I apologize, but I need to change gears and take a major detour from the usual column today.
Mired in self-pity, I sent Padraig a note early yesterday, saying that I was bailing early on my Friday, hit with the flu and thinking that I would delay – or skip – writing this week’s column. I went home. I crawled into bed. I felt sorry for myself (Wahhhh). I drifted off to sleep.
Early, this morning, I woke to the news that my dear friend Bob Torry (one of the best damn professors I’d ever had) died yesterday from complications related to ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease).
A few minutes later, I learned that the beautiful little niece of one of my law school classmates was among those killed in the obscene act of violence that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, yesterday.
I can’t imagine sitting down and writing about sports, law or cycling while pretending what happened yesterday didn’t happen.
I did not know Emilie Parker, but I do know her aunt, having spent three years with her, locked into that myopic world known as law school. Emilie’s aunt, my classmate Jill, only recently lost her father in a cycling accident and now faces this. I can’t even imagine what Jill and the rest of her family are going through right now.
To put it into perspective, remember that Emilie was a first-grader. She was six years old. Six. That’s around 2300 days on this earth. It’s the age at which everyone is bright-eyed, enthusiastic and drinking in the wonders of a new life. None of us is bad at that age. Emilie was an innocent victim in the purest sense of the word.
I read, too, about a young woman, Victoria Soto, who taught at Sandy Hook. The 27-year-old selflessly and heroically threw herself between the shooter and her first-grade students, all of whom survived. She did not.
We use the word “hero” to describe a lot of people these days. We heap medals, riches and adulation on many far less deserving. We even call guys who are paid to ride bicycles around some of the most beautiful parts of the world “heroes,” largely for riding the aforementioned bikes just a bit faster than other guys who are paid quite nicely to do the same thing. Athletes? Yup. Heroes? Nope. It is Victoria Soto and her colleagues – unarmed, alone and devoted – who will forever epitomize the meaning of the word “hero” to me. (By the way, the next time some asshole tells you that teachers are lazy and overpaid, you might think of Victoria.)
What’s more, we use words like “tragedy” to describe events that truly only amount to a mere ripple in one’s life. The deaths of Emilie Parker, Victoria Soto and 25 others are real tragedies.
My friend Bob? He led a good, in many ways complete, albeit all-too-short, life. He was an English professor, a keen analyst of literature, film and religion and a terrifically funny dinner companion. I’m going to miss him terribly, but when I think of Bob, it will almost always be with a smile. I wish I could say the same about those poor kids in Connecticut. I wish I could say the same about Victoria Soto.
In coming weeks, we will yammer endlessly about the the factors that contributed to this tragedy. Some will, with good reason, say that it’s a problem rooted in a ridiculously easy availability of guns, whose sole purpose is to inflict maximum damage on as many people in as short a time as possible. We have the world’s highest per-capita gun ownership rate, at 88.8 per 100 Americans. But that can’t be the only explanation. Take our neighbors to the North. Gun ownership in Canada ranks 13th in the world and, in parts of the country, approaches that of the U.S., but they’re actually civilized about it. We are not. Recent data shows Canada has about 170 gun-related homicides (0.5 per 100,000) per year. We have a declining rate, but it’s still around 9,500 (3.0/100,000). There have to be other factors at play.
Others – like the esteemed former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee – offered that it was because we’ve eliminated prayer in our schools. Really?
While those all along the political spectrum will shout their respective opinions in an effort to score political points from this tragedy. Some will strike a chord, others will just seem nuts. Meanwhile, we may take a deep breath and wonder what kind of help was – or should have been – available to that twisted and tortured soul who carried out this obscenity.
As an attorney, I’ve recently taken on cases involving the mentally ill and find that the system in this country is woefully inadequate when it comes to identifying and offering early treatment to those who need it. For the most part, we wait until things turn serious and then take extreme measures to address what is now a critical problem … unless it’s too late, as it was in Newtown. Ours is not a proactive mental healthcare system. It’s reactive, often reacting when it’s far too late to do any good.
No, there is no simple answer. The availability of mental health care, gun control or even school prayer … none of them offers a simple solution to a complicated set of problems.
But the first step may be for all of us to realize we, as a country, and we as a people, have a problem. How is it that we can look around and not see the inherent humanity, the innate beauty, in an Emilie; in the selfless soul of Victoria Soto … or even recognize the pain and agony of that distorted and tortured mind of Adam Lanza? We have a problem. We have a serious, serious problem.
We do need to talk.
I got back from my ride this morning to a link sent to my by my wife. It was for a piece on the shooting in Sandy Hook. My day took a nose dive I could not have anticipated, one that I struggle to understand.
I know no one who has been able to take the recurring shootings here in the U.S. in stride, anyone who has been able to process these in a way that leaves them unscathed. But this one is different because so many of the victims were children. We speak of how children are our future and while that’s true, what we see when we look at children isn’t the future, not mine, not yours. What we see is potential.
I’d like to think potential is what keeps so many of you coming back to RKP week after week. The bicycle is a means to an unknown but better future. It’s a good time waiting to happen. It’s an expression of a better, stronger, smarter us. It’s a fresh connection, a new friend, a strengthened bond with on old friend, the thread of our social fabric. It’s a bee line out of the doldrums, faster acting than Prozac, and a chance to see something remarkable with each new turn.
My love of the bicycle has, I hope, taught me something of how to love my son. He is nothing if not potential with a heart beat. He might race bikes. He might take up gymnastics. He might play soccer. He could easily do all of those things—in the same week. I don’t really care which of them he does. It’s been enough to see him have fun and to watch how the possibilities play out. He’s that book of a lifetime, the story that I can’t wait to see unfold. I don’t care where the story goes, even if it leads to stoner Xbox addict. I’m willing to give him the room to explore the great big world.
When I think of all those families in Sandy Hook, my heart breaks. All those lives, all those stories we’ll never see play out. Who knows what those kids might have done. A cure for cancer, an Olympic Gold medal, President of the United States—they were tales unwritten; they might have done anything.
Go hug the people you love.