaming, a swamp.
I can’t help it now. I have to keep reading, so I turn the phone over again, slide my finger up, scroll down, and get the news backward. First, the end—“Everyone at Walt Disney World is devastated by this tragic accident”—and then the beginning:
This is today’s news? An alligator stole a baby? Please no.
Here are the details on that first morning: A two-year-old boy was splashing ankle-deep in the water of the Seven Seas Lagoon at the Grand Floridian resort around nine in the evening. When the alligator snatched the boy, both parents were right there, and while the mother screamed for help, the father jumped in the lake to save their son. He wrestled the alligator.
The family was from Nebraska, vacationing at Disney World, cooling their heels by the manmade lake on the sugary sands near their resort—and an alligator rose up out of the dark water and made a jaw-snapping grab for the splashing boy. The stuff of nightmares. A nightmare these parents will have every night and every day for the rest of their heartbroken lives.
Later on this same day, I will find myself in the otherworldly setting of a dance recital dress rehearsal, sitting in the dark auditorium with the other mothers after my twelve-year-old’s hair is pinned, her lipstick blotted. My girl, my firstborn, is on the stage in a sparkling crimson dress, angelic, but I’m feeling distracted, discombobulated. At this point, the toddler is still missing. The news is reporting an aggressive search-and-rescue operation, alligator trackers and trappers on the job, divers down deep, the magical world of Disney awash in the sickening throb of spinning emergency lights.
Sometimes we are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, I think.
I wonder where they’ve taken the family to wait.
“Oh my God,” I will say quietly, out of nowhere, out of the dark, between songs as the dance teacher offers critique to a circle of fairy-like girls in a pool of stage light, “that poor dad. I just keep thinking about the dad trying to save his baby from the alligator.”
And my friend—a devoted, loving mother—will nod and say: “Well, there were warning signs about the alligators. The beach was posted ‘no swimming.’”
I’m stunned when I hear this, but throughout the days and weeks that follow, until people stop talking about the baby and the alligator altogether, I will hear my friend’s judgment echoed again and again and again. There were signs. Couldn’t they read the signs? Those feckless parents got what they had coming.
The family was from Nebraska. I’m pretty sure there aren’t a lot of alligators in Nebraska, and in fact, the signs said nothing about alligators lurking in the lake water kissing the immaculate, manicured white sand beaches of the resort, the very sands where Disney hosts family movie nights and fireworks. Signs about alligators would have been scary. So the signs didn’t say: Warning! Alligators. No Swimming. The signs said simply: No Swimming.
Plus, the boy wasn’t swimming. He was wading. He couldn’t swim. He was only two.
Okay. But what if the signs had mentioned the alligators? Even so. Still.
My friend and I sit shoulder to shoulder in the dark. I don’t know what to say, so I say what I’m feeling. “I don’t care what the signs said. Those parents watched an alligator take their baby. It’s just so sad.”
I get that it feels better to imagine that all the bad things happen for a reason and we are as individuals too smart/rich/wily/modest/white/straight/church-going/sign-reading to get shot or raped or robbed or seized by a wild animal and eaten/crushed/drowned.
Empathy is the antidote to judgment, but we are a people who love to point fingers and draw boxes. That terrible thing? That will happen over there, to someone else, to someone who didn’t follow the rules.
Me? On this side of the line? Safe, smart, smug. You? Over there? You’re fucked. There were signs, and while the signs didn’t say, “These waters are teeming with alligators that will snatch your happy, splashing toddler from the shallows and roll him under the water until he drowns,” they did say: No Swimming. So obviously these were bad parents who deserved to have their baby grabbed by an alligator.
Of course, when we can’t feel someone else’s pain, we can’t really feel our own, either.
Also, there are so many rules. How could we ever follow them all?
In the kitchen, when I first touch my finger to my phone and read the news of the baby and the alligator, I am standing in front of the stove where I once set my skirt on fire when I (distractedly, ill-advisedly) used a dishtowel instead of a potholder to grab a boiling pasta pot off a high flame. We all make mistakes.
I don’t have a lot of information about that horrible moment when the alligator rose up and bit down, but I can’t stop my mind from going there. I know it was evening, so the family would already have had dinner—maybe the boy had eaten a couple of his chicken nuggets and an applesauce cup before crayoning his paper menu, maybe he was practicing making his letters, maybe he and his big sister got ice cream—but Nebraska’s a time zone over from Florida, so it’s likely the kids were still wide awake even though it was their normal bedtime. The parents figured a walk on the beach in front of the resort, some playtime, would help them get to sleep in the hotel room. When the baby splashed into the water, they might have pulled him back onto the sand at first, not wanting to deal with him getting his shorts wet, knowing there was a No Swimming sign, but then they may have figured, What the heck? He’s having so much fun. Let him tire himself out. He’s about to change to pajamas anyway.
Toes in the sand. Splashing. The whole family right there with the boy when the alligator did exactly what alligators have been doing since prehistoric times.
Maybe now I could research the facts and learn more—how the family saved up for this vacation, what the parents did for work, which Disney ride the baby loved the best. I’m sure these are knowable things that have become the stuff of public consumption in the weeks after the attack, but all of that feels private and none of it matters to what consumes me, except that I remember that these suffering parents in the news are people, human beings like the rest of us, who love our children beyond measure.
So on that night in the magical kingdom, a tiny boy did what tiny boys do near water, and the alligator did what alligators do when small animals splash. And the father did what no father should ever have to do when the alligator’s jaws snapped down on his baby boy. He threw himself onto the alligator and fought for his baby. There would have been no time for thinking or strategy. One moment, they were a family with their toes in the water of a manicured, white sand beach—it must have seemed so safe; everything about that family vacation moment was engineered to feel safe and happy—and the next, a lurking monster that had been only unseen eyeballs breaking the surface of the lake with barely a ripple, shining periscopes of reptilian vision, unleashed its coiled power, rising up out of the water with a tremendous splash and snap. There would have been no time to process a cogent thought, such as an alligator has my baby. Only: I need to get him back. The alligator jumped on the baby, and the father jumped on the alligator, and when the alligator writhed and scraped free of the father’s hands, sliding back into the deep, its jaws were still closed, the baby clamped in its immovable teeth.
Here, my imagination hits a black wall. The father’s horror in this moment is beyond my power to envision. I grab the edge of the counter, something to hold onto while the room spins.
An alligator stole a baby. No more news.
I reach for the round knob on the coffee press, feeling the soft pressure in my palm and counting slowly to twenty as I plunge the filter through the thick grounds until I can push no further. I pour the black coffee into my favorite mug and add a splash of half and half, stirring with a spoon, breathing, living my life, my daily life. Because I still can. Because yesterday I was in the right places at the right times and everyone I loved was, too. Because when it’s not your tragedy, you can feel your empathy, your true sorrow, and then you can let it go. You can let the horror sink back to wherever it came from and go back to drinking your coffee, tweeting your tweets, living your life.
Days pass and the news keeps coming, uncoiling, rising up.
The search for the baby ended after sixteen hours. Divers found the boy’s body six feet below the surface, just over ten feet from where the alligator pulled him under. Somehow this seems too close. In the photo released by his family, the boy is smiling, beautiful blue eyes shining, and his snazzy zipper-neck sweater makes him look older than two, but for the pudge on the back of his sweet hand.
A few days after the alligator attack, I read more news: a mother in Colorado heard a scream coming from the backyard where her two boys were playing and ran outside to see a mountain lion hunched over her five-year-old. She did what the father had done with the alligator, with the same speed, the same adrenaline-fired strength that comes from loving someone so much you don’t think before dying for them. The boy’s mother jumped onto the lion’s back, and like a wrestler preparing to pin, she pulled back the paws and found her son’s whole head in the lion’s mouth. She grabbed the jaws, top and bottom, and wrenched them open. An alligator bites down with seven times the force of a mountain lion. Like the alligator, this lion was young and relatively small. The lion lost its grip. The mother got her boy back alive.
When I read this story, I am amazed, of course, relieved to know the mother won, but my next thought is: I hope the father who lost his boy is not hearing this news today.
My daughter E is fascinated by politics and current events. Tonight she has been reading a weekly news magazine, and we find ourselves in the tiny bathroom at the same time. In the quiet and solitude, she leans against me, looking mournful. “Do you think it’s just me or do you think the world is really going downhill?” She makes a motion with her fine-boned hand, a dancer’s hand, sled-like, slipping down a mountain of air in our bathroom. Downhill.
“Oh, honey,” I say. “I know. It’s been an awful week.”
“I didn’t want to say anything with H around,” she begins, “but there was another shooting in Orlando, too. A singer.” H is her little brother. She wants to shield him from fear and sorrow.
I nod and then shake my head. Christina Grimmie. I don’t know what to say, except, “Yes, I know.” I’m holding her against my chest, my chin on the back of her head, my arms wrapped around her thin body. I see her face in the mirror and feel the tears now, splashing onto my hands.
She looks up and catches my eyes in the mirror. “People keep killing other people, Mom. It’s just so . . . ” She pauses. “It’s just so sad.”
In the wake of the most horrible news, I sometimes remind my kids of what Mr. Rogers said after something terrible happened: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” There are so many good people, I tell them.
After Christina Grimmie was shot three times, her brother tackled the shooter, the shooter somehow shot himself in the ensuing struggle—and that was the end of it. There were more than a hundred people around the merchandise table when the killer approached, hugged Grimmie, and then fired his first three shots into her body at close range, at hug range. Grimmie’s brother has been hailed as a hero for all the lives he likely saved, but Grimmie died of her wounds. Her brother is a hero who lost the one he needed most to save.
My daughter is right. The news this week does not stop coming.
I read that Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, a single mother of eleven, was “like the mom of Pulse.” She danced the salsa, tearing up the floor, and she was there dancing with her son Isaiah on the night of the attack. When the shooter aimed his gun in their direction, she screamed at Isaiah to “get down!” and standing between that ugly gun and her beautiful son, she took two bullets. She died protecting her son. I’ve seen a photo of McCool posted on Facebook—cropped blond hair, dangling earrings, black spaghetti straps—and the look in her dark eyes is so steady. So focused.
Sometimes I wonder how much news I can hear, and more, whether we should censor the magazines and newspapers our daughter reads with such care and focus and broken-hearted tears—but then I remember that turning away and shutting down cannot be the answer for any of us. E’s weeping is the appropriate response to a devastating week. I once read that the core of the struggle for our children is that they see what a mess the world is and they don’t always feel confident that the adults who are supposedly in charge possess the necessary competence to fix things. This makes sense. Our children want to trust and believe that we grown-ups have a handle on the situation.
We need to get a grip. Enacting the kind of political and social change we need to address gun violence, racism, poverty, prejudice, violence, and brutality of every form and magnitude may begin with just the kind of pain E is feeling: it hurts to think about how afraid the Pulse victims were when they were locked in with the shooter in that bathroom or how it felt to be a father waiting outside the hospital to find out if his son had been brought in, if he was still breathing. It’s supposed to hurt.
As I get older, with so much more to lose, I struggle to bring my mind to those places where I can’t help but pray my life will never take me. Sometimes the wall at the border of empathy feels like a physical barrier in my mind, a metal plate clanging down to stop the firing of synapses, the mirror neurons lighting up like emergency vehicles at the scene of the accident.
It’s too much, better to get away, go somewhere, anywhere, else: a social media rabbit hole, a workout, the grocery store. Even writing this story, I want to type the words unimaginable, unthinkable, unspeakable—and stop. But is it unimaginable? If you were in that bathroom? Or waiting outside that hospital? Or on your knees in the still-churning water with nothing to hold in your hands but sand?
Are we born feeling the pain of others, or is empathy something we have to learn and practice? Science tells us that—as with so many things—it’s a little of both, and children who are getting their own emotional needs met are better positioned to give empathy freely. E is a born empath. She’s like a child from a fairy tale who treads down the forest path in bare feet with her little heart light glowing. All the creatures come out to greet her because they know she would never harm them. For example, she is the only person I know who employs a catch-and-release method for trapping mosquitoes that get into our house. She uses a cup and a sheet of paper to return them to the outdoors.
When E was in first grade, we too took a family vacation to Florida, and we were out on a warm and breezy afternoon, happy, exploring the town, when we rounded a corner and came face to charred, turning body with a little pig roasting on a spit. The pig was stretched, bound by blackening ankles over a smoldering pit. E screamed, whirled around, and used her own body to block her three-year-old brother’s sightline. “Don’t look, little buddy,” she cried. “Don’t look!”
Afterwards, around the corner from the poor pig, down on the curb, holding her head in her hands, she moaned, betrayed by the world, betrayed by me, and said with conviction: “I am never going to eat anything that was alive again.” Her round cheeks were streaked with tears, but her blue eyes were fierce with conviction: “Never.”
Since that afternoon, she hasn’t eaten a morsel of meat.
The whole world happens to E. Life won’t be easy for her.
There are more good people than bad people, I tell my kids, because I believe that. In this one week, we were reminded that we live in a world where fathers and mothers and brothers will fight monsters—an alligator, a lion, a spray of bullets, a madman. Here is love we can see, love we can look at and understand, even as the sheer magnitude of terror threatens to occlude our vision with a sorrow so big we have to struggle to hold it all.
The baby’s father leapt onto that alligator, grabbing for anything he could hold—rough skin, sharp claws, tight jaws. He fought for a grip, a release, for the dear life of his boy. Also: the mother with her hands in the lion’s mouth, the brother throwing himself between his already bleeding sister and the gun that killed her. All such violent, horrible images—hearts that break, hearts forever broken—but staggering in the force of their love.
Here is something I have learned from this week’s news. Here is what I will keep. If we could reach back in time and give Brenda McCool the power of breath, she would stand in the same position, in love, between her son and those bullets: again and again and again.
I choose love.